A new Pennsylvania law seeks to improve the accountability of the state’s charter cyber schools while allaying educators’ concerns that the schools are draining money away from their districts.

The school-code law, signed by Gov. Mark Schweiker June 29, will partially reimburse the state’s school systems for per-pupil funding lost when students enroll in alternative schools. The law also transfers authority for the establishment, evaluation, and renewal of charter cyber schools from local school districts to the state education department.

The new law comes just 12 days after a state court dismissed a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) challenging the legality of the state’s online charter schools. The court dismissed the case, but handed school districts a partial victory by saying districts should have an opportunity to question tuition bills sent to them by charter cyber schools.

Pennsylvania has been a pioneer of cyber education—a form of distance learning in which students receive instruction via the internet. But problems have arisen over who should foot the bill for the state’s cyber-school students. The problems were highlighted by the high-profile struggles of one cyber school in particular, the Einstein Academy, headquartered in Bucks County.

According to state education department officials, more than 300 districts refused to pay $10 million in bills last year from Einstein Academy and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Pennsylvania has seven cyber schools in all.

In filing its lawsuit, one of PSBA’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 cyber charter schools have saddled local school districts with $18 million in unbudgeted expenses and have attracted mostly home schoolers, who previously had not been entitled to taxpayer support.

The new law attempts to address this concern by reimbursing public school districts up to 30 percent of the per-pupil funds lost when prospective students enroll in charter schools.

But, according to Stan Whisler, who is director of business affairs for schools in Souderton, Pa., the reimbursements cannot be used to purchase additional technology equipment or create new educational services for students.

In fact, the law states that funds can be used for only three purposes, Whisler said: as a tax abatement, to reduce outstanding debt, or to restore any programs that had been cut.

The law “really restricts what we can use the money for,” said Whisler, whose district plans to use its more than $100,000 in additional funding to pay down its debt.

In spite of such limitations, PSBA spokesman Tim Allwein calls the new law “a step in the right direction.” State oversight of cyber charter schools will help clear up some of the problems that have existed, he said. Gretchen Toner, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the state now will serve as “a central clearinghouse” for questions regarding the appropriate operation and regulation of charter cyber schools.

The legislation also will relieve chartering school districts of an unwanted bureaucratic burden, she said: keeping track of cyber-school enrollments. Although they reside in a single district, cyber schools attract students from across the state.

“It is an onerous task for chartering school districts to keep track of students drawn from across the state,” Toner said. Bookkeeping, too, can be difficult.

Toner said state officials realized that—in its original form—the charter school application was not comprehensive enough to ensure that cyber schools were prepared to open. The new law calls on the state education department to set key guidelines, including attendance procedures, computer versus personal instruction time, and curriculum standards.

The law requires that cyber-school applications include a description of the proposed curriculum; work that is aligned to state standards; a model of the education delivery system; the amount of time students will spend online; a list of technologies that will be used; special-education procedures; attendance policies; and a list of all materials that will be provided by the school or required for students to purchase.

The state also will be responsible for monitoring whether cyber schools are meeting the goals set by their charters. If not, schools will be in jeopardy of having their charters revoked. This is a responsibility that previously had rested with the chartering district.

Despite these changes, Allwein said cyber charter schools still must come a long way to escape lingering controversies.

For instance, he said, the new law does not place any limitation on the continuing proliferation of cyber charter schools. According to Allwein, some cyber schools take on more students than they are equipped to handle.

“Many cyber schools are taking on additional students, but not taking on additional instructors,” he said. “Kids aren’t getting the educations they deserve.”

The new law, he said, does not place enough responsibility on cyber charter schools to deliver a full, well-balanced learning experience. “You can basically put a curriculum online and call yourself a cyber school,” he said. He contends the Einstein Academy is an example of that phenomenon.

In May, eSchool News reported that Einstein Academy finally would receive $3.4 million that state officials had withheld over questions about whether the school was operating legally. In return, the school must ensure that it meets several conditions, including providing services to special education students, responding to parental complaints, and properly accounting for its billing and spending practices.

Einstein had struggled to deliver computers and textbooks to families on time since it opened last September. In March, the academy’s internet service was terminated, reportedly leaving many of its students in the lurch. Einstein’s provider said the academy owed nearly $80,000 for internet service.

According to Toner, Einstein is the exception. Most cyber schools, she said, have proven to be trustworthy, accountable, and highly effective. But she agreed there still is work to be done.

“Laws are the first step,” she said. “Then you have to boil everything down to the nitty-gritty and make things work.”

Pennsylvania’s seven cyber charter schools currently enroll about 4,995 students. The state education department said it plans to approve two more such schools for the fall.

Links:

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.state.pa.us/pde_internet/site/default.asp

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