Kenneth Berlin: Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools cost taxpayers and businesses
Kenneth Berlin is superintendent of the Wattsburg Area School District in Pennsylvania. In this guest op-ed for GoErie, he explains how cyber schools are hurting PA school finances.
As the superintendent of the Wattsburg Area School District, I often get asked why school property taxes go up every year. One of the primary reasons is growing cyber charter school costs. The state’s charter school law funds privately-operated cyber charter schools by involuntarily taking taxpayer money from school district budgets. For example, in the 2015-2016 school year our district paid a mandated $561,996 in tuition to cyber charters for 49 students. Fast forward to 2020-2021 when our residents paid $866,661 to cyber charters for 57 students. This year to date, we have already paid $711,740 to cyber charters to educate just 49 students.
To put these outrageous costs in perspective, we pay approximately $365,000 annually to send around 60 of our students to the Erie County Technical School. This includes a real school building, high quality face-to-face instruction, and student access to technology and materials. But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as any school superintendent will tell you. In 2015-2016, the state’s 14 cyber charters cost property owners and businesses $463,584,395. In 2020-2021, that cost exploded to over $1 billion.
When the pandemic started, our district contracted an online learning system from K12 Learning Solutions (Stride) to offer our students an online schooling option facilitated by our teachers. Because we use our teachers and equipment, the average cost per student to the district is about $3,000. I want to note that the K12 Learning Solutions platform we purchased is the exact same platform used by Insight PA Cyber Charter School. I also want to point out that if a regular education student enrolls in Insight PA Cyber Charter School, our taxpayers are billed a mandated $13,118 per student. For special education students, the cost rises to $23,587 per student. Given that we can provide the exact same cyber learning experience as the Insight PA Cyber Charter School for just $3,000 per student, I believe that the current cyber school funding scheme is an unjustified waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money.