Cyber School School Choice

School administrators who are lobbying lawmakers to redirect the funds now allocated for cyber charter schools back in their direction should be more forthcoming about how they use the taxpayer money they already receive.

That’s because under the current per-pupil funding formula, school districts pocket a healthy percentage of the per-pupil funds allocated for students who choose to enroll in charter schools be they brick and mortar or cyber. So, the question becomes, what are superintendents and other school administrators doing with the taxpayer funds they receive for students who are not enrolled in their schools?

Since more parents are now looking to cyber schools as a viable option in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some superintendents who are making the argument that cybers are being overpaid at the expense of conventional schools. Matthew Rakauskas, who has been crying poor from his six-figure salary position in Lackawanna Trail, is one of those superintendents.

In a recent op-ed, Rakauskas claims that cyber charters have been overfunded for years and now that COVID-19 has disrupted conventional schooling, he’s concerned that online schooling has suddenly become more attractive to a broad cross-section of Pennsylvania residents.

“These valuable resources should be utilized to keep public school districts running rather than overfunding cyber charter schools that are receiving additional financial gains by other means,” the superintendent argues.

What “financial gains?”

Bowing to pressure from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the General Assembly passed a law that freezes funding for any child enrolled in cybers after March 13, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced school closures. In effect, this means that in the first few weeks following Wolf’s shutdown order, cybers were educating newly enrolled students free of charge.

So how were they being overpaid?

Let’s think about the dynamic at work here where the lobbying efforts of superintendents are concerned.

Pennsylvania taxpayers with school children who could benefit from online learning are paying the salaries of administrators like Rakauskas, who colluded with elected officials to prevent those same parents from using their own tax dollars to fund the costs of alternative institutions. The administrator’s association even went so far as to lobby against any new enrollments for cyber charters after Wolf’s shutdown order.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association has also gotten in on the act to make every effort to prevent state taxpayers from exercising more control over their own money. Rich Askey, the union president, sent an email to members assuring them that he would do everything he could to make sure that special interests prevail over the public interest. At the top of his list was looking for ways to “prevent mass numbers of students from enrolling in cyber schools.”

Despite these pressure tactics, cybers across the state have welcomed in new students who cannot attend classes in person where they previously attended school.

The Agora Cyber Charter School based in King of Prussia, for instance, has had 305 enrollments this year between March and June compared to 220 during the same period last year, according to school figures.

Agora is one of 14 public cyber charter schools in the commonwealth. Prior to the pandemic, the most recent statistics from the state Department of Education showed there are more than 141,000 charter school students throughout the state with about 37,000 enrolled in cyber charters.

Rakauskas is scandalized because he finds that “school district payments to charter schools are up 229 percent over 11 years and now surpass $2 billion.” Going further into the numbers, he tells readers “6 ½ cents of every dollar school districts spent in 2018-19 went to charter tuition payments,” which is “more than double what it was 10 years earlier.”

Marc LeBlond, a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank in Harrisburg, offers some fresh perspective.

“Charter school funding, and the overall school funding formula are worthwhile discussions to have, but the dual narrative around funding that flows to school districts versus funding that flows to charter schools is harmful to kids,” LeBlond says. “All policy decisions relating to school funding should center directly on the needs of the child, not the system. Further, money should follow the child to the school of their parents’ choice. Anything else simply puts kids in the crossfire of a shooting match between the grownups. The money doesn’t belong to the institution. Education dollars are meant for the education of the child, not protecting a government monopoly.”

LeBlond also offers some context for school funding that the Lackawanna Trail superintendent omits. On a very basic level, spending at charter schools is driven by enrollment, he points out. Charter school spending increases as enrollment increases, but there is no such link with conventional district schools. In fact, spending at district schools has grown 24 ercent over the past 10 years while enrollment has fallen by about 8 percent, according to government data and enrollments records.

“On average, Pennsylvania charter schools receive approximately 27% less per pupil than district schools,” LeBlond said. “Since charter schools are funded at significantly lower per-pupil levels than district schools, they actually save school districts money. On average, Pennsylvania school districts keep $5,129 per student for a child they’re no longer educating. In other words, a school district may keep up to $66,677 over the academic life of a child should the parents choose to enroll their child in a public charter school from start to finish without that child ever attending a traditional public school.”

The Commonwealth Foundation has put together a list of detailed answers to common questions raised about charter schools and how they are funded. One of several key points made in the foundation’s online post is that the “purpose of education dollars is to educate students, not prop up systems.”

Since the Lackawanna Trail superintendent and other administrators are staking their arguments against cyber schools on financial calculations, doesn’t it also make sense for them to examine their own expenditures?

Since charter schools are funded at significantly lower per-pupil levels than districts, isn’t it fair to say that they are actually saving the district’s money?

Parents and students who are searching for alternatives to district schools that have difficulty functioning during COVID-19 may not know this, but if they peruse Rakauskas’s op-ed they discover that their schools “have become creative and innovative” making use of “whatever resources they could to deal with the local, diverse obstacles they face.”

So he says; but the self-described champion of taxpayer dollars is also calling on Harrisburg policymakers “to help schools reduce costs and remove barriers that hamper local innovation.”

Since cyber charters are already keeping their kids safe and have been able to make seamless transition during COVID-19, it sounds like the superintendent is asking political figures to lend a helping hand so their schools can shape up and innovate so they can deliver the kind of quality education cyber charters are already providing. There’s a tacit acknowledgment here from the superintendent who is concerned about “overspending” that his public school isn’t turning the corner while cyber schools are already well-equipped to handle the current crisis. But what’s not to like? After all, charter schools are public schools.

Kevin Mooney is senior investigative reporter with the Commonwealth Foundation