As parents, teachers, and administrators, we understand that public education is the foundation of our society, and are charged with preparing students both academically and for life as full citizens beyond high school. Layered over this purpose is this question: Is what we are doing good for children, for our students, and the underlying purpose of education?
Initially charter schools began 25 years ago as a research and development arm for public education, a sort of clinical classroom where we could all learn from new ideas in teaching and learning. They were not meant to be competitors with traditional public schools, but as avenues for collaboration and learning. Unfortunately, they have not lived up to their original purpose, creating missed opportunities for our students while placing a heavy burden on our taxpayers.
Over time both the traditional brick and mortar cyber schools, particularly the cyber charter schools, have fallen short. Perhaps if charter schools were consistently outperforming their traditional counterparts, were held to the same accountability and transparency systems, we could make the argument for charter schools, but they are not. They have failed our children and our communities are paying for it.
Both brick and mortar and cyber charter school reform has been a topic of often contentious discussion in the legislature for years. Proposals for more equitable funding and improved transparency have been stopped in their tracks. Currently there is an opportunity for legislators to tackle this gross inefficiency and irresponsibility through Senate Bill 590, which would form a Charter School Funding Advisory Commission to study real cost of cyber-education.
Case in point — The Bellefonte Area School District provides our students with a cyber-learning option. The average cost for our students to attend BeLA (Bellefonte eLearning Academy) is $4,000 per student; in contrast, the average tuition bill for one student in a cyber charter is $16,000. Coupled with this staggering cost is that the vast majority of PA cyber schools consistently place in the bottom five percent. Often cyber charter students who return to the traditional public schools show significant needs for remediation. BeLA, like many district cyber-schools, has proven success. Last year all of our BeLA students who took the PA standardized tests scored proficient or advanced and were afforded the same teacher support as their peers in the traditional setting, as well as the same extra-curricular opportunities.
Our costs at Bellefonte Area School District over the last three years are as follows:
Regular Ed Tuition Paid by the District to Cyber Schools
Special Ed Tuition Paid by the District to Cyber Schools
Total Tuition paid by the District to Cyber Schools
Additionally, Senate Bill 34 and House Bill 526, if successfully passed, will remove the financial responsibility for students who enroll in cyber charter schools if a district program exists. Across the state it is estimated that funding of cyber charter schools cost school districts and taxpayers more than $463 million in 2016-17. That is egregious at best.
It is well past time that we insist our legislators take a serious look at the current funding and do what is right by our children and our communities. Please reach out to your local legislators and let them know that charter school reform, particularly cyber charter reform (SB 590 and SB34/HB 526) needs to be a priority. Let them know there are significant concerns with the cost and effectiveness of charter schools. Our children deserve it!