A bill heading to the Senate after passing the House in September would allow school districts across Pennsylvania to keep $41 million a year that they now pass along to cyber schools as part of the tuition for students who enroll online.
The legislation also would force cyber schools to return any money they receive in tuition from school districts but don’t spend educating the students. Cyber schools are collectively sitting on more than $65 million in unused funds, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
But at the heart of the debate is the question of how much difference is there in the cost of educating a child online compared to students that attend a bricks-and-mortar school.
House Bill 618 goes too far and could drive many of the state’s cyber schools out of business, said Jenny Bradmon of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools. Bradmon is the mother of two children enrolled in cyber schools.
School districts “don’t like the competition,” Bradmon said. “Our kids are being treated like second-class citizens.”
School districts deduct about 30 percent from the tuition when they pay cyber schools because it’s recognized that online schools don’t have the all the fixed costs of brick and mortar schools, Bradmon said.
Those deductions include the costs of services that neither the public school district nor the online school provide to cyber students. The existing deductions include transportation costs. The new legislation would add food service costs to the lists of deductions. The new legislation would cut another 10 to 15 percent from the cyber schools, Bradmon said.
Proponents say the bill’s chief aim is to close a loophole that allows cyber schools to get paid twice, by the local school district and the state, for their pension costs.
Teachers in cyber schools are members of the same pension used by other public school teachers.
“Eliminating the double dip for pensions was our top priority,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
The business administrator’s group has estimated that eliminating the pension double-dip will save school districts $27 million.
The bill passed with overwhelming support, but there was opposition from both sides of the aisle.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, opposed the bill in part because it only eliminated the pension double-dip for cyber schools but not for bricks and mortar charter schools. The bill also included provisions that would allow cyber schools to bill the state rather than the local district.
Local school officials have repeatedly claimed they have found evidence that cyber schools over-bill for students, something that is less likely to be discovered by staff in Harrisburg, Longietti said.
Lawmakers also missed an opportunity to beef up public oversight of the boards that operate charter schools, added state Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-Erie County.
The biggest problem is that House Bill 618 is a missed opportunity, Longietti said.
“I think there may be some who will say we passed legislation in the House, so we shouldn’t have to look at this again for a year or two. And we could have done much better,” Longietti said.
State Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, opposed the bill because he felt blaming cyber schools does not force school districts to confront their true financial problems — irresponsible spending on construction and school boards’ willingness to grant raises to teachers during the recession.
“Crawford Central’s $52 million budget works out to $289,000 for each of the 180 school days,” Roae said. “HB618 would save money to fund about three hours of the school year.”