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Pennsylvania lawmakers split over cyber charter school regulation Pennsylvania spotlight

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HARRISBURG — A bill being passed through the Pennsylvania legislature would cap the amount of money public school districts send to cyber charters and require those schools to be more transparent about their inner workings.

Due to technological change and a global pandemic, students have flooded K-12 educational institutions that operate entirely online and independently.

But the state regulations governing these schools (last updated 20 years ago) didn’t anticipate the rapid growth of cyber charters (14 schools are educating more than 60,000 students) or the amount public school districts would end up paying for tuition.

Critics say the guidelines also lack basic accountability measures such as mandatory public meetings and strict financial disclosures, leaving the public in the dark about how their tax dollars are spent.

Democrats and Republicans agree the regulations need to be updated, but say they are far from a deal. Supporters of the Cyber ​​Charter and leading Republican lawmakers argue that flat tuition isn’t enough and that states should invest in alternative education rather than imposing additional restrictions on public schools.

“Cyber ​​charter schools are open because parents want choice for their children. It’s a much tougher accountability standard than anything traditional public schools face today,” said Matthew Brouillette, a political operative linked to groups that have channeled millions of dollars into candidates who support school choice. “Traditional public schools are failing all around us, and they get more money instead of more responsibility.”

invoice It passed the state House of Representatives with bipartisan support. Twenty Republicans joined all 102 Democrats in voting in favor. But the lawmakers who chair the state Senate committees through which the bill must pass have not committed to passing the bill.

State Senator David Argal (R. Schuylkill) said he would support a bill that would make fewer controversial changes at first. When asked, he did not suggest specific policies.

“We are not going to agree 100% on any bill,” Argal said. “If we can agree on 10-15%, we would like to get it through and then talk about the remaining 85%.”

billion dollar price tag

Cyber ​​charter tuition is paid by your child’s public school district, which can be expensive. billion dollars The 2020-21 school year will see a cyber charter, according to Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that studies education policy.

Public school districts receive funding from the state, but their budgets are overwhelmingly funded by local property taxes. A Pennsylvania court recently ruled that the system was unconstitutional and unfair.

Only three other states fund cyber charter schools directly through payments from school districts. About 20 other companies fund their cyber charter from the national budget, and the rest use a combination of funds.

The legislative bill would significantly change the funding scheme. Although funding will continue to come from public school districts, the action would set a tax rate of $8,000 per nonspecial education student statewide. The rate will be increased every three years “based on the average rate at which school districts raise property taxes,” according to the financial report. analysis Prepared for the state legislature.

Current pricing formulas vary based on how much public schools spend on students and how many students within public school districts choose to participate in cyber charters each day.

More than 90% of Pennsylvania school districts have signed the agreement. Resolution This year we will ask the General Assembly to change the funding system for cyber charters.

“These payments are calculated in a manner that requires school districts to transfer funds to charter schools in excess of what is necessary to operate the program, imposing a significant financial burden on school district coffers and taxpayers,” the resolution states.

Rep. Jesse Topper (Fulton, R-Fulton), the minority chairman of the House Education Committee, said he supports changes to cyber charter regulations but opposes a statewide flat rate.

He said some public schools within his legislature paid less than $8,000 per student in cyber charter fees, so the bill would actually mean higher costs.

Topper said he is open to moving public schools out of a system where they pay solely for cyber charter tuition. He said potential solutions could involve the state taking some financial responsibility to remove the “toxic nature of the relationship” between public and cyber charter schools.

The legislative bill would also make significant changes to special education students’ tuition, especially for public schools that say they need to remit more money than is actually spent on their children’s education.

Special education in public school districts is funded based on the following criteria: Actual cost of service For students with disabilities, Cyber ​​Charter offers the same tuition per special education student regardless of need.

lack of transparency

Public school districts operate under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. The board is required to hold public meetings to obtain input on items such as the budget and curriculum before making decisions.

Board members are elected officers for four-year terms. They make public statements of financial interest but receive no compensation for their work.

School boards must also comply with state ethical law Also, follow certain guidelines when dealing with relatives of directors.

Cyber ​​charter schools, on the other hand, do not need to host public meetings or get input on budgets.in the meantime they report certain statistics The financial information disclosed by the Cyber ​​Charter is limited to the State Department of Education each year.

Legislative bills would subject the operation of the Cyber ​​Charter Commission to the Sunshine Act and would require the budget to be made public at least 20 days before adoption. The public will be able to view five-year annual budgets, tax returns, certification audits and annual reports.

The measure would also classify members of these commissions as civil servants and subject them to state ethical standards and financial disclosure forms. The board must include at least seven non-related voting members, including one parent of a student enrolled in the Cyber ​​Charter. Board members are not remunerated except for “reasonable expenses.”

“These cyber charter schools have boards and people [on the boards] Susan Spikka, executive director of public school advocacy group Education Voters of PA, said: “The lure of no accountability can be too much to bear for some. There’s just too much extra money for people to exploit.”

The bill would also subject institutions that contract with cyber charters, including financial management companies, to the Right to Know Act.

Unlike many public schools that have their own sales office, Cyber ​​Charter employs a financial management company. These companies handle millions of dollars in taxpayer money, but because they are private entities, their books cannot be scrutinized by state officials or the public.

Former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, said one such company “Operate without boundaries and responsibilitiesIt was unclear what kind of service they were providing, but the company was giving executives pay raises during that time.

While discussing the bill on the floor of the state House, Rep. Tren Ecker (R-Adams) said the Right to Know requirements were too broad and would include companies employed on construction projects, for example.

The bill would also impose new limits on cyber charters’ advertising capacity, a significant change as some of these schools routinely spend part of their budgets on self-promotion.

right to know request A report filed by Pennsylvania education voters shows that Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters spent a total of $16.8 million on advertising in the 2021-22 school year. The Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Charter Academy spent the most on her at over $8 million.

The group also found that King of Prussia-based PA Virtual Charters spent more than $28,000 on sponsoring minor league baseball teams and more than $130,000 on bus wraps and other transit advertising.

Cyber ​​Charter advocate Brouillette said such ads were necessary.

“Charter schools can’t survive without attracting students, and advertising is one way to communicate that option to students,” Brouillette said.

The bill would require all paid media for cyber charter schools to disclose that advertising is paid for with taxpayer taxes. Cyber ​​charters are also prohibited from sponsoring public events.

Daniley Lenno is an intern at the Pennsylvania State Law Correspondents’ Association. Learn more about the program. Spotlight PA Funders are: foundation and readers like you People committed to responsible journalism that gets results.

https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2023/07/pennsylvania-education-cyber-charter-school-reform-public-transparency/ Pennsylvania lawmakers split over cyber charter school regulation Pennsylvania spotlight

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