Charter enrollment in Pa. has spiked since COVID-19 outbreak

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
A Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School 6th grade student attends a class virtually.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for Pennsylvania's charter schools, which, some officials say, could further erode the public schools that ultimately fund them.

Statewide, charter enrollment has increased by about 20,000, students since March, said Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

About 168,000 students are now attending a charter school in Pennsylvania, he said, up from 143,000 in March. That number includes students attending brick-and-mortar charter schools and cyber charters. 

Supporters of the cyber charter model, in particular, say it provides more stability compared with public school districts, which have developed varying strategies for remote learning during the pandemic.

"Districts don't know how to deliver online education," said Timothy Eller, senior vice president of outreach and government relations for Commonwealth Charter Academy.

Public school officials found themselves having to reinvent education this spring as statewide lockdowns forced students online. Suddenly, the cyber model was ahead of the curve. York City School District, which has struggled for years to keep students from moving to charter schools, responded earlier this year by creating a cyber charter of its own in an attempt to compete.

Cyber charter schools have been criticized by some public officials, including Eric Wolfgang, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

In an op-ed published Dec. 29 in The York Dispatch, Wolfgang wrote that the increased enrollment will have a negative financial impact on public school districts and should be a concern for taxpayers. 

"The current charter funding mechanism forces school districts to overpay cyber charter schools and overpay for charter special education costs by hundreds of millions of dollars each school year," Wolfgang said. 

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West York School District Superintendent Todd Davies agreed with Wolfgang's assessment. Enrollment at cyber charter schools has increased by about 62% within that district since the pandemic began, with 160 students now enrolled. 

School districts pay the cost of enrollment for each student in the district who attends a cyber charter school. For West York, that equates to about $14,000 per student and about $34,000 for every student with special needs. 

"The funding formula is ridiculous," Davies said. 

McAllister, of the charter coalition, said districts can keep 25% of the enrollment cost per student under state law — inappropriately, in his opinion, because it deprives the students of the full amount of funding meant for their education.

But Davies said his district pays the full cost for every student. 

West York officials budgeted about $2.8 million for cyber charter expenses in the 2020-21 school year, but Davies said the district is about $1.3 million over budget. In next year's budget, he expects the district to increase cyber charter expenses to about $5.3 million. 

West York is not the only school district concerned about the increasing costs of cyber charters. Officials from the Dover Area and Northern York County school districts previously cited cyber charter schools as one of their biggest financial needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More:York County school districts' bottom lines hit hard by COVID-19

However, McAllister argued that cyber charter schools are not taking funding from school districts. He said taxpayers pay school districts to educate students, and the districts transfer the money to cyber charter schools based on the number of students cyber charters are educating from that district. 

"The school districts are being nothing more than the middleman," McAllister said. 

Davies argued that the burden on taxpayers is a reason people should be concerned. He said districts have a number of fixed costs they have to pay regardless of enrollment numbers, and as enrollment drops, the cost of resources per student rises. While Davies said West York officials do not intend to raise taxes to account for the added costs, for other districts there might not be any other option. 

"Everybody is paying for this," Davies said. 

Funding from school districts makes up the majority of many cyber charter school budgets. Brian Hayden, CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, said nearly all of the school's current $162 million budget comes from districts. Because of the increase in enrollment, he expects revenue to increase by about $10 million. 

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter's enrollment increased by about 2,000 students since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hayden said, and the school currently enrolls about 11,500 students. This is a smaller increase compared against several other cyber charters in the state. He said that's because the school set an enrollment cap at 11,677 students as part of a renewal agreement that was negotiated before the pandemic and took effect in July. 

Reach Cyber Charter School more than doubled its enrollment, from 3,880 in March to 8,716 as of Jan. 4, according to CEO Jane Swan. Commonwealth Charter Academy saw its enrollment rise from about 11,000 in March to more than 18,500 in late December, Eller said. As a result, both schools doubled their staff to accommodate the extra students. 

Enrollment is continuing to rise at the schools midway through the school year. Swan said parents are seeking out her school for a stable online education system, compared with what she called less stable versions of online learning offered by school districts. 

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Davies said cyber charter schools do not provide the same value of education as brick-and-mortar schools. He said the best value is when a teacher is able to educate students in a classroom.

West York teachers are adjusting well to teaching online programs through the pandemic, Davies said, and students participating in remote learning are getting the same lessons as students taught in the school buildings. The district also has its own cyber academy, he said. 

According to Wolfgang, cyber charter school proficiency rates on the latest state assessments were on average 24% lower than traditional public schools. Cyber charter schools' four-year graduation rates were 33% lower than traditional public schools. 

McAllister said that is not an accurate measurement of the success of the schools. He said if cyber charter schools were compared to the online education systems offered by school districts, cyber charters would perform better. Eller also said that many students attending his school come in a few grade levels behind and use the cyber charter's system to catch up. 

"They're literally comparing apples to footballs and wondering why they don't taste the same," McAllister said.