The funding of cyber education programs is something that Mark Leidy, superintendent of Mechanicsburg Area School District, has seen as problematic.
Leidy encouraged parents at a recent PTO meeting to write to their legislator to ask for reform of cyber education funding. Cyber education funding, he said, impacts the funding of public schools — in particular, Mechanicsburg Area School District.
“Inevitably, individuals want to know what they can do once they hear the facts, and my answer has been for them to contact our local legislators, who have been supportive of reform,” he said.
This encouragement was to raise the awareness of the impact that cyber school funding has on public schools, Leidy said. Districts have to pay a tuition cost for each student who attends a cyber-school, and he said that the school district currently has $1.2 million budgeted for that sole purpose. With such costs, the district has had to eliminate numerous programs and other aspects throughout the school. After-school programs, extracurricular activities and more than 20 staff positions are some of things that had to be cut, Leidy said.
Timothy Eller, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, explained state law mandates that school districts pay the cyber charter school tuition for a student who resides in that district.
“There is no average, per se,” he said. “Each school district pays a different tuition rate for regular education and special education.”
The laws, according to Leidy, are out of date.
“The original charter school legislation was written prior to the feasibility of cyber-education,” he said.
Currently, there are 120 students in cyber education programs outside of the Mechanicsburg school district, a number that changes almost daily, according to Leidy. The district, however, has its own cyber-education for students interested in full-time cyber opportunities. Last year, Leidy said there were three students in the program – this year, there are 20. Using the district’s program, or opting to use a program from outside of the district, determines the effect on taxpayers.
“The mixed message for school districts is hard to understand,” Leidy said. “In one respect, we are told, and we accept, that we are accountable for the education and achievement of our students. Yet, if our expectations or standards are met with resistance, individual families can elect to go to another school at a significant cost to our taxpayers. If the issue is one of choice, and families need to exercise an option for their child to receive classes online, then our district provides this opportunity at half the cost of what outside providers charge.”
Leidy said the district continues to “struggle philosophically” with the program, but he said the district was in an economic situation that required it to consider offering the option. That program offers the same services as other cyber-education programs, but at half the cost.
“Educationally and socially, we believe most students benefit from being in a classroom with peers,” Leidy said. “However, if a family feels cyber-education is the right choice for the education of their child, then why should taxpayers in Mechanicsburg Area School District be required to pay twice what an outside provider charges for the same type of program?”
Leidy is not the only one that sees flaws in the current system.
Maurice Flurie, chief executive officer of Commonwealth Connections Academy Charter School, described the process of districts paying cyber-charter schools as “an odd marriage.” Districts must submit a PA 363 form, which determines the rate that each district pays for students from their district attending cyber-chart programs outside of the district. Should a district pay $10,000, Flurie estimated that the Commonwealth Connections Academy would get anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of that amount.
The formula, according to Flurie, is not only complicated. It also has its faults.
Along with the formula for determining a rate for normal education, Flurie also said there is another formula that determines the rate for special education. Regardless of the rate, he noted that each district inevitably pays a different amount. The formula also does not account for financial difficulties a district may be experiencing.
For Flurie’s school’s budget, it is solely dependent on enrollment. Should he only enroll 4,000 students instead of an anticipated 8,000, he said that his budget would be “essentially halved.” As a result, he said the school’s yearly budget is more difficult to determine as opposed to a public school district’s.
Formerly an assistant superintendent at Lower Dauphin School District, Flurie said he can understand the outcry against the current trends for funding.
“The funding formula is not really equitable,” he said.
Leidy and Flurie said that reform was needed in the issue of cyber-education funding. Leidy called for “a better funding formula,” along with a sense of accountability “for the education these children are receiving through this form of education.”
Flurie agreed, but also welcomed increased oversight on cyber-education funding. In other states, the Department of Education would pay cyber-charter schools – in Pennsylvania, cyber-charter schools have to bill the districts, he said. As a result, he welcomed the idea of having individuals from the Department of Education, members from higher education and even legislation in an attempt to reform the current system. He also said he wants to work with school districts to continue to provide opportunities to students.
Flurie added that he’d also like to make sure a reformed formula was equitable and included direct oversight over cyber schools to ensure they provide a quality education to students.
“I hope eventually, this grows to a point to where we can work together and share resources together,” Flurie said.