In the latest volley in a dispute over who should pay for the education of Pennsylvania students online, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association claims that charter cyber schools have chewed up $18 million in unbudgeted expenses from the state’s public education system.

In a highly critical report on the state’s growing cyber-school movement, the association also said the cyber schools have attracted mostly students who were home-schooled last year at no taxpayer expense.

The association presented its report Oct. 16 as part of its push for legislation that would provide state funding and specific regulation of online charter schools. The report’s findings are based on a survey conducted by the association in August and September.

Seven cyber schools—five of them new this fall—are providing internet-based education to students across the state.

“This survey underscores what we have known all along, that there is a serious lack of accountability for these programs,” spokesman Thomas Gentzel said.

The survey, which elicited responses from about 420 of the state’s 501 districts, found that 2,700 students from 399 districts were enrolled in cyber schools. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the state’s seven cyber charter schools reported a combined enrollment of nearly 5,200 for the school year that began in September.

This discrepancy, as well as other concerns, raises questions about whether the schools are keeping accurate records, Gentzel said.

“We heard from a lot of school districts that they’ve been billed multiple times for the same student by different cyber schools,” he said. “They’ve been billed by cyber schools for students who were still sitting in a public school. We think that needs further investigation.”

The association filed a lawsuit in April arguing that cyber charter schools are not currently permitted under a 1997 law that authorized the creation of publicly funded, independently operated charter schools.

One of the association’s key concerns is that under the charter school law, cyber schools are funded under a formula based on the per-pupil spending of the student’s home district, yet the districts receive no state subsidies for cyber school students.

More than half of the state’s school districts are refusing to pay the tuition because they want the authority to decide whether their students can enroll in cyber schools.

Another concern is that cyber schools are attracting a significant number of students who were previously home-schooled. Home-schooled students account for 57 percent of the total current cyber school enrollment, according to the report.

State lawmakers established standards for home schooling under a 1988 law, including provisions that require an adult to be present at home and academic portfolios of students’ work to be submitted to local school officials. None of those requirements are applied to cyber school students, Gentzel said.

“What we have is home schooling, in effect, outside of the home-schooling law,” he said.

The state education department is conducting its own study of cyber charter schools and plans to issue a report to lawmakers by Oct. 30. Spokeswoman Gretchen Toner said the department was reviewing the association’s report and declined to comment on it.

“We agree … that we should keep cyber schools as an option, but we need to address some of the logistical issues. We are certainly doing it in our study,” she said.

State lawmakers have introduced two bills intended to establish guidelines for cyber charter schools. A measure sponsored by Rep. Jess Stairs, R-Westmoreland, would require the state to fund the schools, and legislation sponsored by Sen. James Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, would require cyber schools to sign agreements with local districts before enrolling their students.

Most Pennsylvania school leaders agree that online schools hold great potential for students; they just disagree with how the state’s cyber-school movement has taken shape.

“It is the future,” Cranberry superintendent Richard Varrati said of cyber education. “But it needs to be regulated.”

Other states with virtual schools—such as Michigan, Kentucky, and Illinois—have not experienced the kind of conflicts Pennsylvania has because they established their virtual schools as state-funded initiatives, said Liz Pape, chief executive officer of the Virtual High School Inc., which provides online high school courses to school districts.

In these other states, “the money is coming from the state, so there is less opportunity to take the money away from districts,” Pape said. But in Pennsylvania, “setting up [cyber] charter schools where funding follows the students … unfortunately sets up a tension that doesn’t need to exist.”

Links:

Pennsylvania School Boards Association
http://www.psba.org

Pennsylvania charter school movement
http://www.pde.psu.edu/charter.html

Virtual High School Inc.
http://www.govhs.org