OP-ED: Money for nothing — but cyber charters aren't free

Richard Robinson
Springettsbury Township
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Remember the 1980s? Ronald Reagan was president, cell phones were the size of walkie-talkies, and the best source of music videos was MTV? If you do, you might recall the song “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. It’s about a hard-working guy who delivers and installs heavy appliances. Seeing a music video playing he decides rock musicians get paid huge sums of money without really working.

With apologies to Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, the same could be said for cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania these days. While public school districts in our state will be facing revenue shortfalls of $1 billion or more as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, charter schools and cyber charter schools will benefit from pandemic relief measures without any drop in revenue.

Can that be right?

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Right or not, it’s happening. Under the recently enacted state budget, charter schools will receive $15 million in state health and safety grants to address COVID-19-related health and safety needs. This is much needed funding for public schools and brick and mortar charter schools that are offering some sort of in-person learning this fall. Here’s the best part. Every individual cyber charter school in Pennsylvania, schools that offer their instruction virtually, stands to receive $90,000 for health and safety needs. Virtual instruction — real money. 

Money for nothing?

It gets better. Under the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, charter schools are entitled to $71 million in emergency, one-time funds to help schools respond to COVID-19 impacts. OK, this makes sense. Brick and mortar charter schools incurred additional costs transitioning to an alternative learning system after school buildings were closed in March. What doesn’t make sense is this: Of the $71 million, $10 million is going to cyber charter schools. This is 14% of the total for schools that are already 100% online and were allegedly engaged in virtual instruction.

As Mark Knopfler sang, “That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it! Get your money for nothing!”

Best of all, at least 26 charter schools, among them cyber charters, were awarded Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling between $24 million and $56 million that may be used for limited purposes such as payroll costs, continuation of health care benefits, interest on mortgage obligations, and rent and utility payments. Given that charter schools are publicly funded schools, the need for these loans should be questioned, especially since charter and cyber schools experienced no loss of revenue due to the pandemic.

Any single form of relief funding for charter and cyber charter schools may be argued as an attempt to ensure schools can safeguard their students, especially if we don’t think about them. Two factors deserve a closer look at why cyber charters are profiting from this pandemic while public schools are scrambling to keep students and teachers safe, healthy and alive.

First, Act 13 of 2020 ensured that charter and cyber charter schools would receive no less funding than they were entitled to as of the date public schools switched to online education. While Act 13 also guaranteed school districts the same level of state funding, local revenues were significantly decreased due to the pandemic. Public school districts depend on local revenues the way you and I depend on oxygen when we feel like breathing.

Second, 90% of charter school funding comes from mandatory tuition payments from school districts. Those tuition payments are based on the expenses of local school districts from the previous school year, so any impact on school district finances due to the pandemic would take years to impact charter schools.

No one is going to make light of the difficult decisions parents of school-age children have had to make. To send children back to school or not has presented millions of parents with a moral dilemma like no other in recent times. Or does it? From the sound of the commercials parents need not fear, Pennsylvania cyber charter schools are here to save the day.

That’s right. When every dollar counts for trying to keep children and teachers safe, cyber charter schools are running television and radio commercials. Some of these ads still include misleading statements about cyber charters being tuition-free. They aren’t and never were. Money for cyber charter schools is siphoned from our local school district budgets. The invoices school districts receive from cyber charter schools clearly and unmistakably reference tuition, as in “fee for service” and not “free education.”

The saddest truth of the matter is these cyber programs aren’t the rock stars of education by any objective measure. It’s time to stop paying them like they are.

— Richard Robinson lives in Springettsbury Township and is a member of the York Suburban School Board.