A virtual school controversy in Pennsylvania that centers on the definition of “residency” points to an area of concern that cyber schools in other states might one day have to grapple with, too.

The dispute involves more than $100,000 in tuition that taxpayers in a suburban Pittsburgh school district paid for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum’s children to be educated via computer at their Virginia home–revealing a basic flaw in Pennsylvania’s 2002 cyber-school law.

Although the law requires school districts to pay for any resident students enrolled in a cyber school, it does not explicitly say this applies to children from families who maintain a Pennsylvania residence but actually live outside the state.

The Penn Hills School District has asked the state Education Department to review Santorum’s case, although the department itself has not adopted any guidelines for such situations.

In the case of the Achievement House Charter School–a cyber school based in suburban Philadelphia that opened last fall–the department advised school officials to not enroll a girl whose parents owned a Pennsylvania home, but spent most of their time doing missionary work in Kenya, according to the school’s administrator, Wallace H. Wallace.

State Rep. James Roebuck, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said lawmakers need to clarify which students may enroll in a cyber school at taxpayers’ expense.

“Taxpayers have enough of a responsibility for trying to educate kids who are bona fide, legitimate residents,” the Philadelphia legislator said. “They shouldn’t have to be paying for kids who aren’t residents of that district.”

The Penn Hills school board contends it should not have had to pay for the three-plus years that Santorum’s five school-age children attended the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School because his family actually lives in Virginia, even though the senator and his wife also own a house in the district.

The Pennsylvania Republican’s children had been enrolled in the school, headquartered in Midland, Pa., since the 2001-02 school year.

In November, amid publicity resulting from a school board member’s criticism of the arrangement, Santorum agreed to withdraw his children from the cyber school and resume home-schooling them.

Neither the cyber school nor the senator has offered to reimburse the school district, and Santorum has said he did nothing wrong.

Nick Trombetta, the cyber school’s chief administrative officer, said Santorum produced valid documentation of his Penn Hills residency, including his driver’s license, when he enrolled the children.

“It didn’t go under the radar at all,” Trombetta said.

But Penn Hills school board member Erin Vecchio said Santorum has never lived in the district, despite owning a two-bedroom house that was assessed at $106,000 last year. His nearly four-acre property in Leesburg, Va., was assessed at $757,000 this year, according to tax records.

“We never even knew they attended the cyber school,” Vecchio said.

Vecchio said she believes a 2000 state Supreme Court decision made clear what constitutes residency.

The court ordered the Cumberland Valley School District to cover the tuition of a boy who attended a private school for disabled children in Montgomery County, Pa., even though his mother maintained a second home in another school district. The justices concluded the family were Cumberland Valley residents because they “stay there during the days and sleep there at night.”

Although there is no case law specifically involving residency standards for cyber-school students, an attorney for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said they would likely be similar to those that apply to other public school situations.

“It would be a difficult read to try to say that residency is different for cyber students than for other people,” said the lawyer, Emily Leader.

State Rep. Jess Stairs, chairman of the House Education Committee, agreed.

“I think the residency question is something that should be resolved,” he said. “I would hope we can look at it again.”

But Erik Arneson, an aide to Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill of Lebanon County, Pa., said he sees no urgency to revisit the law because it “clearly lays out a process for determining residency.”

“Given the fact that this is an isolated case … we think the law is working as intended,” Arneson said.

Links:

U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
http://santorum.senate.gov/public

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School
http://www.wpccs.com

Penn Hills School District
http://www.phsd.k12.pa.us

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