EASTON, Pa. -- There's a battle being waged for Pennsylvania's schoolchildren.
Traditional public schools are on the offensive trying to lure back students from cyber and charter schools with their own cyber academics. Public school officials tout better standardized test scores and diplomas from known schools.
Superintendents argue they're grappling with tight budgets, cutting programs and laying off teachers. Yet, they're funneling tax dollars to growing home-based cyber schools that aren't meeting state standards but can afford to offer things districts cannot -- like foreign languages in elementary school.
But the reasons families remove children from their home districts and enroll in cyber schools run the gamut and are often complex.
"I hear time and time again something just wasn't working," said Sharon Williams, head of the Wayne, Pa.-based Agora Cyber Charter School. "It doesn't mean the district was bad. It just wasn't working for that student."
Lehigh Valley families interviewed for this article argue their children are thriving with the harder, more individualized cyber curriculum and they see no reason to make a change. The cyber setting allows children to learn at their own pace, start studying foreign languages earlier and escape problems in their home district like bullying, families said.
"My son is getting a private school education at public school prices," said Chrissi Radvon, of Washington Township, Pa., whose son attends Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, PALCS. "I already pay taxes. It doesn't matter what school. The money follows the student. The school we chose needed to be the best that we could find."
The heightened attention on charter schools is not surprising. There's a lot of taxpayer money at stake. Pennsylvania's 13 public, state-chartered cyber schools enrolled 32,322 students in online education programs this school year, and enrollment is growing.
A 2011 survey of school districts in Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe, Northampton and Pike counties found the schools spent $15.3 million on cyber school tuition in 2009-10; that's up $5 million from the prior year. Of 26 districts, 19 responded to the survey. It's the most recent tally available. The Pennsylvania Department of Education only tracks overall charter and cyber school spending.
Cyber schools are funded with tax dollars that otherwise would go to traditional public schools, a funding system that districts have long lamented as inequitable. Cyber schools are not paid what it costs them to educate their students. Rather, tuition is determined by a state calculation that results in the state's 500 school districts each paying a different amount.
Although traditional districts shoulder the cost of funding cyber schools, they don't grant their charters or have oversight of cyber schools as they do with brick-and-mortar charters.
"We don't know what the actual cost is to educate a cyber student," said Mary Beth Bianco, the assistant executive director of Colonial Intermediate Unit 20, an education service agency for Northampton, Monroe and Pike counties.
Only two of the state's 12 operating cyber schools -- the 13th opened in the fall of 2011-- met federal No Child Left Behind standards in 2011, and critics contend cyber schools aren't held accountable for their public funding. Agora, in Delaware County, saved its charter in October 2009 by severing ties with its board of directors and founder after the state Department of Education investigated financial mismanagement.
It wasn't until this year's state budget that districts really sprang into action. Gov. Tom Corbett cut all state charter school reimbursements for districts, ushering in the age of competition.
"It does have the appearance of a rigged game where this governor de-funds the traditional public schools while promoting funding for cyber and charter schools," said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers union, which does not oppose charter or cyber schools.
School districts in Northampton, Lehigh, Carbon, Monroe and Pike counties responded to Mr. Corbett's cut by issuing a regional position paper comparing their state standardized test scores against their charter counterparts. Northampton County public schools topped a sampling of cyber and charter schools in every category tested by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 2010.
A 2011 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University supports the local analysis. Cyber schools performed substantially lower on PSSA tests than even brick-and-mortar charters, according to the report.
Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy said the poor overall test scores and Corbett cuts spurred his district to create its own cyber academy. Bethlehem spent about $2.64 million on its 260 cyber students this year, the majority of whom are enrolled at Agora.
Public schools see in-house cyber schools as a way to guarantee online learners are being taught to state standards, Mr. Roy said.
"We believe we can provide a quality online education for students who felt that was the route they want to go," he said.
Williams, of Agora, argues suburban districts aren't comparing apples to apples. Agora serves students who often come from schools that don't meet state benchmarks and are behind, Ms. Williams said.
"So far our school has not been able to close [those serious gaps] in a year," Ms. Williams said. "It is a pretty big mountain for us to climb as a school."
Agora did not meet 2011 state testing scores. Its graduation rate was 66 percent compared to the state average of 91 percent. PALCS met standards in 2010 but not 2011.
First Published June 17, 2012 12:00 AM