York County officials support cyber bill, but wary of hidden costs
A cyber charter bill proponents say will bolster accountability and reduce costs for public school districts could also hold significant unknown costs, local officials say.
State House Bill 1897 requires districts to offer their own cyber programs and contract with two third-party vendors to provide alternative options for students. Cyber charters throughout Pennsylvania have struggled for years to meet state standards, and public school districts regularly gripe about costs.
Effectively, the legislation would dissolve any cyber charter not directly linked to a public school district, which the private charter industry has called an attack on school choice.
Eric Wolfgang, a former school board member for Central York, said Tuesday that some provisions in the bill could end up inflating costs for districts.
For example, districts would have to adhere to student-to-teacher ratios, and depending on the need to hire more staff, this could be a "significant unfunded mandate" for the district, he said.
"That eliminates flexibility in student and teacher placements and erodes local control," said Wolfgang, also speaking as president of the Pennsylvania School Board Association.
Wolfgang and Eric Eshbach, superintendent of Northern York County School District, said they were in favor of the bill but that it needs more clarifications, such as what it means to have a “robust selection of course offerings.”
The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools has taken a strong stance against the legislation, labeling it anti-school choice.
Eshbach, also representing the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the bill would not sacrifice school choice, but state Rep. Joshua Kail, R-Monaca, disagreed, saying it would create a monopoly for school districts.
"You don’t think they have the ability to compete?" he said of districts.
"We do compete," Eshbach responded, to which Kail countered, "Then why the need to create the monopoly?"
Eshbach said keeping cyber charters tied to districts resolves issues of funding, accountability and transparency.
"The most urgent need for the reform is in the area is funding," Wolfgang said.
In the 2017-18 school year, districts across the state paid more than $519 million to cyber charter schools. The average district paid more than $1 million in tuition, and 37 districts paid more than $2 million, he said.
Costs have also widely varied — between $8,600 and $21,600 per student for regular education tuition and between $16,700 and $55,700 per student for special education tuition, he said.
At a Jan. 6 meeting, Northeastern school board member William Gingerich said the district paid $202,198 collectively to 11 cyber charters in December alone, according to meeting minutes.
"The commercials say this is free, but it is not," he said. "Our taxpayers are paying this bill."
State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said he's aware of funding and cost concerns, asking, for example, if the district received a huge influx of special education students, would district officials be able to provide for their needs online or would it be a big cost increase?
A speech therapy student could be provided for online, Eshbach said, but one with significant reading or physical disabilities might not, so that would add a significant amount of cost to the program.
But even if costs were not a factor, he said, something would still need to be done about the accountability issue.
None of the state's 15 authorized cyber charter schools earned passing grades during five years in which the state issued school performance profile scores, Wolfgang said.
And all were identified for mandatory support and improvement in the state's new Future Ready Index, he added.
The bill was referred to the state House Education Committee, where it now sits, on Sept. 30.
If it were to pass, Eshbach said, he would recommend the state Department of Education consider providing assistance for some costs, especially upfront costs that could be a challenge for financially-strapped districts.