Paying for students in Pennsylvania to attend public cyber charter schools has become increasingly expensive for school districts as more students have chosen to attend those schools.
State policy requires that Pennsylvania districts fund a student’s enrollment in a cyber charter school. The state reimburses districts for a portion of those costs, typically 30 percent of the costs for students receiving traditional services.
Business Manager Eric Holtzman of the Tuscarora school system said that each regular education student who enrolls in a cyber charter school costs the district about $6,668, and special education students can cost around $14,000.
Mr. Holtzman said the total cost paid out by 2,700-student Tuscarora district, situated in Mercersburg about an hour southwest of Harrisburg, for cyber charter school students during the 2004-05 school year was $108,000. This year, the cost is expected to be around $475,000, with roughly 60 students enrolled in six cyber charter schools.
Mr. Holtzman said that although districts have the expense of paying for a child’s cyber schooling, they can’t reduce costs based on enrollment reductions at district schools because most cyber charter enrollees are scattered among grade levels and schools, making it difficult to cut teacher positions or other budget items based on enrollment drops.
“I reduce my class sizes by five or 10 kids, but I can’t really reduce my expenses. That’s the problem,” Mr. Holtzman said.
The 8,700-student Chambersburg Area School District, roughly 15 miles northeast of Mercersburg, has seen a similar spike in the number of students enrolling in cyber schools and the associated costs. During the 2004-05 school year, 42 students were enrolled in cyber charter schools at some point during the school year. Five years later, the number had increased to 241 students, costing almost $1.5 million before state reimbursement.
Tuscarora Superintendent Rebecca Erb said one year of paying for the district’s cyber school students is equivalent to what a year of debt service will cost on the $17 million renovation project at James Buchanan High School.
The Cyber Choice
One-third of Tuscarora’s cyber students currently attend the Pennsylvania Cyber School, one of the largest in the state, with an enrollment of around 9,000.
Statewide, about 27,000 students are enrolled in 11 cyber charter schools, which Fred Miller, the communications coordinator for the Pennsylvania Cyber School, noted is about 1 percent to 2 percent of the entire student population of the state.
Mr. Miller said that families who choose to enroll their children in a cyber charter school usually fall into one of three categories.
Some families that come from smaller districts with fewer elective course offerings will sometimes choose a cyber school because they offer a broader range of classes.
Others will choose a cyber school because it provides scheduling flexibility, with some classes being self-paced while others meet regularly online for instruction.
Lastly, Mr. Miller said, some students will leave traditional schools for an online setting because they felt bullied at the brick-and-mortar schools or simply felt as if they didn’t fit in.
Mr. Miller cited 17-year-old singer Aaron Kelly, who was a contestant on “American Idol” while also attending the Pennsylvania Cyber School last spring, as an example of why students and parents like the flexibility of a virtual school.
Much like individual school districts, cyber charter schools are held to the same standards academically, with students required to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams each year. With 9,000 students and no tangible school buildings, Mr. Miller said that alone is an interesting challenge. The cyber school sets up 30 testing sites across the state and encourages parents to bring their children to the sites for the exams. The school exceeded the 95 percent participation threshold for the exams, which is required by the state.
However, the state told the school this summer that it must better align its curriculum with state standards by March or run the risk of having its new five-year charter revoked. The school received its new charter from the state in June contingent upon submitting new curriculum guidelines across nearly all subject areas.
Meanwhile, to meet the demand of students who want more variety and flexibility, school districts are starting to develop their own cyber programs.
Ms. Erb said 12 to 18 Tuscarora students are currently enrolled in a blended model that combines in-class instruction with online learning. The program has allowed the district to expand its foreign-language offerings; students are now learning how to speak Russian, Mandarin, and Japanese.
“We continue to seek ways in the district to add value to our programs, so there’s flexibility for all students,” Ms. Erb said. “I see more people choosing the flexibility of a virtual school.”
The Chambersburg district has also developed an e-learning program. Last year, 20 teachers at the high school were developing methods for their classes to be taught online and in the classroom.
Chemistry teacher Sean Wible has been teaching a summer class for the past two years in which instruction is given using web cameras, and office hours are offered once a week.
The district’s goal is to have every student experience a class that is taught online and in person before graduation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition of Education Week as Pa. Districts Pay for Growing Use of Cyber Schools