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More students ditch York County public schools for charters

Nolan Matseur, 6, draws from an online instructional video as the Mount Wolf family have had to juggle homeschooling during the pandemic shutdown. Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

Charter school enrollment is rising in York County — putting financial strain on districts already strapped for cash thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

West York Area Superintendent Todd Davies this month called his district's increase in charter school enrollment "ridiculously high," despite there only being 17 more students than last year.

That's because the cost of charter tuition has traditionally been higher than that of in-house programs — and it's growing exponentially each year. 

With 17 more students, there will be an additional $437,779 leaving the district on top of the nearly $1 million the district is paying for tuition now, Davies said.

When outbreaks of COVID-19 forced schools online this spring, districts began preparing long-term virtual learning models — some opting to create or expand their cyber programs to better compete with charters.

More:CLOSER LOOK: York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

A cyber program — unlike a traditional district virtual model — consists mostly of independent work and typically uses outside teachers and curriculum.

This April 9, 2020, photo released by Kara Illig shows her daughter, Ainslie Illig, 8, on her computer in Ebensburg, Pa. The frustration of parents is mounting as more families across the U.S. enter their second or even third week of total distance learning, and some say it will be their last. (Kara Illig via AP)

Revamped district cyber programs have successfully retained hundreds of students who might have otherwise abandoned public districts amid the pandemic. But despite officials' best efforts, some students are leaving, and it doesn't take many to stress district coffers.

"I share this information knowing this could have a detrimental impact on our budget," said Dallastown Area Superintendent Joshua Doll, when detailing charter enrollment figures at a Sept. 17 board meeting.

Dallastown saw a jump in charter enrollment similar to West York's, with 124 enrolled for the 2020-21 school year, an increase of 28 charter students over last year. In the 2018-19 school year, charter enrollment was at 104.

Each student's tuition at an outside charter or cyber school comes with a hefty price tag.

Dover Area compared per-student costs of $5,535 annually for its own cyber students. That jumps to $11,000 per student for regular education charter tuition. For special education, it would be $26,000 per student for charter tuition.

More:More Pa. parents eyeing cyber charters amid COVID-19

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

In total, if the district’s 230 cyber students were to leave for outside cyber or charter schools, it would cost the district $2.8 million.

"It can be double the average cost," said West York board member Lynn Kohler.

Kohler, who is the district's legislative liaison, said the Legislature was making good headway before the pandemic on charter funding reform at the urging of a resolution signed by 296 public districts, but he fears priorities are now on a state budget.

Though the percentage of students choosing online learning in York County has increased since the summer, the trend does not necessarily include cyber programs.

Students choosing remote learning at Dallastown increased for almost every school, but enrollment at the district-run cyber dipped 1% for several schools.

Data from districts this summer showed families preferred their own district’s curriculum and teachers over outside platforms — even if those platforms came through their district.

More:Data: Vast majority of York County students headed to physical classrooms

In some cases, districts that offered cyber programs without another online option had an advantage because any students who wanted to remain in the district but opt for virtual education had to choose cyber. 

Southern York County falls into that category. Its charter enrollment remained fairly steady since last year, but its own cyber enrollment grew from 36 students in June to 753 students as of Sept. 17.

Cyber charters across the state have seen a huge uptick in enrollment since the spring, however, and part of the reason could be that their prior experience is putting parents at ease.

Those schools are already established, while some districts in York County have had issues getting their cyber programs up and running — leaving students to temporarily enroll in their district's other virtual program or find other options.

York City's cyber academy was scheduled to start Sept. 8, but that district was unable to get any students in until Sept. 17. Now, enrollment is expected to be complete by Monday.

District officials attribute the delay to so many districts nationally using these platforms now. Northern York County schools also had a delay from their cyber platform in getting teachers for all classes so students could enroll.

“That should have taken five days; it ended up taking 14,” said Northern Assistant Superintendent Jason Beals.

More:Cyber charters boom as York County schools try to compete

Parents also had the benefit of seeing what had worked in the past for outside cybers, while some district cyber programs are brand new.

"They had a full presentation and knew exactly what all the curriculum would be," said West York Assistant Superintendent Erin Holman of students attending outside cyber charter orientations.

"We didn’t have anyone who was currently in the (West York) program that they could talk to," she said.