Two years after the Pennsylvania Legislature made the state responsible for approving internet-based charter schools, the way these “cyber schools” are funded remains a sore spot for many area school districts, which must foot the bill.

In recent weeks, Pennsylvania has sent out hundreds of warning letters about overdue cyber-school tuition payments, said Dan Felix, the state Education Department’s charter-schools teams leader.

“We wish school districts would pay the cyber schools,” Felix said, “but this is their form of denial.”

If schools refuse to pay, the Education Department simply deducts the amount of unpaid tuition from their state aid.

The Legislature gave the state oversight of cyber schools at the request of school districts, which contended that Pennsylvania’s 1997 charter school law didn’t adequately regulate them.

Charter schools, including ones providing internet-based distance learning, are run by independent entities subject to less stringent state regulation. According to the most current Education Department statistics, cyber schools enrolled more than 4,000 students during the 2002-2003 school year.

Funding, however, still comes from students’ home school districts. Districts must pay full tuition for any resident student who enrolls in a cyber school–regardless of where it is based–using a combination of state and local tax money.

“We still need to find a way where school districts are not a major source of funding,” ideally with the state picking up at least half the cost, said Tim Allwein, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The Mars Area School District in Butler County is among districts that have decided not to pay any cyber-school tuition bills as a form of protest. Superintendent William Pettigrew Jr. said he questions whether the per-pupil tuition formula reflects the cyber schools’ actual instructional cost.

“If the Department of Education and the Legislature want these schools, they should be paying the tuition for those students,” Pettigrew said.

Before the Legislature put cyber schools under state control, eight of them began operating in Pennsylvania after obtaining the approval of the local school districts that sponsored them.

Of those schools, one was forced to close last year after its charter was revoked. Both the Education Department and the state courts upheld a suburban Philadelphia school district’s decision to shut down the Einstein Academy Charter School because of a multitude of problems, from improper financial management to a failure to provide a proper special-education program.

Einstein officials had blamed the problems on school districts that withheld tuition payments and challenged the school’s legality in court.

The first cyber school to open under the new approval process has just completed its first year. Three others were approved earlier this year to enroll students starting this fall.

Organizers behind the newest cyber schools say the application process requires intense attention to detail. Applicants must prove, among other things, that sufficient support exists for the school among students, parents, and teachers and that its curriculum conforms to state academic standards.

In September, Commonwealth Connections Academy became the first state-approved cyber school to open in Pennsylvania. The Harrisburg-based school enrolls more than 400 students in grades kindergarten through eight.

“They legitimately put us through the hoops, and we were glad to accommodate them,” said Mickey Revenaugh, vice president of state relations for Connections Academy Inc., a Baltimore company that manages the school.

Even unsuccessful applicants agree that their bids to set up shop in cyberspace deserve stricter scrutiny.

“I really believe that the state is doing it for the interests of the children,” said Carolyn Knapp of Ulster, Bradford County. Her application for a cyber school devoted to agriculture was rejected in November for reasons such as failing to provide a financial plan for the school.

Cyber schools cater to a wide range of youngsters, from advanced students who want to progress at a faster pace to those who are homebound because of serious illness.

After being home-schooled for six years, 12-year-old Ryan Mulligan enrolled in Commonwealth Connections Academy last fall. Although his mother is primarily responsible for seeing that he completes his studies, he can eMail a teacher if he needs extra help.

“I kind of like that I get to be with my mom a lot, plus it’s fun to have a teacher on the other side of the system,” said Ryan, who lives in Bethlehem, Pa. “It’s a pretty good curriculum. It’s challenging, but not too challenging.”

Links:

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

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com