As the Pennsylvania Legislators continue to examine bills related to funding PA’s Public Cyber Charter Schools, many families like ours sit on pins and needles waiting to find out the fate our children’s education. Much of the public likely has little opinion on the matter other than – save us taxpayers money. So it’s not exactly front page newsworthy to the media. But there are some really important things that families who rely on these schools, need you to know. Our children will have no schools to attend should these bills pass.
Cyber Schools do not cost taxpayers any additional money. In fact, it works like this. Only a portion of school taxes that are collected through property tax is passed along to the cyber schools. The tax money you pay now (whether you have a child enrolled or not) is sent to the local district who then takes a portion of that and gives it to a cyber school. That is, if a district student transfers to a cyber school, the school district takes a portion of the per pupil funds it’s collected and pays the cyber school for that one student. No additional tax revenues are collected from the public. Noteworthy is that the districts still keep a good portion of the per student tax revenue. Only a portion is sent to the cyber school who has to supply all that student’s educational needs.
Most, if not all, cyber schools in Pennsylvania are non-profit organizations. They are not for profit. Cybers, like districts, however, purchase curriculum from other companies. These curriculum companies, like Pearson Education Inc., Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and K12 are typically for-profit. Though cybers may have fewer options than districts because of the instruction model, the companies that sell the curriculum are not reflective of the school’s administrative business model. There is little to no difference between a district buying Pearson’s curriculum and a Cyber buying K12’s curriculum.
Cybers are not failing to make AYP (annual yearly progress) any more than many districts are. In fact, it is not feasible to compare districts scores and progress with large multi county cyber schools. A school district is measured on a scale that uses grade spans: 3-5 for elementary schools; 6-8 for middle schools and 9-12 for high schools. Only one of the three grade spans needs to hit the testing targets for a district to make AYP. Cyber schools do not get to span grades. Therefore, all scores are tallied for the cyber and it’s pass or fail – no in between. The other problem is this. Small districts do not have the diverse demographics that larger schools, such as cyber schools have. When a district only has a few students under a certain demographic, they do not have to report those students scores under a performance target. Cybers and large districts inevitably always have enough enrollment that they must report all scores for all demographics. So while District X and Cyber Y may both have low scores for a special education population, only Cyber Y gets it counted against their AYP.
Children do not sit in front of a computer all day. That is a myth. These kids are doing hands on education. Especially at the early elementary level, students are provided with a multitude of books, math manipulatives, art supplies, science tools and more. Until they are older, very little is done on the computer by the student. Rather, the parent uses the computer as a teaching guide. As they get older, students attend live classes in a virtual classroom. Though not in the same room, these children get to know each other through the virtual class. They interact with each other and the teaching staff. These students are required to read novels, write essays and research reports, and do hands on science experiments.
Families who choose cyber schools typically do so as a last resort. Face it. Bringing your child home to learn is a huge commitment. Many have to quit jobs so they can stay home for their child. We are not typical home schoolers. Typical home schoolers don’t want the rigidity of a public education. Cyber schools are public charter schools and must follow all the same laws and more as the local districts. Our children are in cybers for a variety of reasons, but almost all of those reasons point to deficiencies in our local districts. Many of these children have special healthcare needs and/or are academically gifted. These kids were not getting what they needed to be successful in the district program. Many families try with blood, sweat, and tears to work with their local districts before making such an immense decision – to bring their child home.
Passing bills that reduce cyber school funding will ensure that the cyber schools shut down. As you have already read, these are non-profit public schools. They are not money making machines. The proposed bills all point to speculation about how much it “should” cost to provide distance education. There has not been one cost study done, however, to see what the actual costs are. So since they are pulling numbers out of the air, the legislators added verbiage that encourages districts and intermediate units to set up their own cyber schools. If districts do this (some of them already have them – though I have yet to hear if anyone is enrolled because they limit who can enroll), the districts don’t have to pay tuition to another cyber school. Well, at least not most of it. The bills call for massive reduction to cyber school tuition plus a 50% reduction after the massive cuts. No school can survive on less than half tuition. And most families cannot financially afford to pay that 50% tuition. Thousands of Pennsylvania’s children will lose their schools.
If we want to talk about reform, the public needs to know that what is going on in the public education brick and mortar sector, is far from on the up and up. Just in the last month two Pennsylvania Intermediate Units have been caught up in financial scandals. One North East former administrator is going to jail. The other Northwest IU was caught using $11.7 million in funds marked for special education for buying multiple company cars. More recently, another IU administrator is on leave for breaching the Right to Know law. The point is this. If we want reform, it has to be fair and it has to be across the board. Picking on cybers makes little sense when brick and mortar charter tuition costs far more. And what of the corrupt use of funds by the intermediate units? Where is the public outrage there? And when was the last time a full audit was done to the local districts to make sure they weren’t using funds earmarked for instruction as ways to buy the administrative staff a new Lexus? Other districts have been caught cheating on the PSSAs, the tests that determine if they make AYP.
I challenge the legislators to take on the problems that have driven families to chose a cyber school. If you want to shut these schools down, you must first fix the problems that brought us here. Enforce the laws and hold all public schools accountable. Everyone should question why only one type of public school is being attacked. It is nothing more than a money game.
Cyber schools are not for everyone. It takes a very patient and dedicated family team for this model to work. But for some families, cyber schools are our only choice when our children are “left behind” by a lackluster and even sometimes, corrupt district. Please don’t take away our children’s only opportunity for a public education.
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