Cyber Proposal Undermines Cherished School Option

JANUARY 29, 2013 | Commentary by PRIYA ABRAHAM

Learning Revolution

Harrisburg fourth-grader Ashley Matunis excels at math, which allows her to learn faster than her classmates. Her 7-year-old sister Anna suffers from Type I diabetes.  Their mother, Sarah, found a way to meet both her daughters' learning needs at Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, which has more than 11,000 students across the state.

With the girls at home, Sarah can keep tabs on her younger daughter's health, while Ashley has the flexibility to take 5th-grade math classes.  "We finally feel like our tax dollars are being used well," Sarah said.

The Matunis girls are just two of some 32,000 students statewide who are thriving at cyber schools.  New legislation unveiled in Harrisburg, however, could do serious damage to cyber schools, hampering their ability to grow and function, ultimately hurting the Matunis family and thousands like them.

Cyber schools were authorized as a type of charter school in 2001, and have seen explosive growth since then.  Families have flocked to them in such high numbers, schools can barely keep pace. Last year, the state department of education authorized four new cyber schools, bringing the total number to 16.

No good deed goes unpunished, however.  School districts and teachers' unions have complained that cyber schools (and all other charter schools) drain money from their budgets, because money follows the child to her new school.

Such criticism implies that parents shouldn't be allowed to use public education dollars at a different public school, even if it is best for their children.  It's an ironic message for legislators to send just as Pennsylvanians celebrate National School Choice Week from Jan. 27 to Feb 2.

Moreover, the complaint about cyber schools draining traditional public schools' funds doesn't hold much water. How much funding follows a student from a traditional public school to a cyber public school is based on the average per-student spending of her resident school district. 

By law, cyber and other charter schools cannot be reimbursed for spending categories such as facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services, community/junior college programs, debt servicing and other items.  As such, it's no surprise that cyber school per-student spending ends up being a fraction of what traditional public schools spend.

In 2010-11, Pennsylvania public schools spent, on average, nearly $14,200 per student. Cyber schools spent 81 percent of that, or $11,500 per student.  In other words, public schools retain funding for students they no longer have to educate. And statewide, cyber schools cost $319 million, or just 1 percent of Pennsylvania's total K-12 education spending.

Yet despite 21 existing deductions for school districts on cyber school payments, the new bills House Republicans unveiled would create more, without regard for how further deductions will impact the quality of education cyber students receive.

The most egregious is a proposal allowing school districts to deduct 50 percent of the cost of any in-house cyber program they offer from the payments they owe independent cyber schools.  Legislators touted the measure as one that that would "spur competition between school districts and cyber charter schools." In reality, the measure would limit competition and effectively take the decision about which cyber program is better out of parents' hands. 

To paraphrase Henry Ford, who famously said customers could have their Model T painted any color "so long as it is black," such a proposal effectively tells parents: "You can have any cyber program you want, so long as it's the school district's." Genuine school choice allows public money to flow freely to the schools parents choose for their children, prompting lagging public schools to improve their performance before getting more tax dollars.

There are certainly long-standing problems in how our public school system is funded, which create funding shortages for growing school districts while overfunding shrinking ones.  However, the scattershot approach at reform led by House Republicans will only harm cyber schools and ultimately limit families' educational choices.

Last year, Hannah Tuffy of Scranton graduated from PA Cyber and became the school's first graduate to study at the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Little girls like Ashley and Anna can follow in her footsteps—but only if we allow cyber schools to grow and thrive.

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Priya Abraham is a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, www.CommonwealthFoundation.org, Pennsylvania's free-market think tank.



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