The Who, What, Why, How of PAs Cyber Schools

New report addresses myths and facts about online learning

HARRISBURG, PA — Today, the Commonwealth Foundation released A Primer on Pennsylvania’s Cyber Schools, a policy brief which answers the many of the questions about Pennsylvania’s public cyber schools, as well as separating the myths from the facts about online learning.

“There has been an ongoing debate among state lawmakers about how to fund cyber schools, but much of that controversy has been fueled by misinformation,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation. “Critics allege that cyber school students are too well funded, take too much funding away from school districts and drive up property taxes, and are not held accountable. Our primer dispels many of these myths.”

Cyber school enrollment in Pennsylvania increased from 1,852 in 2001-02 to 15,865 in 2006-07—an increase of nearly 760% over five years. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) estimates that 20,000 cyber students are enrolled for the 2007-08 school year.

School district officials complain that cyber schools receive more funding than they need, since they do not need classroom facilities. Yet the report’s authors, Nathan Benefield and Jessica Runk, note that cyber schools already receive no funding for facilities, debt, or transportation. Cyber schools receive a fraction of what districts spend per pupil, spending only about 73%, on average, what traditional district schools spend per pupil.

Critics of cyber schools also claim that they are draining public resources and driving up property taxes. Yet cyber school spending represents less than one half of one percent (0.46%) of the $22 billion spent on public schools in the 2005-06 school year. Benefield and Runk estimate that because cyber schools spend $3,000 less per pupil than school districts, cyber schools saved taxpayers over $32 million in the 2005-06 school year.

“The benefits of cyber charter schools are frequently overlooked by traditional school districts. When parents choose to place their children into lower costing cyber schools, they are not only reducing the tax burden on homeowners, but they are helping to alleviate over-crowding and the need for new school construction,” said Brouillette. “Cyber schools also help to reduce class size and essentially increase per-pupil spending in district schools.”

Another cyber school myth is that these schools are not accountable. Yet Benefield and Runk write, “Cyber schools must meet every accountability and reporting measure as traditional public schools do—and more. All students are required to participate in Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and No Child Left Behind testing.” Examining the results posted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on, Benefield and Runk found that cyber schools collectively met 64 of the 78 academic standards for Adequate Yearly Progress the 2006-07 school year

The Commonwealth Foundation report also notes that cyber schools students are frequently those who struggled in district-run schools. Benefield and Runk note that 43% of cyber students came from low-income families, special education students accounted for about 11% of cyber school enrollment, and 30% of cyber school students came from districts failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Cyber school students also come disproportionately from districts with low graduation rates, low SAT verbal score averages, and low average PSSA reading and math scores.

Benefield and Runk conclude, “Instead of trying to target cyber schools and reduce their funding, school reformers should apply the principles and accountability measures that guide cyber and other charter schools,” including parental choice, funding that follows the student, performance contracts or charters for all schools, and sanctions for schools that fail to provide an adequate education.

# # #

Editors Note: The full policy brief, A Primer on Pennsylvania’s Cyber Schools, is available here (PDF file available here).

The Commonwealth Foundation ( is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.

– 30 –