Pennsylvania cyber schools are growing - in number of students, in popularity and in cost - but the strain on the budgets of local school districts may become too much if changes aren't made to the system.
Four local school districts spent thousands of dollars on cyber school tuition this past year: South Williamsport Area School District paid $155,000, Loyalsock Township School District spent $160,000, Jersey Shore Area School District spent $427,153 and Williamsport Area School District spent $1.03 million.
That was to educate fewer than 300 students.
And while districts are required to shell out tuition amounts mandated by the state, they have no control over the cyber schools students choose, or the academic and financial standards to which those schools are held accountable. That is because Pennsylvania allows cyber school programs to operate as charter schools.
The rundown on cyber charter schools
Each cyber school in Pennsylvania is organized under a charter obtained in a specific district, but the school may then recruit students from anywhere in the state.
Operating charters are granted to cyber schools - and must be renewed every five years - by the state Department of Education, unlike traditional "brick and mortar" charter schools, which must receive their charter from the school board within their operating district.
The state also determines the per-student cost of tuition, and school districts are required to provide direct funding to the cyber school for each student within the district who enrolls in that school.
Districts paying with no oversight
Cyber school advocates claim that districts save money when students transfer out of public school and into cyber school, but the Pennsylvania School Board Association reports otherwise.
Its website states: "Students of the same age do not leave districts in groups of 20 to attend cyber schools. Therefore, districts are not able to reduce teacher staff, building space and materials. Transportation routes remain unchanged so the number of drivers, buses and fuel costs remain the same. The current funding system for cyber charter schools has only exacerbated the problems with the Commonwealth's share of public education and increasing property taxes."
A study conducted by the PSBA also concluded that "the payment that a school district must make for each of its resident school-age children enrolled in a charter school typically is more than the district spends for the instruction for students in traditional public schools."
In local districts, cyber school tuition accounts for anywhere between less than 1 percent to 2.5 percent of budgets, and the state reimburses up to 30 percent of the cost.
But Jersey Shore Area School District Superintendent Richard Emery said the amount districts are paying for cyber school continues to increase each year, and districts are left scrambling to cover the cost.
In addition, he said, districts cannot choose which cyber schools their students will attend, and the success rate among cyber schools can vary drastically.
"It takes funding out of the local budgets," he said. "The issue I have, as superintendent, is it's taking money out of our budget, and look at the success rate."
AYP success elusive
This year, fewer than half of Pennsylvania cyber schools met the standards set by No Child Left Behind, measured in Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation, PA Cyber, Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School and The PA Leadership Cyber Charter School all made AYP and the only school under warning is 21st Century Cyber Charter School.
Achievement House Cyber Charter School and Commonwealth Connections Academy are both under Corrective Action I, and the following schools are under Corrective Action II: Agora Cyber Charter School (first year), SusQ-Cyber Charter School (second year), PA Distance Learning (first year) and PA Learners Online Regional Cyber Charter School (third year).
Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools notes on its website (www.pacyberfamilies.org) that AYP standards for cyber schools are different than those used to judge districts: "While (cyber) schools have to meet each benchmark to gain AYP status, their traditional counterparts only have to make AYP within one grade width. So if the elementary students are able to meet the standards, but the middle and high school do not, the district as a whole is still able to claim they met AYP. But (cyber) schools have to meet that standard for the entire school and must meet every benchmark."
Attending 'for the wrong reasons'
Some district officials support the idea of innovation and creativity they believe cyber school represents, but representatives from all four local districts admitted that cyber school is not going to work for everyone.
"I think that if kids are looking for something beyond what we offer ... I think cyber schooling is a coming thing," said Thomas Farr, superintendent of South Williamsport Area School District.
"My problem right now is that kids who are going to cyber schools ... are kids who have not been very successful here," he added. "Most of them are not being very successful in cyber schools, any more than they were here, because they went for the wrong reasons."
David Wright, director of student services for Williamsport Area School District, echoed those thoughts.
"The biggest disadvantage (to cyber school) is when a student goes to a virtual environment for the wrong reason ... that is, that they are attempting to avoid some issue within the school that they were attending," Wright said. "In some instances, students who have had attendance problems and so forth choose cyber charter, for whatever reason. They believe it's going to make their lives easier ... and a bad habit assumed before (the student enters) the virtual learning environment doesn't go away once they're in that environment."
Emery said almost no students in the Jersey Shore district have had a positive experience with cyber school.
"What happens often is, these kids enroll in cyber settings, and come back to us, and they have not progressed," he said.
Attempting to compete
Many districts in Intermediate Unit 17, including Williamsport, Jersey Shore and Loyalsock, are attempting to compete with the lure of cyber charter schools through their participation in VLINC, a cyber consortium run by four intermediate units. Jerry Christy, the VLINC point of contact for IU 17, said the program is in its third year of operation. VLINC serves 60 students from IU 17.
"We are a cyber service, not a cyber school," Christy emphasized. "VLINC has no 'students,' per se. All the students remain members of their home district."
The involvement of students in VLINC varies by district: Some districts may only allow students to take one online course, while others may allow students to take a full course load. All students using VLINC still will graduate and receive a diploma from their own district and be allowed access to all school activities and services.
"We provide the school district with a detailed weekly progress report on the student, and we provide, if the school district requests it, technology for the student," Christy said.
The cost per district varies, because districts can choose to offer one course or several courses.
"Because we are a consortium, we're able to offer the districts better prices on the courses," Christy noted.
Sherry Griggs, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for Loyalsock Township School District, said of VLINC: "I think it's the best of both worlds. You're getting what I consider to be the positive aspects of the brick-and-mortar setting as well as the online learning."
Wright said Williamsport students can choose to take anything from an individual class to their entire course load through VLINC.
"We're encouraging students to consider VLINC if they're interested in virtual school or virtual courses," he said. "I don't believe that there are advantages to cyber charter over the virtual environment that can be offered through the district."
South Williamsport, however, has withdrawn from VLINC due to lack of student interest.
"We worked with the IU a couple years ago, and we were a member of VLINC for a year, but it was not worth our while financially, so we're not a member anymore," Farr said. "(Cyber students) don't have to (choose VLINC) ... so for 17 kids, I don't know that that's a significant enough number."
A few regional districts are going even further to compete by offering their own cyber schools. Keystone Central School District has far exceeded its initial goals for its "Virtual Academy," which pulled in 88 full-time student participants and about 50 additional students using the program for specific study needs. Lewisburg Area School District also recently began offering its own cyber school program through the Heartland Coalition, which operates in a way similar to VLINC.
"We can't budget for (cyber school tuition) because we don't know the number, and it keeps growing each year," Emery said. "We're going to continue to look at ways to combat the costs of cyber education. There is a place for cyber education, but the way it's currently being used, I am not in favor of it."
Gerald McLaughlin, business manager for the Loyalsock district, said the district expects to pay out $190,000 to cyber charter schools in the upcoming fiscal year. While the district hasn't had to pull money away from other programs so far, he said, the amount paid to cyber school continues to grow.
"If it continues at this rate, we will have to make some choices in the future," he said.