Online schools’ surpluses criticized

Today’s Patriot News features another article repeating the misinformed and overblown criticism of cyber schools – worrying about the 0.8% of school district spending that goes to educate students at public cyber schools.

As usual the critics fail to put this in the context of school districts’ spending. The article highlights payments from Lebanon, Middletown, and Lower Dauphin for cyber students, but ignores that cyber schools educate these students at a fraction of the cost. In 2005-06 Lebanon spent $9,400, Middletown $12,300, and Lower Dauphin $10,600 for each student in district schools, but they only gave $7,000, $8,000, and $7,200 for each cyber student, respectively. Thus, cyber schools benefit districts by increasing per-pupil spending, as they educate students for less. (Here are some charts showing the discrepancy statewide).

The critics also target cyber schools “excessive fund balances.” Cyber schools are exempted from state limits on fund balances because of (1) dramatic enrollment growth and (2) school districts are typically late in payment for cyber students, forcing schools to dip into their reserves. In fact Tim Allwein of PSBA even admits as much:

Tim Allwein of the Pennsylvania School Board Association said districts sometimes refuse to pay for what they see as a flawed system. Others might withhold money because they question the residency of students they’re billed for, he said.

The Commonwealth Foundation found that 37% of school districts also carry excessive fund balances (PDE Excel file)—in violation of state law. School boards in glass buildings shouldn’t throw rocks.

Furthermore, the accusation that public cyber schools get “more than they need” is absurd. While the article points out that the cyber funding formula excludes “some costs such as transportation,” it should have mentioned that the formula excludes many other items, including facilities.

Consider, for instance, Michael Race, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, who seems either ignorant or a puppet of the PSBA and teacher’s unions:

“If you don’t have a brick-and-mortar facility, you’re not incurring some of the costs that a traditional school has,” Race said. “There’s an unnecessary expenditure for taxpayer

Cyber schools get no funding for construction, debt, or facility operations—thus making accusations against cyber school funding very deceptive. In fact, cyber schools only receive about 80% of what school districts spend on instructional and support services.

Finally, the real problem is not that cyber schools get “too much” but that school districts spend too much. Cyber schools only get a fraction of what school districts spend, for a child the district no longer has to educate. And as our report Edifice Complex shows, school districts tend to overemphasize spending on new buildings – construction spending increased much faster than instructional, and school districts that spend more also spend a higher percentage on construction.