A Pennsylvania state court on June 17 dismissed a challenge of the legality of that state’s online charter schools, but handed school districts a victory in saying that districts should have an opportunity to question the schools’ tuition bills.

Commonwealth Court ruled that the Pennsylvania Department of Education should provide an “expedited opportunity” for districts to challenge any decisions by the department to withhold money from them for refusing to pay tuition bills for students from their jurisdictions who attend cyber charter schools.

But the districts have no standing to question whether the state’s cyber schools, which deliver instruction over the internet, are allowed under a 1997 law that authorized the creation of publicly funded, independently operated charter schools, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman said.

“The General Assembly did not give them any rights to participate in the [chartering] process; the General Assembly only placed on such school districts the obligation to pay for their students who attend charter schools,” Friedman wrote in her majority opinion.

Three of the seven judges disagreed with the decision to dismiss the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s petition seeking a ruling on the legality of cyber schools. The association filed its lawsuit in April 2001, arguing that cyber schools are not true charter schools because students participate by logging onto the internet from home, rather than traveling to a school building.

“The fact that the Legislature has not expressly provided a procedure for challenging the legality of cyber schools does not mean that the court may not judicially determine the issue. Rather, this is precisely the type of question that is properly raised and decided in a declaratory judgment action,” Judge Doris Smith Ribner wrote in the dissenting opinion. Ribner and the others agreed, however, that the districts are entitled to hearings on the tuition bills.

The decision echoed a separate ruling on May 2, in which the court found that the state should have given nine southeastern Pennsylvania districts the chance to challenge the unpaid bills.

Education department officials have said more than 300 districts refused to pay $10 million in bills this year from Einstein Academy Charter School and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. There are seven cyber schools in the state.

Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the organization’s attorneys had not decided whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Timothy Allwein, a lobbyist for the association, said the opportunity for hearings on tuition bills represented a “partial victory” for districts.

“I think the bottom line is that both sides would be well served by legislative language that says these things are legal, or they’re legal under certain circumstances, or they’re illegal,” Allwein said.

State education department spokeswoman Beth Gaydos said the department was pleased that the decision prohibits districts from mounting legal challenges, but she questioned whether formal hearings are necessary when tuition disputes arise.

“We believe there are less bureaucratic ways to resolve those questions. A formal hearing may not be the best way to go,” she said.

In filing its lawsuit, one of the association’s key concerns was that the state’s cyber schools are funded under a formula based on the per-pupil spending of the students’ home districts, yet the districts receive no state subsidies for these students.

In a report issued last October on Pennsylvania’s growing cyber school movement, the association claimed that charter cyber schools have chewed up $18 million in unbudgeted expenses from the state’s public education system and that the schools have attracted mostly home-schooled students at taxpayers’ expense.

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 districts before enrolling their students. Both bills were still pending at press time.

Links:

Commonwealth Court opinion
http://www.courts.state.pa.us/OpPosting/CWealth/out/213MD01_6-17-02.pdf

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.state.pa.us

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