For Duquesne, it is a tale of two schools

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Duquesne School District pays $29,580 per year to the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School for the tuition of a special-needs student who attends the charter, though his or her designation as learning disabled -- rather than retarded or autistic -- suggests that costs may not be nearly that high.

That transaction illustrates what officials from both schools said was an arbitrary system for paying for special education in the evolving world of school choice.

Duquesne's school district is no longer educating its own high schoolers, considering shedding its seventh- and eighth-graders, facing a deficit that approaches $1 million and planning further teacher layoffs.

At fast-growing PA Cyber, meanwhile, teachers sit at computers or stand before high-tech whiteboards, communicating with far-flung students through headsets, by instant message and via Webcams. One in eight of its students qualifies for special education.

Though one in four Duquesne students has a disability, the state subsidizes the district, like every other district, based on the assumption that just one in six kids needs special services. The state kicks in a little extra for a handful of extremely disabled students.

With that funding, Duquesne pays for seven special-education teachers, 22 aides, a behavioral specialist and two other professionals, adding up to one adult for every 3.6 special-needs students. The district's after-school program also helped challenged kids, but it shut down in March when the money ran out.

"We do everything we can to try to keep our special-needs kids here," said acting superintendent Paul Rach.

Despite their efforts, 24 of the 141 special-needs kids within the district have chosen charters -- 22 of those picking Propel schools -- which cost the district around $710,000 a year.

PA Cyber CEO Nick Trombetta said that PA Cyber has an effective system for helping its 1,400 special-needs students, but declined to call it more efficient than other schools. "We have similar costs," he said.

Cyber charters, by their very nature, don't have the expense of "resource rooms," and the students' parents often serve as de facto, unpaid aides. But each special-needs student gets an "instructional supervisor," who is a teacher with a caseload of around 25 students. The student attends regular classes, via computer, while the instructional supervisor peers over their virtual shoulder and chimes in through their headset or by instant message.

PA Cyber also employs psychologists and other professionals and reports one teacher or other professional for every 8.7 special-needs kids. Where needed, PA Cyber provides transportation from the student's home to specialists like physical therapists, sometimes paying $185 a day for the bus service alone, Mr. Trombetta said. The cyber school also runs satellite facilities where it holds face-to-face meetings with special-needs students and parents and sometimes conducts in-person classes.

"We put our resources into people," Mr. Trombetta said.

Districts don't always see it that way.

"What the school districts required to foot the bill for that would say is, [cyber charters are] taking all of that money that you get for special-ed kids, and you don't have the costs that bricks-and-mortar schools do, and so those students are pure profit," said Jennifer Lowman, director of client services and training for the Education Law Center, which helps parents of special-needs kids to pursue their educational rights.

Auditor General Jack Wagner's office has pushed for three years for a rewrite of the charter school funding formula, including the special-education tuition system. Deputy Auditor General Thomas Marks noted in March comments to the House Education Committee that cyber charters "spend approximately $3,000 less per student" than bricks-and-mortar charters, but get the same tuition. He said the "funding received by the charter school must reflect only the true cost of educating the child," and decried the General Assembly's failure to rewrite the formula.

Mr. Trombetta agreed that the current system of paying for special education is arbitrary, and said that one of the first projects he'll tackle in his imminent retirement is authoring a white paper on the topic.

"We should receive the cost of providing the education," he said. "We have to come to a reasonable solution. Fair is fair."

education - state

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. First Published May 27, 2012 12:00 AM


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