Administrators question the financing
By Rachael Ward
Since Pennsylvania's first cyber-charter school opened in 1998, a dozen have cropped up statewide. Enrollments for online education are rising.
In the Indiana Area School District, 56 students were enrolled in cyber schools during the 2006-07 school year, more than double enrollments of several years earlier, according to local school officials.
Costs are rising, too. The 2006-2007 cost of cyber-schooling was $475,139, said Superintendent Deborah M. Clawson in an Oct. 15 e-mail interview. The amount is more than double the cost in 2003, according to Clawson's predecessor.
Local districts receive state subsidies for their resident cyber-school students, but the reimbursements are often less than promised, Clawson said.
"We are supposed to get 30 percent reimbursement," she said. "But the actual level of repayment is around 25 percent."
Of the $142,541 the district should have received last year, it actually received $119,000, a shortage of more than $23,500, according to Clawson's figures.
Clawson's predecessor as superintendent, Dr. Kathleen R. Kelley, also was critical of state reimbursements for cyber schooling. In an Aug. 8, 2004, interview in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Kelley said, "I spent $212,000 in cyber schools last year (2003). The state reimbursement was $42,000."
Such complaints are not uncommon among local public-school officials in Pennsylvania. Financing for cyber-schools is supplied by students' home school districts. Tax dollars assessed for public education in Indiana, for example, follow Indiana students to the cyber schools in which they enroll elsewhere in the state.
Local tax dollars follow school children to such western Pennsylvania cyber schools as Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, in Montgomery County; Pennsylvania Learners OnLine Regional, in Allegheny County; Midwestern Region Virtual Charter School, in Mercer County, and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, in Beaver County.
Some Pennsylvania school districts have questioned the amounts charged for cyber schooling and have balked at paying cyber-school tuition bills. The state education department has responded by deducting unpaid cyber-school tuition from state subsidies to local schools districts.
Cyber schools are funded the same way as charter schools, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, a nonprofit statewide association of school officials. School districts pay an amount per resident-student attending a cyber school.
This expenditure is based on the district's budgeted total expenditure per student, minus a share of the cost of programs that the cyber schools do not provide.
Clawson said the Indiana school district, which enrolls about 2,970 students, has an annual budget of $41 million. That averages out to about $13,800 per student. The money pays for instructional fees. And it pays for activity fees and other programs that cyber schools do not provide.
The state school boards association said the funding formula causes problems, including a potentially vast difference in funding between school districts. The per-student expenditure varies widely, based on the number of students enrolled in cyber schools. This can result in districts paying more than the cyber school instructional fee, the PSBA said.
Controversy also has erupted over laws that do not require cyber schools to provide student progress reports to the student's home school district, raising questions about the achievement of cyber-charter school students. Roberta M. Marcus, PSBA second vice president, addressed the issue on Sept. 19, when public school officials appeared before the state House Education Committee in Harrisburg to argue that cyber-charter schools should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools, the PSBA reported.
"As elected officials who are ultimately responsible for the taxpayer dollars that come to us, we must be prepared to answer questions about how our investments are meeting the goals of our district and the educational needs of students," Marcus said. "That includes the investments we make on behalf of our taxpayers to cyber-charter schools. We cannot do that under the current law, because cyber-charter schools are not required to report on the progress of a district's students to the school boards who invest taxpayer funds in them."
Lawrence A. Feinberg, a school board member from Haverford Township, about 10 miles from Philadelphia, told the committee that for the 2004-05 school year alone, 493 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts paid nearly $30 million in new tax dollars just for cyber-school students who had previously attended nonpublic school or who had been home-schooled. The Pennsylvania Department of Education estimates that such students account for nearly 40 percent of new cyber-school students annually.
In Haverford alone, the district's state-mandated cyber-charter school payments rose from $40,383 in 2001-02 to about $320,000 for the current academic year, a 792 percent increase, Feinberg said.
The Civic Project
Statement of purpose
by David O. Loomis, Ph.D.
These stories about community issues in Indiana County, Pa., were reported and written by students in a fall 2007 Indiana University of Pennsylvania News Reporting class taught by Journalism professor David Loomis. In 2006 and 2007, this course produced statewide-award-winning reporting published in local news media. For this academic year, the class is collaborating with the county's League of Women Voters chapter.
The league and the journalism students share several interests:
- in providing citizens with timely, important and useful information on issues of common concern, such as the quality of their air and water, the performance of their local public schools, their access to public information, and others..
- in fostering involvement so citizens can be empowered to help solve community problems.
- in non-partisan, non-profit civic engagement and public awareness.
But the league and the students acted independently:
- These stories reflect the independent reporting of the IUP journalism students. The stories do not advocate any position.
- The league has agreed to publish the stories on its Web site so that its membership and citizens may be better informed and more engaged.
- The stories report on issues identified by the league as important to this community. But the stories were not edited by the league or any league member. Nor does league publication imply endorsement of the stories by the league.
- The stories were edited by Professor Loomis. The league agreed to publish the edited stories without interference in their content or in the journalistic process of reporting, writing and editing them.
Professor Loomis can be contacted at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Journalism Department, 434 Davis Hall, Indiana University of Pennsylvania Indiana, Pa. 15705-1087. Phone 724-357-4411 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.