On one side, school district officials complain that cyber schools have little accountability and are too costly.
On the other, cyber school advocates say school districts are getting a bargain.
The Web-based schooling is free to the students, but not to the school districts they would otherwise attend.
Those home school districts must pay per-student tuition to the cyber charter schools.
And that's creating friction as the number of students attending cyber school over the Internet grows each year and the bill for local school districts mounts -- especially since most cyber schools in the state aren't meeting Pennsylvania's No Child Left Behind standards.
The tuition rate is calculated by taking the amount the school district would have spent on the student that year and subtracting certain facilities-related costs because the cyber charters don't need to house students, said Department of Education spokesman Mike Storm.
How it works: Then, the state reimburses every school district for a portion of what each spends on charter schools, generally about 27 percent of the tuition paid, he said.
West York Area School District paid $108,928 in cyber school tuition for 30 students last year. Under the state's formula, the district pays $7,198 for general educa-
tion students and $16,054 for special-education students.
The cyber schools are getting paid almost as much as it would cost West York to provide traditional schooling, said Superintendent Emilie Lonardi.
But she said she doesn't know whether the cyber charter schools' poor test scores are the result of curriculum or student-related issues.
And that's the problem, she said.
What accountability? "There's virtually no accountability that we have as a school district over our students who are in cyber schools," she said. "Our taxpayers are paying big dollars to send local students to cyber schools ... with no input into what they're learning. We don't know what they do. ..."
In the Southern School District, Superintendent Thomas Hensley said school administrators don't know what kind of curriculum the charter schools are using or whether they are following state standards.
"We don't see anything, other than we get a bill from them," he said.
Regardless of the cost, the quality of education is most important, Hensley said.
But because superintendents aren't overseeing cyber school curriculum, he doesn't want to comment on their performance, he said.
While all York County school districts except Hanover and York City met or exceeded the state's No Child Left Behind standards, only three of the nine cyber charter schools that reported scores last year were able to do that.
'Making money'? York County school districts spend more than $3 million per year sending about 500 students to Internet charter schools.
Dallastown spent about $300,000 on cyber school tuition last school year. That breaks down to $9,048 per year for each regular education student and $14,786 each for special-education students -- too much, according to superintendent Stewart Weinberg.
"I think it's frustrating that the laws permit the cyber schools to charge what they charge," Weinberg said. "There is no way that it's costing them $9,000 when the kids are in their home doing computer stuff. The cyber schools are making money on the school district, and they're making money from the people of Pennsylvania."
At about $9,000 per student, those costs add up. Across the county, the annual costs of cyber schools ranges from West York's $108,928 to the $348,020 Red Lion Area pays for 77 students.
Weinberg said he and other administrators have been pushing the state to reconsider the tuition rate paid to cyber schools.
Up to the Legislature: Storm acknowledged that some administrators feel the tuition rates are unfair. But he said it's up to state legislators to change them.
He said audits are performed by the Auditor General's Office with the same regularity as brick and mortar public schools, and the schools are held to the same standards.
The cyber charters must also submit annual reports on finances and performance to the department, he said.
'The competition': Some cyber charter school advocates rebut the familiar complaints from traditional schools, saying those schools don't like "the competition."
"The inertia of any establishment is well known," said Timothy Daniels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, a lobby and advocacy group for charter schools in Pennsylvania. "(Traditional public schools are) a monopoly. They're interested in preserving the establishment. They try to do anything they can to hold the competition down, because the competition forces them to change."
Daniels said brick-and-mortar public schools save money when they send students to cyber charter schools because they have to pay only between 75 and 80 percent of what they would have spent on the student.
And the state reimburses them about 27 percent of the cost of their charter school tuition payments.
For example, he said Pittsburgh schools spend more than $10,000 per student per year, but they spend $7,800 for a student to attend a cyber charter school.
The state reimburses about $2,700 of that amount, he said.
"So they're saving almost half," Daniels said. "My question is, 'Is this the new math? Does less per kid equal more?'"
There is no set yearly "cost per student" for students in a cyber school, said Daniels, a former school district business manager for Upper Darby School District near Philadelphia.
"It's like school districts ... it costs what the districts spend," he said. "(Cyber schools) take their net revenue and they spend it on their students."
Money that is left over at the end of the school year carries over into the next year, "just like any other school district," he said.
Under state rules, that money can be spent on only certain expenses, such as buying a building to house staff.
Teacher and administrative salaries are the same as or less than those in brick and mortar schools, he said.
The cyber schools pay for a computer for the student, as well as about $40 per month for the student's high-speed Internet service. Computers are replaced about once every three years, Daniels said.
They also spend more than $400 per year on textbooks for each student, he said.
The York Dispatch requested state reports and cost-per-pupil information from PA Distance Learning Charter School, Commonwealth Connections and PA Virtual Charter School; only PA Virtual immediately provided that public information.
PA Virtual's report showed that the school enrolled 4,381 students -- 435 of them in special education -- last school year and had $33,899,670 in expenditures, or $7,737 per student. Last year's budget carried a fund balance of $1.2 million.
The school paid $7.9 million for "management services" provided by K-12 Inc., a company that provided the school's curriculum and handled some administrative and payroll services for a fee of 20 percent of the funds the school brought in from public sources.
-- Reach Christina Kauff man at 505-5436 or email@example.com.
Per pupil costs
The annual per pupil cost of sending students to brick-and-mortar schools varies by school district.
Tuition to cyber schools can be calculated by taking the per pupil cost of the brick-and-mortar school and subtracting 15 to 20 percent.
West Shore: $7,687
Red Lion Area: $7,727
West York: $7,801
South Western: $7,832
Central York: $7,982
Spring Grove Area: $8,055
South Eastern: $8,192
Dover Area: $8,509
Eastern York: $8,786
Dallastown Area: $9,308
York City: $9,718
Hanover Public: $9,991
York Suburban: $10,223
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education