The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 7, 2013

Schools may get windfall: Cyber reform measure would redirect funding to local districts

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — Public school districts may finally get help in their struggle to recapture some of the money that has followed students who choose to enroll in charter schools rather than attend the local bricks-and-mortar school system.

State Rep. James Roebuck Jr., D-Philadelphia, unveiled a comprehensive cyber school funding reform bill Thursday that was largely modeled on recommendations made by Auditor General Jack Wagner in a special report released during the summer.

The projected savings would be four times the amount that Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed to increase in the state’s basic education funding this year.

Pennsylvania, on average, paid more per student enrolled in charter school than any of the others states in the U.S. in the top five in terms of number of students enrolled in charter schools, the auditor general found.

Pennsylvania paid more than $12,000 per student in charter school, according to an analysis by Wagner that was completed last summer.

Pennsylvania pays charter schools the same rate that traditional public schools receive per student, even though charter schools, particularly computer-based schools, do not cost as much to operate.

Wagner recommended setting the rate for bricks-and-mortar charter schools at $10,000 per student and the rate for cyber students at $6,500 per student.

Wagner said the state could redirect as much as $365 million back to the local school districts by doing a better job sorting out how much of the state’s educational dollars should follow students who stay at home to study online or study in a bricks-and-mortar charter school.

Co-sponsors of the Roebuck charter school funding legislation include Reps. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, and Gary Haluska, D-Patton.

More than half of the $365 million in savings would come from limiting the amount that bricks-and-mortar charter schools could charge for tuition.

Reforms to the funding streams used to pay computer-based cyber charter schools, more popular in rural areas, would account for about $105 million and eliminating a loophole that pays charter schools twice for pension costs would save another $50 million a year.

The Conemaugh Township Area School District in Somerset County created its own cyber school, a move district officials estimate saved them about $220,000 a year. The cost per pupil in Conemaugh Township is $8,941.23 and the cost per special education student is $16,573.24.

A key component of the Roebuck legislation is a requirement that at the end of the year, the charter school would reconcile how much it spent to educate students against how much the school received in tuition.

Any extra money would be returned to the local school district.

Roebuck announced his bill days before the House education committee will consider two bills aimed at cyber school funding reform.

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that the organization is optimistic that cyber school funding reform of some kind will be accomplished because of the multiple legislative remedies in play.

Robinson said the school boards association has not specifically targeted any of the legislative remedies as being preferable, though the organization is opposed to a key component in one of the bills, HB 759.

The measure would fund cyber schools directly from the Department of Education, rather than routing the money through the local school district.

The school boards association objects to that because sending the money directly to the cyber school would make it difficult for local schools to oversee the spending and dispute the bills being submitted by the charter schools.

Traditional public school officials believe that there are cases when students, who have never required special services, are being labeled as special needs students by cyber schools because of the additional revenue that follows a student identified as requiring special education accommodation.

Cyber schools can help some families who find that traditional public schools are not working for them, said state Rep. Jarret Gibbons, D-Lawrence.

Lawmakers are just trying to make sure that cyber schools get the money they need to educate their students, while ensuring that funds associated with costs that cyber schools do not have, remain with the traditional public schools, Gibbons said.

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