John R. Bouder: Treat cyber schools fairly in Pennsylvania

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Alyssa Weaver is a poster child for the benefits of choice in public education. A Mifflintown resident, Alyssa was diagnosed with a crippling case of scoliosis at the age of 12. In decades past, this might have brought her education and career aspirations to a screeching halt. But, thanks to the marriage of online education and public charter school, Alyssa had a life-changing option — cyber schooling.

Cyber school allowed Alyssa to learn at home when multiple corrective surgeries and long recovery periods left her in intense pain and unable to attend classes at a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

Asked about Alyssa’s new school routine, her mother, Michelle, said, “If she needed to take a pain medication that would make her groggy, she could take it, and when she felt well enough she could start doing her classes again.”

Self-pacing is one of the many benefits of cyber education — and not just for those with physical challenges. Students with learning disabilities, gifted students who want to work ahead and those pursuing athletic and musical endeavors can all live up to their fullest potential with a customized, flexible class schedule.

Some of the neediest students in the state are also being served by cyber school options: Nearly half of all cyber school students are classified as economically disadvantaged. For them and their parents, these schools represent an escape from often violent and failing school districts that show little hope for improvement. Yet these assets are ignored by critics who claim cyber schools simply siphon funding and students away from school districts.

A look at the statistics tells a different story.

A flaw in Pennsylvania’s convoluted school-funding formula allows cyber schools to be reimbursed twice for pension costs. But even with this “double dip,” cyber schools receive only about 80 percent of the funding school districts spend per student. The school districts keep the remaining 20 percent — without having to educate the child.

Another common criticism from opponents is that cyber schools underperform academically. But the truth is, cybers take in thousands of students who have fallen far behind or failed in traditional public schools. Nearly one-third of cyber enrollees are from school districts that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress standards. Rehabilitating these students is a long-term challenge that cyber schools have welcomed — and they shouldn’t be punished for it.

Legislation pending in the state Senate fixes the pension “double dip” in an equitable manner, while creating necessary accountability and oversight measures that would eliminate bad apples that exploit holes in the law to line their own pockets. However, further proposed cuts, specifically an across-the-board 5 percent cut, would put the viability of many cyber schools in jeopardy.

What would this cut accomplish, given that cyber schools consume just 1 percent of the state’s education spending? Not much — the amount “saved” by school districts would fund a mere 57 minutes of class time statewide. For cybers, though, it amounts to about one-third of teacher salaries and would effectively shut the door on many families’ educational choice.

Alyssa describes cyber school as “challenging — but a good kind of challenging for those who want it and need it.”

While cyber schools may not be right for everyone, parents are choosing this education option now more than ever. Over 35,000 Pennsylvania students are enrolled in cyber school this year — almost double the number just five years ago.

Cyber school gave Alyssa the opportunity to overcome her health issues, remain an excellent student and stay ahead of her peers in spite of it all. She graduated from high school earlier this year with a 4.0 GPA while earning enough credits to start college as a sophomore — and she’s only 17.

The same opportunity should be preserved for every student, and most Pennsylvanians agree. According to polling conducted this summer, a staggering 87 percent of likely voters think parents should have the option to choose the type of public school that’s best for their child.

This should give legislators the confidence to keep cyber schools a viable public school option for tens of thousands of kids who, like Alyssa Weaver, have found them the best path to a good education.

John R. Bouder is a policy analyst and communications officer for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg (CommonwealthFoundation.org).


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