David Lapp: It’s beyond time to address the soaring cost of cyber-charter schools
Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s leaders in spending public tax dollars on profitable yet ineffective cyber schools. David Lapp is the head of Policy for Action, and in a guest op-ed, he explains why reform of cyber-funding is long overdue.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools into remote learning instruction many Pennsylvania policymakers expressed deep concerns. Many lamented the impact on mental health when students stopped receiving in-person learning and the important social skills that develops. Many were upset by the evidence of significant learning loss that accompanied the switch to virtual instruction.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly even enacted a new law allowing students to voluntarily repeat a grade to make up for lost educational opportunities.
This year policymakers should consider bringing that same energy to a similarly harmful and even more wasteful form of remote learning. One that’s been growing for more than two decades and reached a boiling point during the pandemic. I’m talking about the soaring enrollment growth and accompanying financial cost of Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter school expansion.
There’s solid research both nationally and in Pennsylvania that cyber-charter schools have an “overwhelmingly negative” impact on student learning. The learning loss students experience from virtual instruction in cyber-charter schools appears similar to the learning loss students experienced from virtual instruction during the pandemic.
For each year a student is enrolled in cyber-charter school they are also more likely to experience chronic absenteeism and less like to enroll in post-secondary education.
There’s also clear evidence that spending on cyber-charter school expansion comes at the expense of students receiving in-person learning in school districts and brick & mortar charter schools, where more effective instruction is provided. In fact school districts—which pay for cyber-charter tuition from their own school budgets—have indicated that charter tuition is now their top budget pressure.
It’s easy to understand why. Pennsylvania already had the highest cyber-charter school enrollment in the country and then enrollment grew by 22,618 additional students during the pandemic. Districts are now spending over $1 billion dollars a year on cyber-charter tuition, reflecting an increase of $335 million from before the pandemic. These surging expenses impacted the vast majority of school districts in the state.
Cyber-charter tuition likely represents the most inefficient spending in Pennsylvania school finance. For one, the cyber-charter system is redundant. Both before and since the pandemic, most school districts continue to offer their own virtual schools. Secondly, the tuition rates mandated under current PA law require districts to pay cyber-charters more than it actually costs to operate virtual schools. And finally, when students leave for cyber-charter schools, districts must of course still operate their own brick & mortar schools for remaining students, only now with fewer resources.