The tuition for a student living in one Pennsylvania district who is enrolled in a public cyber charter school might be thousands of dollars different from that for a similar student enrolled at the same school who lives in another district in the state.
And Pennsylvania school districts are paying a tuition rate to send a student to a cyber charter school that is often much higher than the actual cost to educate the student. Those scenarios don’t make any fiscal sense, the state auditor general said June 20 as he released findings on charter school tuition rates.
Jack Wagner estimates Pennsylvania’s tuition rates are much higher than the national average for cyber schools, as well as brick-and-mortar charters. Pennsylvania charter schools spent an average of $13,400 per student, while cyber schools spent about $10,000 per student.
In each case, that’s about $3,000 more per student than the national average, meaning Pennsylvania school districts are providing more funding than is apparently necessary. Wagner estimated taxpayers could save $315 million a year by limiting school-district payments for charters and cyber charters to the national averages.
“Pennsylvania taxpayers are the losers under the current funding formula,” Wagner said, adding this is the second time he’s alerted lawmakers and state officials to the issue. “This is a common sense issue. This is not anything radical.”
Wagner’s concerns echo similar points that have been raised about cyber school funding formulas in other states as well.
A quirk of Idaho’s new “Students Come First” school reform law, for instance, means that online course providers will get far more state money for providing classes to students in some Idaho school districts than in others—raising concerns that students might not have equal opportunities for online learning across the state.
For example, an online provider sending a class to a high school student in Boise could tap roughly $210 for a one-semester online class from the Boise district’s state funding stream, according to state estimates, while a provider sending the same online class to a student in Midvale could collect roughly $733 from that smaller district’s state funding.
“So I think if I were a provider, I would first concentrate on these districts where this credit is worth a lot more money,” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who serves on the “Students Come First” technology task force charged with implementing the new laws, told state schools Superintendent Tom Luna during a task force meeting about the program last fall.
In Pennsylvania, cyber and charter schools receive payments of tax money through a formula pegged to what it costs to educate each student in his or her home school district. Those payments have come under stricter scrutiny as online learning popularity is growing—and so are the tuition costs.
District business managers said it is ridiculous for their district to pay tuition based on their in-house rate when a cyber school doesn’t have nearly the same overhead. That’s especially true if a special-education child is involved.