HARRISBURG -—A Philadelphia lawmaker wants to shift cyber school financing from school districts to the state.
State Rep. James Roebuck, Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, introduced a bill on Monday that would make reforms to charter and cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. It would relieve school districts of $187 million in mandated costs for cyber schools. School districts have been paying cyber school tuition and only receiving partial reimbursement from the state.
“This comprehensive bill would improve oversight and accountability for charter public schools — both traditional and cyber — and relieve school districts of $187 million in mandated costs for cyber schools by having the state fund those costs,” Roebuck said in a written statement. “This is a more fair way to fund these schools than increased reliance on local property taxes. The bill includes several provisions also found in reform bills introduced by Republican members of the House and Senate, and I believe we can work together to achieve significant reforms for students and taxpayers.”
There are nearly 50,000 students attending 135 charter schools and 12 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. More than half of all charter schools are located in the Philadelphia School District.
“I fully expect the number of charter and cyber charter schools will continue to increase,” Roebuck said. “I welcome their contributions to our public school system.”
He would also create a flat per-pupil tuition rate rather than the current model, under which tuition varies based on the per-pupil cost in the district.
Somerset Area School District Superintendent Krista Mathias said she thinks the bill is a good one.
“Any legislation making cyber charter schools equally accountable for student performance as public schools is a step in the right direction,” she said. “It stands to reason that all schools receiving state support should be held to equal standards. In addition, any relief from the mandate that local taxpayers pay cyber charter school tuition when they are already paying for public school education is something I wholeheartedly support.”
Thomas McInroy, superintendent of the Shanksville-Stonycreek School District, said he supports the Roebuck bill because there has been a need for charter and cyber charter schools to have the same level of accountability as traditional brick and mortar school districts. The Department of Education’s website has a listing of all school districts, charter and cyber charter schools. Of the 12 cyber charter school districts, only two made adequate yearly progress. The others were in various forms of corrective action.
“Any time public money is used to fund education, all rules and regulations should be applied equally in accordance with the Pennsylvania Constitution,” he said. “Most importantly, (when) people see an advertisement for ‘free tuition’ to a cyber charter school, they need to realize their local school is picking up the cost and it really isn’t free. Local school districts pay the tuition for cyber charter schools. Cyber charter and charter schools take local taxpayer money away from the local school district.”
Fred Miller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, does not endorse the Roebuck bill.
“PA Cyber supports charter school reform legislation proposed by Sen. (Jeffrey) Piccola (SB 904) and Rep. (Thomas) Killion (HB 1348) which would reform funding for charter and cyber charter schools with direct payment of tuition through the state, improve financial transparency and accountability, strengthen ethical standards, provide better state oversight through creation of a charter school commission, and increase the number of quality charter schools in Pennsylvania to make this option more available for the 30,000 students currently on waiting lists,” he wrote in an email statement. “PA Cyber does support in broad terms the concept of direct tuition payment from the state to the cyber charter schools, but endorses the approach suggested by Piccola and Killion, not Roebuck. Cyber charter schools currently are providing a quality education for Pennsylvania students at a rate of about 70 cents on the dollar, compared to school district costs, providing value for taxpayer dollars. Cyber schools are part of the solution.”
The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School does not support the Roebuck bill because of a number of proposed changes that are impractical for cyber schools (truancy enforcement, fund balance limitations), discriminatory (reducing special education dollars) or contrary to the spirit of school innovation and reform (mandating a statewide minimum school age).
“Rep. Roebuck has been a true champion for early childhood education, but his bill could kill the cyber school age-4 kindergarten that has been supported by PDE and upheld in a unanimous decision by Commonwealth Court justices,” he said.