Image courtesy of Sto-Rox School District
Brian Worst, Sto-Rox technology director and Erica Taylor, the Sto-Rox central registrar/guidance secretary distribute iPads to cyber students enrolled in the Virtual Viking program.
By Elizabeth Perry
To stem the flow of district funds following students who chose to attend cyber charter schools, districts like Sto-Rox, Montour and Carlynton have begun offering their own cyber options.
Every school district pays charters a different rate. The tuition amount is based entirely upon the school district’s costs, not a charter school’s cost. As a result, there are 500 charter school tuition rates—one for each school district in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t have a problem with school choice, but I have a problem with how it’s funded currently,” Cornell Business Manager Patrick Berdine said. “I can’t see justification with what they charge.”
Locally, we can see these disparities play out.
Paul Sroka, business manager at Sto-Rox School District, said cyber charters are paid $10,192 for regular student curriculum and special education is paid $26,219.
The Carlynton School District, which includes Carnegie, Crafton and Rosslyn Farms, pays $14,048 for regular education and $31,752 for special education, according to Keith Bielby, director of finances.
The Montour School District pays $16,235 for non-special education and for special education pays out $36,951 according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education data.
Cornell School District pays $18,000 for regular education and upwards of $35,000 for special education according to Berdine.
“We are approaching about $772,000 out of our budget for cyber charters and charters,” Berdine said.
That represents 4.5% of the district’s budget. In a three-month period, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School charged the district $87,000 to educate 15 students; of which four were considered special education. The district does not have a say in determining which children qualify for special education, and many of the students have never attended Cornell in person, Berdine said.
Since the pandemic, cyber schools have become more common and their flexibility makes sense for many students.
Sto-Rox School District Superintendent Megan Van Fossan said when she worked at the Slippery Rock Area School District, there was a gifted student who used the cyber school option because her mother was battling cancer, and it was safer for her mom to have her daughter at home so she didn’t bring any germs home.
“It's something very helpful to families,” Van Fossan said.
In-house Cyber School
Sto-Rox launched its Virtual Viking Cyber Academy during the summer of 2020 and the height of the pandemic. Two years later, this addition was factored into a sweeping financial recovery plan adopted by the district.
Districts are able to offer in-house cyber options at a greatly reduced cost in comparison to cyber charters.
In Sto-Rox's case, that's half of what the district would pay to send a student to another cyber charter option.
To go through the Virtual Viking Program which is handled by Allegheny Intermediate Unit, or AIU, cost per pupil price from a kindergarten through fifth-grade curriculum is $4,580 per pupil and sixth through twelfth is $5,080. Montour also uses AIU for their cyber school offering.
Van Fossan said one of the significant benefits of attending the Virtual Viking Program for students is that they would be a Sto-Rox High School graduate after the completion of their diploma. Carlynton School District also offers this benefit to cyber students enrolled in their district’s program. Carlynton cyber students are allowed to participate in sports, clubs, homecoming and prom. Unlike a cyber-charter, if they complete courses, they’re able to walk the stage and get their diploma. Students are also subject to follow-up from their teachers.
“Kids don't want to disappoint the people they know,” Van Fossan said, adding that children don’t have the same sense of accountability to someone teaching remotely from Harrisburg.
“When I see kids successful at cyber-school, I see an adult nipping at their heels,” she said.
Students are subject to strict monitoring of their assignment completion, they face clear expectations through the Virtual Viking Program, and if they haven’t logged on by week three, they have to return to public school.
“We don’t want students to dig themselves into such a big hole they can’t get out,” Van Fossan said.
Cyber charter schools are not held accountable for student outcomes the way public school districts are, as funding isn’t tied to attendance or student performance.
Additionally, they are not subject to the Right to Know Act, State Ethics Act, and are not expected to make employee salaries public the way public school districts are.
“As I understand there’s some legislation out there to change that, but I don’t know when I’ll see that,” said Anna Borsos, director of finance for the Montour School District.
Berdine said in May, Cornell district officials met with State Rep. Anita Kulik, to discuss the problem, but there’d been no tangible results of the discussion.
“There’s always talk around election time, but nothing ever seems to change. Nothing gets fixed,” Berdine said.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed comprehensive reform legislation to make charter schools adhere to the same standards as public schools and limit the opening of new cyber charters. Legislation has been proposed as far back as 2014 to fix the 20-year-old cyber charter system, but as of yet only a few regulatory rules have been set forth by the Wolf Administration.
As of June of this year, regulations developed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, went into effect. They include, per a statement from Wolf's camp, clear application requirements for entities seeking to open a charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school; clarification of ethical requirements for trustees, a requirement that school districts and cyber charter schools follow the same auditing standards and provide a consistent method for charter schools to meet the employee health care requirements.
Two bills are being circulated, one in the house and one in the senate, which would address some of the issues with cyber charter school funding, but they have not been passed into law.