When Wyalusing (PA) School Superintendent Jason Bottiglieri gave his State of the School District presentation recently, I was struck by one number — $600,000. That is what it is cost this rural district for students within the district who are receiving their education via cyber charter schools. Dr. Bottiglieri expects that expenditure to surpass $1 million in the coming school year because of changes in the formula that determines how much school districts have to pay cyber schools.
While I was still digesting this, I learned of the Keystone State Coalition’s finding that “none of the state’s 18 cyber charters meets state academic standards.”
That a passing grade of just 70 percent. Public schools, even the poorer performing ones, do much better than that.
Pennsylvania seems to have some of the weakest charter school laws and is among those states being hurt the most, which raises the question of whether the financial toll on our public schools is worth the educational benefits, or loss thereof, to our kids.
Can Wyalusing handle a million dollars and more to pay the bill for kids in the district getting their education from virtual schools? They cut back program offerings and do it with fewer teachers, and they still do it better than any of those accredited 18 cyber charter schools in the state. One the have added in their own in-house cyber school component.
It all started with Pennsylvania’s charter school law, Act 22, enacted in 1997. There were inequities from the beginning, because private schools, both secular and religious, were taking advantage of school districts by using their transportation systems and even their extracurricular offerings. Any unfairness was compensated for, at least in part, by the fact that parents of children attending private schools were helping pay for public education through their property taxes. So do people who don’t have children to educate, including retirees whose children exited the public school system many years ago.
We learned last year that the Bethlehem Area School District, which took a huge blow in its tax base more than 20 years ago with the closing of the Bethlehem Steel Plant, followed by huge cuts in school subsidies a decade after that, is still meeting performance standards. They are doing it, despite having to budget $25 million for the 2017-18 school year to pay tuitions and associated costs of charter schools. This isn’t just cyber schools, of course, though this is the tuition cost on the fastest ascent and with the greatest need in monitoring.
Bethlehem, by the way, pays for more minority students than most Pennsylvania school districts, with 60 percent of its student population receiving lunches free or at reduced prices. Yet it continues to offer an advanced placement curriculum and is known for an outstanding music program that keeps many of its students engaged. Most of its kids take SATs and their scores are consistent with the national average.
Critics are quick to blame escalating budget expenditures on teacher salaries and benefits, and that certainly represents a big chunk of it, but there is no public education without these professionals who pay tens of thousands of dollars for the college degrees required to land a teaching position. Many continue to pay off those student loans a decade or more into their teaching careers. Even though they have to educate all the children, including those with a gamut of special needs, public schools, usually with a vo-tech component, prepare our kids— all of our kids— for the fundamental challenges of the outside world.
Having made these points, it should be pointed out that there are good reasons for some kids to rely on virtual schooling. There are flexibility and mobility, especially for kids with disabilities or other issues that make school attendance a challenge. You don’t have to go to one physical place to take your classes, and you can even be traveling. Cyber charter advocates point out that this type of schooling prepares students for the direction business and industry is clearly heading.
Cyber schools say that they can customize each student to the right teacher and course that best fits individual needs— something they suggest public schools can’t do. Among cyber school purveyors making that boast is 21st Century Cyber Charter School, which is one of those 18 failing to meet state standards, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, scoring at 61.1 (with 70 passing) in 2017 and a third of its students failing to meet graduation requirements. As bad as that sounds, that puts them at the top in both categories of those 18 accredited cyber schools. They are the cream of an unimpressive crop.
Another of the arguments for cyber schooling is as an escape from bullying. It is true that there is bullying and that can make going to school an ordeal for some. I know of a young woman who thrived on cyber schooling after suffering the torment of bullying, mostly lack of acceptance, in public school. The experience turned her life around, and she subsequently became involved in international humanitarian efforts. Seeing her today, an independent young woman with healthy self-esteem, you could never imagine her as a public school outcast. But she was unique in both intellect and self-discipline, and she was motivated, on her own, to get the most of her studies.