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Pa. cyber charter bill aims to partner with, not compete with districts

Nathaniel Saxe, a CCA junior from Springettsbury Township, harvests kale at the Agworks aquaponics facility in Harrisburg, Tuesday, January 8, 2019.  
John A. Pavoncello photo

A new bill would aim to alleviate the tension between cyber charters and school districts in Pennsylvania by allowing the entities to partner with each other — while still preserving the option of school choice.

HB 1897, referred to the House Education Committee on Sept. 30, would require public school districts in the state to both establish their own full-time cyber education programs and also offer two cyber options through outside contractors. It would not provide additional state funding for the mandate. 

The bill's prime sponsor is Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie.

"The only problem with the mandate that I see is the upfront costs and, 'What if we lose the students anyway'," said West York Area school board treasurer George Margetas.

The district does not have a full cyber program right now because it costs money to implement, and there's no guarantee students would stay, he said. If students enroll in the cyber program, it would definitely be a cost saver, but if the district loses them to the other two options, it could be a financial drain, he said.

Losing students to charter schools — taking per-student funds away from districts — has created tension since charters first emerged in the late 1990s. In recent years, lawmakers have been working to reform an outdated charter school law, adding to that tension, as some see the changes as unfairly weighted against charters.

For example, Gov. Tom Wolf's summer reform proposal included imposing a fee on charters when districts do not pay monthly tuition.

More:York County districts forgoing charter tuition but charters hit with fee

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks to reporters during a news conference on his signing an executive order for his administration to start working on regulations to bring Pennsylvania into a nine-state consortium that sets a price and limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 in Harrisburg, Pa. The move is part of Wolf's effort to fight climate change in the nation's fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools sees Sonney's bill as another attempt of the state to favor school districts, as it would prevent cyber charter schools from being independent from their home districts.

"There's never enough competition," Meyers said, noting she does not see a problem with districts creating their own programs. But if the other two options also are  tied to the school district, she said, it flies in the face students who left their districts for a reason.

More:Lincoln Charter looking to add grades with charter renewal

Sonney's reasons for linking the entities are for greater transparency for the taxpayer —who could then weigh in on decisions in public meetings — and fostering a connection to local communities, he said.

George Fitch, administrator for York City School District's Bearcat Cyber Academy, agreed it would be beneficial for all districts to have their own programs because of the personal connection the district can provide.

"Ultimately, you want to build that relationship with kids," Fitch said.

The district has three options with its cyber program — an at-home option, a blended option where students can also take some classes and eat free and reduced lunches at school and an online-only option at the school's cyber cafe.

Linking districts to charters could also potentially lower costs, as each district would contract with intermediate units, cyber charter schools, higher education institutions, other school districts or educational entities that provide online cyber programs, under its own individual agreements.

Some York County districts, such as York City and Northern York County, already offer programs through area intermediate units.

York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams said he did not want to comment on the bill without further review but noted that a full-time district cyber program — which the district is looking at through a contract with Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12 — would cost an estimated $4,500 to $5,000 a year per student 

"It would be about half the cost for a regular education student," compared  with what the district now pays for annual tuition, he said.

The current charter tuition formula is flawed because it does not charge districts for the actual cost of education for each student. Tuition to both brick and mortar and cyber charter schools is based on each district's enrollment and expenditures, so it varies greatly.

For example, Spring Grove Area School District paid about $1.4 million in charter tuition last year, and West York Area School District paid about $2.7 million — with about $1.19 million allocated to cyber charters.

More:Legislature mulls panel aimed at curbing charter school costs

More:Charter reform proposal must tackle cost inequity, local school officials say

School districts would still have to pay tuition to brick and mortar charters, but cyber charters would be taken out of the equation — which could reduce costs significantly.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials is taking a cautionary stance on the legislation, with assistant executive director Hannah Barrick saying, "I think we definitely have some questions on how it would operate and cost implications."

Representatives from the Pennsylvania State Education Association did not want to comment before reviewing the bill further.

Using cyber programs that are not full schools also calls quality into question, Meyers said, and Sonney agreed, noting he will be working on the bill's language to better define what each program must have to ensure high-quality options.

But including choices beyond full cyber charter schools ensures a fair market value to agreements, Sonney said.

"To me this is a process," he said, noting that he's not just trying to run the bill through the system. There will be a public hearing during the fall session, and it will probably be the first of many, Sonney said.