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Why We Had to Launch

Our Own Online Program  

 

BY LISA ANDREJKO

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning says 40 states have statewide virtual schools or state-led initiatives that enable students to enroll in online courses. Thirty states operate full-time online schools.

When it comes to funding online learning, various approaches are in place. In Arizona, full-time online schools receive 95 percent of the base support level for each enrolled student, according to iNACOL. Colorado funds full-time online schools at a state-determined, per-pupil minimum level for online students. In Ohio, online schools are funded at the same state per-pupil rate as traditional schools, but they do not receive local funding.

No state-sponsored or funded cyber initiative exists in Pennsylvania — only cyber charter schools that rely on students leaving their home school districts to enroll. Pennsylvania funds cyber charters exclusively with tuition payments from the sending districts. It’s something I call a “backpack” funding model, which includes mostly local property taxes plus minimal state funds.

‘Backpack Funding’
Funding to cyber charters varies in Pennsylvania because sending districts pay the receiving charter schools the budgeted total expenditures (state and local) per average daily membership minus the cost of a few programs such as debt service — about 80 percent of the total state and local expenditure per student. Keep in mind, Pennsylvania districts rely heavily on local sources. In total, only about 25 percent on average of K-12 revenue comes from the state. In this respect, Pennsylvania ranks 49th among the 50 states.

In Pennsylvania, there is no relationship to the actual cost of cyber charter education and the money the school receives from school district budgets. Rural schools can send about $6,200 per student in tuition payments to cyber charters. A few schools in the more wealthy suburban areas send as much as $18,000. These figures are for regular education students. For a student receiving special education services (any special education service, from speech therapy to severe learning support, as there is no differentiation based on actual disability), those amounts are doubled. The Quakertown district pays approximately $11,000 per regular education student and $22,000 per special education student in charter tuition, the same for brick-and-mortar or cyber.

The Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General, controlled by the political party opposite to that of the governor and legislature, has issued two special reports outlining the gross misappropriation of taxpayer funds going to cyber charter schools. One report estimated about $365 million annually is overspent on cyber charter funding, the bulk of which goes to hedge-fund favorites, private management companies, resulting in excessive fees and salaries and inefficient spending.

Pennsylvania law does not limit or cap fees paid to management companies, leading to exorbitant profiteering with public education dollars. The sending school districts and the taxpayers cannot see how their money is spent by these private companies. A few cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania have been the subject of numerous accusations and investigations by the FBI for theft, fraud and ethics violations. Yet the governor and legislature are reluctant to reform the legislation and are considering granting more charters to privately run cybers.

Primary Motivation
Finally, are taxpayers getting what they paid for with cyber charters? Quakertown teachers and administrators could see the results of poor instruction among the students returning to our school from the cyber charters. This became a primary reason for our district to start its own online instruction.

Year after year, cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania do not meet adequate yearly progress under the requirements of No Child Left Behind. However, one cyber charter, 21st Century Cyber Charter School, attempts to hold the line on spending while improving results. The school’s governing board consists of superintendents and regional service center directors from a four-county area in southeastern Pennsylvania. One of those superintendents is me!

Lisa Andrejko, president-elect of Urban Superintendents Association of America, is superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District in Quakertown, Pa. E-mail: Landrejko@qcsd.org. Twitter: @SuptLisa

 

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