Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
If school districts are up on an idea, cyber-charter school groups are down. If the cyber-charter groups swing skyward, the traditional school boards careen to the ground.
That was the trend at a recent state House Education Committee hearing, where everyone underscored their commitment to children, but no one could agree on how to reform their funding models.
One of the more tense exchanges on proposals that would mean less funding for cyber-charter schools – and slightly more leeway in how they’re overseen – came during a back and forth on the quality of the education provided at the publicly-funded, privately-run schools (cyber-charter schools, unlike their brick-and-mortar charter counterparts, provide mostly online instruction).
Rep. James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia) pressed a cyber-charter school CEO on why she called such schools high quality in her testimony. According to the most recent calculations, none of the state’s cyber-charters met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on statewide exams.
“High quality is not just AYP,” said Joanne Jones Barnett, head of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School. “Have we all met AYP? The answer is no. But the one thing you know about data is data does not give you the story behind the numbers.”
Barnett added that taking students that are behind grade level hurts the schools’ scores, and she noted that other data sets show cyber-charters are improving.
It was one of a few moments indicating a lingering uneasiness or skepticism about cyber-charter schools, despite the fact that they arrived on the scene nearly ten years ago.
Barnett chided lawmakers on the House education panel for holding such schools at arm’s length.
“You haven’t taken the time to get to know us," she said during her testimony. “Less than 10 members of the House [Education] committee have been to visit a cyber-charter school or to have a conversation with a cyber-charter school CEO to see what it really costs to educate our students and what we do.”
Cyber-charter schools receive tuition from their local school districts for every student they enroll. Proposed legislation would allow school districts to deduct parts of the tuition that schools don't theoretically need if they're teaching students by way of online courses. Under the measures discussed Thursday, school districts could shave off costs associated with employee pensions, health services, and buildings. Cyber-charter groups argued they do, in fact, provide health services and pay building costs for things like testing, so the payments they currently receive aren't all for naught.
Traditional school districts voiced their support for the bills, though they still want to tweak two components: one that would make a cyber-charter school's authorization valid for longer and another that would allow such schools to be paid directly by the state Department of Education.
Throughout the debate, the views of school districts seemed to be diametrically opposed to the views of charter and cyber-charter schools.
Rep. Dan Truitt (R-Chester) pointed out that most of the proposed changes fix only those funding inequities that currently favor charter schools, and turn a blind eye to those that favor school districts.
“If we’re not just trying to take money from group of students to another, if we’re trying to be fair, shouldn’t we fix all of the inequities?” asked Truitt. He has proposed legislation to address inequities affecting both groups.
Cyber-charters and school districts differ on what the proposed changes would cost. Barnett urged lawmakers to set the measures aside until they receive a full, impartial analysis of what it takes to educate students in a cyber-charter school model.
Looming over the entire discussion is the issue of how school districts are funded by the state, which numerous lawmakers noted as needing reform. Pennsylvania school districts pay for every charter and cyber-charter school student who would otherwise go to their schools, but student costs vary from district to district because of the way state funding is allocated. What charter and cyber-charter schools receive is based on each district – not on the charter’s per-student costs.
Cyber-charter school groups noted the problem as reason enough to nuke the proposals until lawmakers can overhaul how all education is funded. School district representatives disagreed.
Stuart Knade, head of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said “obvious” tweaks can be made while lawmakers study how to eliminate inequities in public education across school districts.
“Should we hold off on doing some obvious stuff that generates the immediate relief while we look for a grand bargain?” said Knade. “I think that’s a mistake to do that.”
allow them to be paid directly by the state Department of Education
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