Pennsylvania file photo school

In this Thursday, March 26, 2020, photo, Terrell Bell, wearing a protective face mask, looks at a learning guide he picked up for his little sister at John H. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania’s cyber charter school enrollment soared over the summer as families flocked to the well-established remote learning model amid uncertainty in public education. 

Now, school districts worry that the rising tuition costs will break their budgets – already sunk with reduced tax revenues – and make it impossible to provide safe environments for students come this fall. 

That’s why at least one state legislator believes freezing cyber charter enrollment as of July 1 is necessary – and he’s begun circulating a cosponsorship memo in hopes of bringing more lawmakers onto his side.

“Cyber charter schools do not face the same financial needs that public-school districts face to commence in person learning in an area of the novel coronavirus,” Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery, said in the memo released Friday. “I believe that our public-school districts should be given all the necessary financial tools to ensure that reopening schools is safe, educationally sound and in the best interest of the entire school community.” 

Annette Stevenson, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the memo recognizes what the organization considers to be exorbitant tuition costs districts pay for cyber charter schools – which operate with less overhead than a brick and mortar school – while also considering the unique financial challenges imposed by a pandemic.

For example, she said, districts simply haven’t budgeted for the unanticipated spike in cyber enrollment and would be forced to make “significant cuts” to accommodate the exodus of students. 

“Capping cyber charter school enrollments would give school districts some certainty with regards to their cyber charter school costs and assure that they would not have to make those cuts or difficult choices,” she said. 

It’s a position that’s unlikely to land with Republicans – who hold strong majorities in the House and Senate – long supportive of school choice and uninterested in proposals to lessen the cut of state money funneled through districts into charters. 

Jessica Hickernell, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said limiting options during a pandemic with “arbitrary” enrollment caps makes little sense.

“That only hurts students and families in the long run,” she said.

Stevenson said districts understand and empathize with families wary of sending their kids back to in-person instruction later this month, but said switching to a cyber charter is unnecessary.

“We would want those parents to consider the school district’s online learning options,” she said. “That way, the student is still an integrated and included part of the same school community – with access to their same teachers and counselors – and when they are ready to return to in-person classrooms, they can jump right back in to the school district program without missing a beat.”

Stevenson said an internal PSBA survey shows that nine in 10 districts will offer a remote learning option equivalent to cyber charters this year and virtually all will cost less than the tuition districts pay for each student transferred to a charter school.

Despite the widespread availability of virtual learning, however, many parents feel the districts’ models fall short of cyber charter offerings. 

Hickernell said that’s why charter schools offered help to districts improve their virtual learning options earlier this year – to no avail.

“Our cyber leaders have been teaching students online for 20 years,” she said. “They know what works and doesn't work.”

Brian Hayden, chief executive officer of PA Cyber – the largest of the state’s 14 cyber charter schools – said Tuesday that it closed enrollment on July 27 after reaching capacity of nearly 12,000 students. Other cyber charter schools are at or near the limit of their capacity, with many deploying waiting lists, he said.

"Parents are concerned that the [district] schools will not be better prepared than they were in the spring," he said.

Richard Jensen, chief executive officer of Agora Cyber Charter School, said the offer still stands to help districts improve their online programs during his testimony before the House Education Committee about safe reopening policies.

"All of these large professional organizations – the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators – are the ones who are choosing to ignore us," Hayden said.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.