There is an old joke, with many variations that goes something like this: a foreigner came to visit a friend in America, and they went to watch a Pittsburgh Steelers football game. After the game, his friend asked him how he liked American football, and the foreigner answered said, “Well… it was very exciting, but why was everyone so animated about 25 cents?” His friend replied, “What do you mean?” He answered back, “Everyone kept yelling ‘Get the quarter back! Get the quarter back!’”
As silly as an entire football team running around to get 25 cents, Harrisburg special interest groups frequently do the political equivalent, recently in the case of Pennsylvania’s public cyber schools. Teachers unions, the school board association, and several lawmakers bemoan the amount of money cyber schools are “taking from” school districts. A proposal from the Department of Education would restrict the amount of funding cyber schools receive, based on whichever school (meeting basic standards) spent the least.
Yet the total cost of Pennsylvania’s cyber schools represents less than 1% of the $24 billion taxpayers spent on Pennsylvania’s public schools last year. By comparison, school districts spent 16 times that amount on construction and debt service alone.
More importantly, cyber schools cost significantly less per pupil than district-run schools. While school districts spend over $13,300 per pupil, cyber schools received $8,700, on average, for each student—a difference of nearly $5,000 per pupil. In addition, the state reimburses school districts for 30% of the cost of charter schools (including cyber schools). In other words, school districts keep more than half of their per-pupil costs for each child they no longer educate.
Other charges against cyber schools are equally baseless. Cyber schools’ performances are measured just as other public schools are. Cyber school students must take the state standardized test, and the results are posted online. Like all charter schools—unlike traditional public schools—cyber schools are up for review every few years and can have their charter revoked and be closed down for failure.
Most importantly, cyber schools only receive funding because parents are choosing to send their children to them. The number of parents making that choice continues to grow (nearly 20,000 students are enrolled in cyber schools this year), so cyber schools must be doing something right to keep attracting and retaining more and more students. It is true that cyber schools are not appropriate for all students, but they do provide an alternative to traditional public schools for many students. Cyber schools can serve both struggling and advanced students (and those struggling in one subject yet advanced in another), and often provide students safer and better educational options than their assigned school.
So why are cyber schools being targeted for funding cuts, even while the Rendell administration and many lawmakers claim that school districts don’t get enough funding? Part of the reason is rent-seeking behavior—school boards want to keep taxpayer money in the schools they control, just as the teacher unions wants the funding to remain in unionized schools.
There are also legitimate points made that cyber students get more or less funding based on which school district they live in. But this same discrepancy occurs among school districts—at a larger scale with greater discrepancy. Targeting cyber schools does nothing to address this issue. A standard rate of payment to schools makes a lot of sense, but the proposed reform discriminates against cyber school students and schools.
The current state funding formula protects districts—ensuring they get more funding every year, even if their enrollments decline. Instead, schools should receive funding based on how many students they educate (weighted for low-income and special needs students), as cyber schools do now, not based on political decisions. Education dollars should be used to fund the education of children, not directed to specific buildings or districts.
School districts should follow the model set up by cyber schools and bricks-and-mortar charter schools. Dollars should follow scholars—the funding should follow students to any public school of their choosing. All schools should have to complete the charter and review process and lose their charter if they fail to perform adequately. Only by giving parents choices and greater control of their children’s education—no matter how many billions of quarters taxpayers spend—can Pennsylvania improve its system of education.
Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.