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, and it comes as lawsuits pile up over the status of charter cyberschools in the Keystone State.
On May 11, Pennsylvania Judge Warren G. Morgan denied a request by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which 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 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 Aug. 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.
Shaffer set a hearing 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.
In July, the Downingtown Area School District in Pennsylvania’s Chester County filed a separate lawsuit against Einstein Academy, claiming the state’s 4-year-old charter school law doesn’t apply to schools that operate over the internet. That lawsuit is still pending.
Einstein cofounder 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 … the school is not in business, we won’t get the money back,” said Iroquois School District business administrator Kim Smith.
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 send per-pupil payments to the charter schools to help them operate.
Charter cyberschools offer a curriculum over the internet, and students who enroll can come from anywhere in the state. Last year, Pennsylvania had two charter cyberschools, Einstein Academy and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.
Conflicts are expected to increase before they are resolved, though. Six more charter cyberschools were scheduled to open this fall.
Butler Area School District
Downingtown Area School District
Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School