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Cyber charter reform could save some southwestern Pa. schools more than $1M

A girl at a computer.
Tony Dejak
Pennsylvania's 14 cyber charters receive public funds to pay for students' tuition, with the money coming from school districts.

School districts in Pennsylvania stand to save an estimated $262 million if cyber charter reforms included in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal are passed.

That includes upwards of $700,000 in savings for Penn Hills, Steel Valley and Woodland Hills school districts, according to calculations based on state data from the 2021-2022 school year.

Woodland Hills spent more on cyber charter tuition payments than any other district in the county that year, with nearly 7% of the district’s total expenses going to cyber charters.

“There is definitely some financial gain for school districts who are able to keep the funding in their school district and still offer a cyber option to students, but do that in-house,” deputy education secretary Carrie Rowe told the Senate appropriations committee Wednesday.

Current charter tuition rates for online students vary from $8,639 and $26,564 per student per year, according to Shapiro’s budget book. The proposed change would cap that amount at $8,000 per student.

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Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Khalid Mumin said the proposed cap would also put spending in line with the actual cost of serving these students.

“The education programming shall not be compromised. We're looking at the difference between face-to-face brick and mortar education in comparison to charter education, which happens online,” Mumin told lawmakers.

Brick-and-mortar public schools, Mumin added, entail more electricity, transportation and staffing costs. Cyber charter leaders, however, argue delivering instruction online doesn't necessarily equate to an overall decrease in expenses.

Timothy Eller, senior vice president of outreach and government relations for Commonwealth Charter Academy Cyber Charter School, said that the school incurs other costs that are unique to its model.

“Because we are a comprehensive, full-time school, and not a program, we have higher and unique costs in areas in which school districts do not, such as internet reimbursement to families, student computers and technical support, procuring and delivering technology and curriculum materials to students’ homes, and contracting with service providers throughout the state to provide in-home services to students with special needs,” Eller said.

The school — which enrolled just over 20,000 during the 2022-2023 school year — also provides live instruction, field trips and job training. At the same time, however, Commonwealth Charter Academy also reported more than $122 million in profits for the fiscal year ending in June 2022.

The combined reserves of the Commonwealth’s cyber charters grew nearly 10 times faster than that of traditional school districts in the 2020-2021 school year alone.

“So it definitely makes us question how much we're paying when they're reporting those kinds of profits. They're spending that kind of money on advertising and sponsorships,” said Andy Christ, senior policy director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).

Roughly 94% of the state’s locally-elected school boards have passed a resolution asking for reforms to the way Pennsylvania funds both brick-and-mortar charter schools and cyber charters.

Districts surveyed by PSBA have cited mandatory charter school tuition payments as the top source of budget pressure for five consecutive years.

Shortly after the all-day appropriations committee hearing, Pittsburgh-area Senator Lindsey Williams issued a memo stating that she would soon introduce legislation prohibiting the state from approving new cyber charter schools.

She asked senators to join her in establishing a moratorium on the cyber charters “until common sense, bipartisan reforms that school boards and legislators across the state have been asking for can be implemented."

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.