July 14, 2008

Districts Spend More on Cyber Schools As Enrollment Grows

By Erin Moody, The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Jul. 14--Tenth-grader Qiuandra Taylor of Plymouth gets to chew gum in class, but she doesn't show off her brown-and-tan plaid backpack covered with pockets.

Sometimes school starts at noon, and sometimes it starts at 2 p.m.

She doesn't have to wait in long lines for lunch like her former classmates do at Wyoming Valley West High School, because the kitchen is about 10 feet away.

Taylor is one of the increasing number of Luzerne County students attending a cyber charter school, and she prefers it to traditional brick-and-mortar public school.

"At the public school, there were a bunch of kids, but they weren't there for learning but for the social scene," she said.

The number of students choosing to attend cyber charter schools is climbing, thrilling the cyber schools and frustrating school districts paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition.

Between 2000 and 2007, school districts in Luzerne County spent almost $6 million on cyber charter school tuitions, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

During 2006-07, the most recent data available, $2,359,881 was paid by districts to cyber charter schools for the tuition of 302 students. That is up from 83 students and $474,306 in 2003-04.

Districts pay charter schools the same amount it costs to educate a student in the district, but are reimbursed by the state for about 30 percent of the tuition costs. Tuition for special needs students is approximately double the regular cost.

The cyber charter schools argue they are providing more education with less money and have to pay for buildings out of their own savings, unlike schools which can apply for grants from the state in many cases.

"Sure, everybody would like to have more money," but they are operating within the operating restraints given, said Tim Daniels, executive director of Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools. "It's like blaming a thrifty family for having a large fund balance. When I'm dealing with public money and still manage to have a fund balance, I call that good management."

On the other hand, districts say they lose thousands of dollars per student, but still have to pay the same amount of teachers and maintain the same amount of buildings and programs.

"The cyber charter schools, they are just exploding," said Ross Scarantino, Pittston Area School District superintendent. "It's to a point now where we spent $253,000 (last year). When you look at the numbers, approximately 35 students, paying that amount of money is a lot."

Three districts in the county, Hazleton Area, Wilkes-Barre Area and Wyoming Valley West, could find themselves paying more than $1 million within a few years if their cyber charter school enrollments continue to increase at the current rates. Wilkes-Barre Area actually has budgeted more than $1 million for the 2008-09 school year.

Taylor's mother, Qiuana Taylor, loves the control the cyber school gives her over not only what her children learn and how they are performing, but also with who they interact. It's not for everyone, and even though it's difficult for some districts trying to juggle with increasing tuition, it'll lead to better education all around.

"I think it'll work out," she said. "They may be losing money, but it'll even itself out in the end. Maybe that'll get the parents more active in their schools."

Daniels said all schools, regardless of their setup, should be focusing on providing the best education at the best price. Districts should look at why students are leaving for the cyber schools if the numbers are concerning.

"We're not going to get anything by sending more money to the same systems with a 80-percent graduation rate," he said.

Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Jeff Namey wants to know why a cyber school needs so much money when students don't even have to leave their homes, an issue state representatives are considering in HB 2479. The bill would set a state standard for cyber tuition every year and limits on fund balances. The bill was sent back to the Rules Committee on Friday.

"My concern right now is the cyber schools," Namey said. "It certainly costs more to educate a child in a school than on a computer."

Regardless of the financial concerns of the schools involved, free public cyber education is paying off for students like Qiuandra Taylor who prefer it. The 2007-08 term might have been her final year in the Pennsylvania Leadership Cyber Charter School; she's planning a switch that will actually save Wyoming Valley West, her home school district, an extra tuition payment.

She has been accepted to Wyoming Seminary Upper School and sees it as a step up. In terms of educational quality, it's public school, charter school and then private school, she said, and this route up the ladder will hopefully take her to Princeton University to study economics or medicine.

[email protected], 570-821-2051


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