Some school boards coming out in support of cyberschool tuition changes

March 21, 2019

While school districts rally around Harrisburg legislation that would revamp cyberschool tuition, cyberschool advocates say districts should focus on why students are leaving in the first place.

Local school district officials, including those in Somerset, Berlin and Turkeyfoot, said they support House and Senate bills requiring parents to pay their child’s tuition at a cybercharter school if the school district has a similar cyberschool program. Currently, school districts pay full tuition for each cyberschool student via taxpayer funds.

Somerset Superintendent Krista Mathias said it costs less than $6,000 a year per student for the district’s cyberschool program, which is less than $14,996 in a competing cyberschool.

“It is particularly deceiving that these cybers advertise themselves as ‘tuition free,’ because they certainly are not free for taxpayers — and they cost a lot more than brick-and-mortar education,” she said in an email to the Daily American.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education reports that the average tuition for one Somerset student in a charter school during the 2018-19 school year is $13,06.83.

The rate for a special education student is $26,339.50.

Mathias said the district paid $1,057,224.51 in tuition to for-profit cyber schools for the 2017-18 school year. The Somerset school district has a $38.9 million budget.

“It is tough to understand, with all that brick-and-mortar public schools pay for (facilities, food service, transportation, athletics, more employees, etc.), why cyber tuition is so much higher,” she said.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has 11,000 students throughout the state, with 350 certified teachers working at nine regional offices. Brian Hayden, PA Cyber’s chief executive officer, said the school is required to cover costs, such as $22 million for teacher pensions, the same as any other school.

“We’ve got school counselors, academic advisers . . . we’ve got building costs for administrative buildings and regional offices,” he said. “We send every student a laptop, a printer, a scanner and so forth, so those costs are in there. In addition, we offer pretty robust extracurricular programs.”

Hayden said there is a need for cyberschool reforms, which is why advocates for charter schools have backed legislation such as state Rep. Mike Reese’s 2017 bill concerning charter school payments and oversight. However, Hayden said forcing students to go back to the schools because of House Bill 526 will only hurt students and public education.

“We’ve advocated for a reasonable discussion on cybercharter reform, but at the same time we don’t think that our students should be treated like second-class students, which is what some of this legislation would do,” he said.

On Monday the Turkeyfoot school board approved a resolution supporting House Bill 526. Superintendent Jeff Malaspino said there are 10 students using the district’s cyberschool programs, and 21 students using an outside version.

“I know sometimes you get students back from cyber and they are right on track. Sometimes they come back (and) if they are a high school student, they might be half a year behind,” he said. “It really kind of varies, but while they are in cyberschool, we really don’t have eyes on what they are doing.”

Berlin Brothersvalley officials are expected to consider a similar resolution at the next school board meeting. Several hope to lobby for passage of the bills in Harrisburg in April.

Superintendent David Reeder said the oversight for cybercharter schools needs to be the same as in public schools as to how each is evaluated and held accountable to state standards.

“You want to have an even playing field (and) the same kind of accountability you have when it takes money from your district,” he said. “I believe we can compete favorably with any kind of program that’s out there, but I also believe all those programs need to be treated the same way.”

State education officials list the average 2018-19 Berlin charter school student tuition at $12,271.20. For special education students, the number is $19,906.19. There was no listing for Turkeyfoot.

Both of Chastity Stanczyk’s children are enrolled in cyberschool programs. The Friedens resident lives in the Somerset Area School District.

She said her kids tried the district’s cyberschool and decided private cyberschools were a better fit, especially her son, who attends the Achievement House Cyber Charter School.

“They are definitely more about the students and making sure they understand everything,” she said. “Those teachers seem more like if you don’t get it then they are taking time to make sure you do get it.”

Stanczyk has started a grassroots campaign asking legislators to reject House Bill 526. She also started a online petition, which as of Wednesday evening had 23 signatures.

“I think it would be best for the districts to look at why us parents are choosing this,” she said. “Maybe if they looked at that they could get those students to come back.”