The tuition for a student living in Red Lion who is enrolled in a public cyber charter school may be thousands of dollars different from that for a similar student enrolled at the same school who lives in Spring Grove.
And a school district is paying a tuition rate to send a student to a 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 Wednesday 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."
The 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.
"We have to pay whatever Dallastown's cost is to teach a special-need child, even if that's not their cost," said business manager Donna Devlin.
Dallastown, like many area schools, started its own cyber program to attract students interested in online learning. Even with 37 students enrolled, it still has 90 children enrolled in outside cyber schools, costing Dallastown about $1.2 million.
Devlin said business managers are also upset districts have to factor in 100 percent of pension costs when calculating tuition contributions, even though the state reimburses cyber school and brick-and-mortar charter schools for half of their pension costs. And districts have to factor in costs for athletics, even though cyber students are allowed to participate in the district's athletic program.
"All public schools would benefit from being charged actual cost rather than the inflated numbers that are being used by these smart business people to make somewhat of an obscene profit," added Hanover Public School District Superintendent Al Moyer.Wagner said he wants action taken in the upcoming budget, noting there are already bills floating around that address the issue. If the charge is changed, it could eventually save districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cyber schools would get less, but Wagner said he thinks they could deal with it.
"Funding levels appear to dictate the spending habits. If you give more funding, the schools are going to spend more. If you provide the appropriate level, they will spend what is considered the appropriate level," Wagner said.
Cyber and brick-and-mortar charter school officials statewide released a statement through their advocacy organization, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
The group criticizes Wagner's attacking the formula, saying it's a veiled effort to break up charter schools on behalf of teacher unions. And Wagner didn't appear to take into account other factors, such as charter schools' not being eligible for construction funding or many grants, when pointing out how much revenue they receive from tuition.
But the group did laud the idea of creating a charter school commission to oversee all the issues, an idea including in a bill sitting in the House Education committee."There clearly exist inequities on all sides of the charter funding issue," Wagner said.
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