Some local education officials believe legislation introduced at the state level that amends how cyberschools are funded could significantly curb expenses for public education.
Senate Bill 34, sponsored by state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, and House Bill 526, introduced by state Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie, have local school districts hopeful about the possibility of being able to get out from under the crippling expenses of cyberschool tuition.
The bills, which are similar in essence, were introduced in January and February, respectively. If passed, they would require a family to pay out-of-pocket tuition to attend a cyber charter school if their home district offered a cyber-based program equal in scope and content.
“Depending on its interpretations and implementations, this measure could halt the flow of millions in taxpayer dollars from traditional school districts to cyber charters,” said Southmoreland school board member Gail Rhodes as part of her Pennsylvania School Boards Association liaison report when the board met recently at its regular meeting.
Currently, school districts are mandated to pay tuition to cyber charterschools for district students who opt out of district education and into a statewide cyber charter school. Rising costs in cyber school tuition rates have spurred many districts to develop their own cyber education programs.
“Some school districts, including ours, offer full-time cyber education programs of their own, and when a student participates in such a program, the school district is not forced to pay a cyberschool,” said Rhodes. “This bill would encourage school districts to offer full-time cyber education programs to their students and will encourage students to enroll in these programs, which will ultimately result in districts saving money.”
Rhodes said Southmoreland School District is currently spending $1.2 million on cyber school even though they do offer their own cyber program, called SOLA (Southmoreland Online Learning Academy), which is offered to grades 9-12.
The Albert Gallatin Area School Board at its February meeting passed a resolution supporting the proposed legislation that would amend the Pennsylvania Public School Code.
The resolution posits that cyber charter schools are not accountable to voters and taxpayers, stating that the board is “collectively concerned about the negative effects of diverting to cyber charter schools scarce public dollars urgently needed to strengthen the district’s public schools.”
District Superintendent Chris Pegg said 104 students districtwide are enrolled in a cyber charter program, which costs the district nearly $10,000 per student and upwards of $21,600 if the student requires learning support.
Conversely, Albert Gallatin enrolls 16 students in its high school cyber Colonial Online Learning Academy, or COLA, which costs $5,300 per student to operate.
“Part of this legislation is to encourage a full-time cyber education program offered by school districts. For all the students in the Albert Gallatin Area School District that have elected to go to another cyber charter school, they take the funds from our district to go to these schools,” said Pegg.
Under the proposed legislation, if a student attends the district’s cyber-based program, the parents would incur no expense.
“It would save the district a significant amount of money if those students were to attend our cyber program,” said Pegg. “If (the legislation) passes, tax dollars wouldn’t be diverted to pay for a program that is not operated by our district.”
Peters Township School District in Washington County does not operate an in-house cyber education program, but it currently has 57 students enrolled in external cyber education in grades 3 through 12.
The cost to Peters Township taxpayers for cyber education during the 2017-18 school year was $580,191, according to figured provided by school district spokeswoman Shelly Belcher.
Jefferson-Morgan School District in Greene County has an in-house cyber education program through Intermediate Unit 1, which it has customized as Jefferson-Morgan e-learning Academy, and it also has students enrolled in external cyber education.
Superintendent Joseph Orr compared costs. Last school year, the 27 cyber students in all grades enrolled in an external program cost taxpayers a total of about $330,000, or $12,222 per child.
Five J-M students were enrolled in e-learning academy at a cost of about $2,500 per child, which Orr called “a rough figure.
“There’s a large amount of money that leaves our district for outside cyber distance learning, so it’s a huge concern.”
He has made the Jefferson-Morgan School Board aware of the legislation, but the directors have taken no position as of yet because they haven’t met since Orr issued his legislative update.
The two proposed bills have been referred to the education committees in their respective chambers.
This is the second go-around for Senate Bill 34. Schwank put forth an identical bill to the senate in 2017 that stalled in committee.
Staff writer Barbara S. Miller contributed to this story.