Legal fur flies over Pa. charter cyberschools

A county judge on Aug. 9 ordered a Pennsylvania cyberschool not to collect $43,700 in fees for 10 students it enrolled from the Butler Area School District in Butler County, Pa. This new ruling counters a decision on May 11 in favor of the cyberschools. This latest decision comes as lawsuits pile up over the status of charter cyberschools in Pennsylvania.

On May 11, Pennsylvania Judge Warren G. Morgan denied a request by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. PSBA had wanted the state education department to be barred from withholding aid from school districts that refuse to pay invoices from charter cyberschools.

But the new ruling, handed down on Aug. 9 by Judge William Shaffer, is meant to stop Einstein Academy, a charter cyberschool, from getting money from the Butler Area School District—at least until Shaffer can rule on a lawsuit the district filed against Einstein July 24.

In that suit, the Butler Eagle reported August 10, the district claims the cyberschool is operating illegally. Among other things, the Butler district claims Einstein has no physical address—just a post office box—and has no certified teachers.

Judge Shaffer set a hearing for Sept. 7 to determine whether the cyberschool legally can enroll Butler Area School District students. Until then, Einstein Academy was ordered not to enroll any more Butler Area students.

Since the May ruling favoring cyberschools, more Pennsylvania school districts have joined the legal fray, while others have simply refused to pay the bills issued by the state’s online charter schools.

Cyberschools offer students an opportunity to take classes via the internet. They are permitted in Pennsylvania under the state’s charter school law, but many school districts say cyberschools are costing them money because state funding follows the student.

Another Butler County district, the South Butler County School District, has joined the lawsuit and will attempt to keep Einstein from enrolling four of its students. That school district joined the fight too late to be included in Shaffer’s August 9 ruling, however.

Last month, the Downingtown Area School District in Pennsylvania’s Chester County filed a separate lawsuit against Einstein Academy, claiming the state’s four-year-old charter school law doesn’t apply to schools that operate over the internet. That lawsuit is still pending.

Einstein co-founder Mimi Rothschild said then that public school districts are attacking the state’s fledgling online charter schools movement to guard their educational monopoly.

“What we have here is a Burger King coming into a town where there’s only been a McDonald’s,” Rothschild said. “Naturally, McDonald’s won’t like it, but people like to have a choice between a Whopper and a Big Mac.”

In addition, according to an Aug. 17 Associated Press report, several school boards in Pennsylvania’s Erie County have passed resolutions vowing not to pay bills sent by “cyber charter schools.”

Other school districts simply ignore the bills from online charter schools, which began appearing about a year ago.

The charter cyberschools will, however, receive money through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is poised to recover the payments by withholding corresponding amounts of state funding from the school districts.

Erie school officials are not contesting the payments, saying they prefer to deal with the state.

“If we pay it now and then three months from now . . . six months from now, the school is not in business, we won’t get the money back,” said Iroquois School District business administrator Kim Smith. With the start of a new school year approaching, a charter cyberschool in Beaver County is looking at a huge rise in enrollment.

Already, the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has 1,100 students enrolled for the new school year. Another 400 students are scheduled to be interviewed for enrollment, and 300 more are waiting for their interviews to be set up.

That represents a big jump from last year—the cyberschool’s first—when it served about 500 students.

Nick Trombetta, chief administrative officer for the school, said he expects all interested students to be allowed to enroll.

“We have a huge infrastructure,” he said. “We have an extensive amount of talent and staff here. We can handle these numbers.”

Charter schools are established with approval from school districts but are not held to many of the mandates traditional public schools must meet. Under state guidelines, the districts then send per-pupil payments to the charter schools to help them operate.

Cyber charter schools offer a curriculum over the internet, and students who enroll can come from anywhere in the state. Pennsylvania currently has two cyberschools, Einstein Academy and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

Conflicts are expected to increase before they are resolved, though. Six more charter cyberschools are scheduled to open in the fall.


Einstein Academy

Butler Area School District

South Butler County School District

Downingtown Area School District

Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School

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