Cyber Charter Reform: Get the Facts
You've see them, those slick ads offering "free online education" using computers handed out "at no cost"; but did you ever stop to wonder who is paying for those services (and those expensive ads)? The fact is, you are paying those costs - and at the expense of the local school district you thought your tax dollars were supporting. Once hailed as “school choice,” the reality is, cyber charter schools have actually done little to strengthen education or offer effective programs and services. What cyber charter schools are very good at, however, is siphoning money from public dollars from locally-accountable public schools.
Derry Township School District is one of nearly 400 Pennsylvania school districts urging Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature to support charter school reform. In February 2021, PA Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a bipartisan Charter School Accountability plan to protect students and taxpayers. The plan would hold low-performing charter schools accountable to improve educational quality and protect $229 million a year in tax dollars. The act would increase transparency of for-profit companies that operate charter schools in Pennsylvania.
Why is Cyber Charter School Reform So
Desperately Needed in the Commonwealth?
In 2018-19, total charter school tuition payments (cyber and brick-and-mortar) were more than $2.0 billion. To put that into perspective, that would pay the average salary of 29,700 teachers and is more than 3 times what school districts spent on providing students with career and technical education programs. Nearly $606 million of that total was tuition to cyber charter schools, which is $112 million more than what school districts spent on all student activities such as athletics and extra curriculars.
Tuition costs paid to charter schools divert money from DTSD's operating budget, which eventually leads to increases in property taxes. DTSD is projected to spend $1.4 million in local taxpayer money to pay for 102 students to attend cyber charter schools during the 2020-21 school year.
That money could be better spent at DTSD for needs such as:
- Counselors for Social Emotional Learning and student support.
- Completing needed maintenance and repairs
Excessive Tuition Rates
The cost of charter schools for school districts continue to grow. Since 2007-08, charter school tuition costs have grown by more than $1.4 billion, or 229.4% while charter school enrollments have only increased 112.9%.
The majority of DTSD charter school students attend cyber programs where tuition payments are used to fund administrative costs. These costs are double to triple the amount of per-pupil costs for administrator salaries and benefits when compared to those costs within our district. The tuition paid by public school districts to charter schools for special education students is a flat-rate based on the district’s per-pupil budgeted expenditure for special education students, rather than the actual cost of providing those services to students with special needs. Charter schools receive as much as $40,000 per student, yet the actual cost of special education services provided by charter schools is estimated to only be between $5,000 to $10,000 per student. This creates a surplus in taxpayer funding that charters are not required to return or even report.
Lack of Transparency and Fiscal Responsibility
Unlike public school districts which have locally-elected boards providing local control, charter schools do not answer directly to taxpayers, resulting in less oversight. One outcome of this has been the accumulation of significant budget surpluses, which are then often spent on advertising and board of director expenses, rather than benefiting students.
In 2020, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School had a total fund balance of more than $107 million. That's about $30 million more than DTSD's total annual operating budget.
Poor Academic performance
When looking at any measure of academic performance, charter schools consistently score lower than traditional school districts. The difference is even more apparent when comparing "brick and mortar" school districts to cyber charter schools.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Future Ready PA Index:
- 3rd grade English language proficiency was 22.3% lower in cyber charter schools than traditional school districts.
- 7th grade Math proficiency was 25.3% lower in cyber charter schools than traditional school districts.
Research indicates that a student’s success on these measures factor heavily in the student’s future educational success.
School districts are required by law to make a tuition payment to a charter school or cyber charter school for every student residing in the school district, who enrolls in the charter school or cyber charter school. In 2018-19, nearly 90% of charter school funding (from state, local and federal sources) came from mandatory tuition payments from local school districts.
Unlike public schools, which are overseen by a locally elected boards, the state's cyber charter schools are governed by privately managed boards of trustees who may set their own rules of operation. Charter trustees may have little or no connection to or accountability to the taxpayers in their students ''home" communities. Some charter schools are managed by employees appointed by the board of trustees. However, many cyber charter school boards outsource all aspects of charter school’s operations and management to for-profit firms.