A bill to reform funding for cyber charter schools passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a move that has public and cyber school officials weighing the merit of the legislation.
When students choose to enroll in a cyber charter school, the public school district they would normally attend must pay the tuition based on what the district would normally spend to educate those students.
The bill passed 133-62 late last month and would allow school districts to deduct the cost of their pension contributions and food service when calculating their tuition payments to cyber charter schools. The change would not apply to tuition payments to charter schools that students attend in person.
Passing a bill like this would be significant for the public, said Emilie Lonardi, superintendent of West York Area School District.
"It's a big deal to taxpayers because they're the ones who pay for cyber schools," Lonardi said.
Lonardi said she is "thrilled" at the passage of the bill, which would also provide more financial accountability from cyber schools to the public school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The bill would also establish a statewide commission to
issue recommendations for funding all charter schools.
But addressing funding for cyber charter schools first would be beneficial, Lonardi said.
"They've been able to tout themselves as the latest and greatest without any data to support that," Lonardi said.
Not broad enough: Maurice Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Connections Academy, said he was disappointed the bill singled out cyber schools, and not all charters.
"It seems to be fairly narrow in its scope," Flurie said.
Flurie is in favor of an aspect of the bill that would change the way cyber charter schools are paid for each student: In the proposal, the Pennsylvania Department of Education would act as a liaison between public school districts and charter schools. The state would reimburse cyber charter schools for teaching students, instead of those payments coming directly from the school districts.
Flurie said Commonwealth Connections Academy has students enrolled from most York County school districts. He said Commonwealth Connections started this school year with $11 million in outstanding debts from districts. That money is for tuition payments of students from last year, and won't be reconciled until the end of October. Flurie said getting paid by the department should eliminate that problem.
Flurie said the amount of money affected by the bill is two-tenths of one percent of the state's education funding: To Flurie, the bill should address all charter schools to make a larger impact for the public school districts.
State Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, said the bill would save school districts and taxpayers more than $84 million by the end of the 2014-15 school year, according to York County House Republican Delegation documents.
York County representatives all voted to approve the bill.
Lonardi said West York could get $93,000 back if the bill passes, a sum she said she's looking forward to.
"It's a long time coming," Lonardi said.
Next step: The bill will most likely go to the Senate education committee next, said state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster.
Smucker introduced a separate charter school reform bill in August, which he expects will leave the committee for the General Assembly soon.
Smucker, who also represents part of York County, said the two legislative bodies will eventually have to determine which bill moves forward. But the House bill has the potential to be the one that becomes law, Smucker said.
"It coincides with a lot of changes that I believe should happen," Smucker said.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this report. Reach Nikelle Snader at firstname.lastname@example.org.