PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – These are tough times in public education.
Struggling from cutbacks and tight budgets, school districts are laying off teachers and cutting programs.
At the same time, some cyber charter schools are thriving, which are funded by your local tax dollars.
Is this fair, or are your kids being shortchanged?
Like schools districts across the state, Freedom Area is struggling to keep staff and programs. At the same time, it’s sending hundreds of thousands of local tax dollars up the road to Midland, where the Pennsylvania Charter Cyber School and its spinoffs are growing by leaps and bounds.
Ron Sofo is one of a dozen Beaver County superintendents crying foul.
“It’s not fair to all your kids in the local schools to be asked to fund a different type of school at a cost-plus while we’re being accused of spending too much and asked to do less. Let’s all play by the same rules,” Sofo said.
From humble beginnings, Pennsylvania Cyber has grown to more than 11,000 online students. Under state law, their home districts must pay them to educate each one at an average of $10,000 a year.
With now more than 1,000 employees and a $100 million annual budget, Pa. Cyber has been credited with reviving a decimated mill town by renovating old buildings and building new ones. They also spawned the $23 million Lincoln Park School for the Performing Arts along with a new daycare/nursery school and other ventures such as the National Network of Digital Schools to promote cyber education across the country.
However, Sofo said it’s all being done with tax money from districts like his.
“If you take a look at what they’re building, most public schools can’t afford to spend money that they’re spending and we believe that a lot of what they’re spending for the extras for the new building is money — dare I say profit — off of the public taxpayer over and above the actual cost,” Sofo said.
Representatives of Pa. Cyber declined to appear on camera, but in a statement they called the criticism unfair and untrue:
“Pa. Cyber is funded according to a formula determined by policymakers in Harrisburg. Pa. Cyber does not have excess revenue or profits. Pa. Cyber is a public school that is in full compliance with all Pennsylvania rules and regulations that govern public charter schools.”
However, State Auditor General Jack Wagner said it is the state funding formula that’s the problem.
While traditional districts are required to maintain school buildings and fund interscholastic athletics — justifying a $10,000 a year per pupil cost — Wagner’s most recent audit puts the cost of educating a student online at only $3,000.
Meanwhile cyber enrollment has doubled in the past five years and statewide school district payments have increased from $70 million to $250 million. He said much of that is unchecked and unaccounted for like Pa. Cyber’s spending on radio, television and billboard advertising, which he calls lavish.
“Keeping in mind that all of those dollars are taxpayer dollars and public school should not have to advertise,” Wagner said.
But while traditional school district continue to lay off teaches and cut programs, Pa. Cyber and other cyber schools continue to grow, which is adding fuel to the fire on this debate on funding.