Electronic School, September 2001

The Midland (Pa.) School District has created an immensely popular virtual school, the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. In fact, it’s so popular that it attracts students from across the state. However, that attraction has now thrust Midland into a controversy over funding for the school which threatens to shut down the program and perhaps chill support for similar programs elsewhere in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

Western Cyber is not a physical school with a computer-oriented program attached to it. It is a true internet-only school. That means when students in Pennsylvania register for the program, Western Cyber bills the state for their education, just like other charter schools. The state then withholds these funds from the district where the actual student lives.

Therein lies the problem. These districts have gone to court in an effort to retain state funds, usually $5,000-7,000 per student, depending on the district. While the lawsuit is pending, the state has decided to keep funding Western Cyber.

With six other cyberschools seeking charters in Pennsylvania, district and state officials are concerned about the impact of cyberschooling on funding for traditional schools. Demand for web-based education is unquestioned. In the past year, enrollment at Western Cyber has more than doubled, to 1,100 students.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is squarely behind charter schools of all types, and he and other officials are trying to broker an agreement that will end the lawsuit. One proposal that’s been floated is to allow districts to have some type of approval or oversight for the number of students who can “leave” their district to attend a cyberschool. Another proposal would have the state separately fund cyberschools through the Pennsylvania Virtual School District program.