OP-ED: No more pencils, no more books ... no more schools
The $350 million time bomb is a figure of speech to describe future school funding in Pennsylvania. No cause for alarm. Right now it’s time to finish all the leftovers from Thanksgiving and start thinking about a “Very COVID Christmas” with holiday-themed face masks and hand sanitizer gift sets.
Why not? With each passing day another drug company announces successful clinical trials for a new vaccine that will conquer COVID-19 and end the worldwide pandemic by spring time.
The losses and damage done by COVID-19 will not simply vanish with a vaccination. Months and years from now there are going to be long-lasting consequences and influences on the way we live and work.
This is where the time bomb comes in.
When school districts across Pennsylvania were forced to close in mid-March they had to act fast. Teachers, students and administrators had to adapt all in-person instruction to a remote format for every student, in a matter of weeks. They did.
It ought to come as no surprise that opportunists in charge of private charter and cyber-charter schools acted fast, too. They saw COVID-19 as a miraculous opportunity. Misleading television ads began touting the value of tuition-free, private cyber academies, and showed children smiling at computer screens where a smiling adult at a chalk board illustrated geometric theorems or asked who was the nation’s most prolific president (answer: John Tyler. He fathered 15 children).
Cyber-charter schools were able to play on the fears of concerned parents without even having to mention germs or infections. It worked.
According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials enrollment in cyber charter schools is up by approximately 24,000 students at an estimated cost of $350 million. This is on top of the automatic charter and cyber-charter increases occurring annually for students. All of these funds will be extracted from local school districts that are hard pressed to deal with the growing costs of educating children in the middle of a world health crisis.
Where will this money come from? Without any reform, it will come from us in the form of increased property taxes. Despite what the ads say, charter schools and cyber-charters aren’t tuition or cost free. School districts are required to pay for every student from their districts attending a charter or cyber-charter school. The state Legislature says so.
No doubt some of our pals in Harrisburg believe private charter and cyber-charter schools do a better job of educating students. Except they don’t. On average, cyber charter school proficiency on state assessments are more than 24% lower and their four-year graduation rates are more than 33% lower than school districts.
Wait. Maybe some of our pals in Harrisburg believe private charter and cyber-charter schools educate children at a lower cost. No.
Every time a non-special needs public school student is enrolled in a cyber-charter school the child’s home school district is required to provide tuition of, on average, $13,000 in Pennsylvania. This is money leaving a local school district and leaving a local community. Public school districts can offer an online program, on average, for $4,000 less for the same student. So what is the additional $4,000, a tip? Or do these funds go toward media ads and campaign contributions?
Here’s another fun fact. If local school districts are forced to keep paying for over-priced and under-performing charter and cyber charter programs, they are going to have to cut programs, cut staff, and some may even have to close their doors. The economic devastation of the pandemic has accelerated this slow drift to insolvency across the state.
Maybe we should ask ourselves why our districts should be forced to pay for a private cyber-charter program when our district has one. Currently, well over 90% of school districts in Pennsylvania offer an online learning program for their students and unlike cyber charter schools, public school districts are required to ensure 100% of the teachers in their online programs are state certified.
Maybe we should ask our local legislators if they want hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition payments leaving their community or do they want to keep the money at home? Who do they want teaching the children of their voters: someone in their community or someone in another county or another state? Do they want to have viable public schools in their community? Do they want to see this time bomb go off, or do they want to stop it?