The Truth About Cyber Schools

An increasing number of parents are choosing Pennsylvania’s public cyber charter schools for their children every year—enrollment grew from 1,848 to almost 16,000 students between 2001 and 2006. Cyber schools provide Internet access, computers, and instructional materials for students, allowing children to remain at home under parental supervision.

It is not surprising that cyber schools serve students from poor-performing school districts, or that a disproportionate number of their students are from low-income families. These are the families who want and need educational opportunities the most. What is surprising is that cyber schools recently met 46 out of 50 of the state’s academic criteria for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). And this success with the hardest to educate students was achieved while receiving only 73% of what school districts spend per-pupil.

Despite their academic performance and their popularity among parents, cyber schools have come under increasing attack from traditional public school boards and some lawmakers. Legislation introduced by Rep. Karen Beyer (House Bill 446) and Rep. Greg Vitali (House Bill 1655) would limit cyber schools’ independence and drastically reduce funding for students. These pieces of legislation are in response to claims that cyber schools are unaccountable and that they take too much money from traditional public school districts.

The facts, however, do not support the charges. Cyber schools receive a fraction of what districts spend per-pupil, but are able to use their resources more efficiently than traditional public schools. Cyber schools receive an average of $8,371 per-pupil, while traditional public schools spend an average of $11,485 per-pupil. Comparing just operational costs, cyber schools receive far less funding—spending only 80% of what school districts do on instruction and student services.

School districts complaining about the losses of funding fail to mention that districts receive reimbursements from the state equal to 25 to 30% of what they spend for cyber students. Thus, school districts keep almost 50% of their per-pupil funding for a child they no longer have to educate. This helps school districts reduce overcrowding, mitigate the need for new construction, and lower class sizes, while resulting in an increase in per-pupil spending.

Furthermore, despite fallacious claims to the contrary, cyber schools complete every accountability and performance measure that traditional school district schools do, and more. In addition to the requirements for school districts, cyber schools must renew their charters periodically, and underperforming schools can lose their charter to operate.

Cyber students are evaluated by PSSA tests and the statewide AYP targets—just like all other public school students. In the 2005-2006 school year, Pennsylvania’s cyber schools collectively met 46 of 50 academic AYP targets.

Cyber schools typically serve students from districts with low academic performance and low-income populations—about 43% of all cyber students are low-income compared to 34% in all public school districts. Consider, for instance, how cyber schools assist students from Pittsburgh—one of the state’s largest and worst performing districts. Cyber schools serve about 500 of the 33,600 students from Pittsburgh; this is not surprising considering that 33 of the district’s 80 schools failed to meet AYP in the 2005-2006 school year.

The ultimate test for cyber schools, however, is choice. If parents are not pleased with the school’s results, they can choose another or even return to their assigned district school. If public school officials are interested in providing a topnotch education for all students, they should levy their demands on themselves.

Comprehensive education reform should include three steps to help schools better focus on instruction, better handle individual students’ needs, and rely on greater parental involvement.

First, public schools should receive funding based on parents’ choices. This system would allow funding to follow the child, so that students, not school buildings, benefit. Second, public schools should also be forced to operate like a charter school, and should lose their charters when they continue to under-perform. This accountability would encourage top performance from teachers and administrators. Finally, public schools should have to compete for students among both traditional and public cyber schools. Competition within the school system will create efficiencies and will force schools to better meet the needs of students and parents.

Cyber schools currently provide educational offerings to thousands of Pennsylvania students. That the traditional school districts view this competition as a threat is both troubling and telling. The truth is that children benefit when parents have choices and schools compete.

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Jessica Runk is a research intern and Nathan Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.