Pennsylvania School Districts Aim To Win Back Students From Cyber Schools

Citing better standardized test scores and diplomas from known schools, traditional Pennsylvania public school officials are attempting to win back students from cyber and charter schools by starting their own cyber academics.

Despite facing tight budgets that have forced them to cut programs and lay off teachers, superintendents are directing tax dollars to ever-expanding home-based cyber schools, The Express-Times reports. These cyber schools in some cases are not meeting state standards, but can offer perks that districts cannot, such as foreign language education in elementary school.

Pennsylvania’s 13 public, state-chartered cyber schools enrolled 32,322 students in online education programs this school year, and enrollment continues to grow, according to the Express-Times. A 2011 survey of 19 school districts in Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe, Northampton and Pike counties found that schools spent $15.3 million on cyber school tuition in 2009-10 -- an increase of $5 million from the previous year.

Of the state’s 12 cyber schools operating at the time, only two met federal No Child Left Behind standards in 2011.

Funding for cyber schools stems from tax dollars that would otherwise be allocated to traditional public schools -- a system with which districts have taken issue.

According to The Express-Times, cyber schools are not paid what it costs them to educate their students. Instead, tuition is determined by a state calculation that leads to each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts paying a different amount.

Last year, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut all state charter school reimbursements for districts, prompting school districts in Northampton, Lehigh, Carbon, Monroe and Pike counties to offer a rebuttal in the form of a regional position paper comparing their state standardized test scores against their charter counterparts. Northampton County public schools out-performed a sampling of cyber and charter schools in every category of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 2010.

Poor overall test scores coupled with the governor’s cuts prompted Bethlehem Area School District to create its own 260-student cyber academy -- a $2.64 million expenditure.

According to district superintendent Joseph Roy, in-house cyber schools ensure that students who pursue this route are being educated to state standards.

Sharon Williams, who heads the Wayne, Pa.-based Agora Cyber Charter School, says she welcomes districts to offer cyber academies, but doing so can pose challenges.

“It’s not just putting a course online and finding a part-time teacher to teach at night,” she said. “For our teachers, it is their full-time job.”

Proponents of cyber schools contend that the setting enables children to learn at their own pace, study foreign languages earlier and avoid school-based problems like bullying.

“My son is getting a private school education at public school prices,” parent Chrissi Radvon told The Express-Times. “I already pay taxes. It doesn’t matter what school. The money follows the student. The school we chose needed to be the best that we could find.”

Corbett recently told KDKA he would ask the legislature to reduce cyber school funding and determine the actual cost of educating a child online so as to find an equitable solution.