CYBER CHARTER REFORM GETS BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
We’re paying too much for cyber charters in PA. That’s clear. And perhaps it’s becoming clearer to Democrats AND Republicans.
Cyber charters are a poor return on taxpayer investment. They cost taxpayers $1 billion a year, and their track record for actually educating children is abysmal. But, with friends in high places in Harrisburg, legislation to rein in costs and boost student achievement doesn’t go far.
A recent bipartisan vote may be a sign of changing times. Twenty House Republicans and every Democrat voted to pass cyber charter legislation introduced by Representative Joe Ciresi (D-Mont). Under HB 1422, cyber charters would continue in the Commonwealth but with new guidelines, one being a standard tuition rate of $8,000 for non-special education students, with automatic rate increases every three years. Right now, school districts pay cyber charters the district’s per-pupil cost – ranging from $9,000 to $24,000 – even though cyber charters operate at a fraction of the cost.
A standard cyber charter tuition would keep more money in neighborhood schools, over $290 million. “We’re not here to close cyber programs. We are here to level the playing field,” said Rep. Ciresi. “We are here to give back the money where [it] belongs.”
Don’t worry that cyber charters will be forced out of business by standardizing the rate. According to the PA Charter Performance Center, cyber charters are swimming in a quarter-billion surplus. While too many school districts can’t afford modern equipment, cyber charters are hoarding $250 million. It’s clear that we, as taxpayers, are overpaying them if they have that much cash in reserves. (Rep. Ciresi’s bill would impose fund balance limits on cyber charter schools.)
Not that they haven’t tried to spend it, though. Education Voters of PA determined that cyber charters spent a grand total of $52 million of taxpayer funds on marketing over just three years. For example, PA Virtual Charter School spent $132,404 on bus wraps and other transit advertising, and $28,807 on sponsorships of minor league baseball teams. Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA) spent $3.4 million on advertising in a three-month period in 2022.
HB 1422 would also prohibit all public schools (yup, cyber charters are technically public schools) from paying to sponsor public events such as parades and professional sporting events and would require that any advertising state that tuition and other costs are paid by tax dollars.
It’s too early to tell how the GOP-controlled Senate will respond to HB 1422 when they reconvene in September, but the bipartisan vote in the House gives us hope. Republicans have a six-person majority but there are senators like Tracy Pennycuick (R-Bucks/Mont) who have joined Children First in calling for commonsense cyber charter reform and there may be more. For those conservatives who value fiscal responsibility, reforming cyber charters may appeal to them.
Stay with us as we continue to advocate for cyber charter reform. It’s clear…they’re costing taxpayers and students far too much.