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A new bill in the Pa. State Senate could mean the end for cyber charter schools in the state. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

A proposal with potentially dire consequences for Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools re-emerged in Harrisburg this session.

And one of the politicians pushing it now has a key education post in the state capital.

The proposal, formally introduced as Senate Bill 34 last month, would require a family to pay out-of-pocket tuition to attend a cyber charter school if their home district offers a “cyber-based program equal in scope and content.”

Depending on its interpretation and implementation, this measure could halt the flow of millions in taxpayer dollars from traditional school districts to cyber charters. If the law applies to any school district with some sort of digital learning program, cyber charters could be in big trouble.

“I think cyber charter schools would no longer exist,” said Maurice Flurie III, CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, the state’s second-largest cyber charter.

Last week, Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie) announced plans to introduce a similar bill in the State House. Sonney has authored legislation like this in past sessions. But it’s the first time he’ll do so as chair of the House Education Committee, a position he assumed in January.

In a co-sponsorship memo, he said his bill “will encourage school districts to offer full-time cyber education programs to their students, will encourage students to enroll in these school district programs, and ultimately will result in savings for school districts.”

Cyber charter critics often point to the fact the schools generally score poorly on standardized tests. All but one of the state’s 15 cyber charters ranked in the bottom quartile of all schools on Pennsylvania’s rating system in 2017. Cyber charters say those scores reflect the students they serve, many of whom struggled in prior schools.

Other critics say cyber charters burden traditional school districts financially.

Districts have to send a per-pupil tuition fee every time a student from their district decides to attend a cyber charter. The same setup exists for students in brick-and-mortar charter schools.

Unlike brick-and-mortar charters, though, traditional districts don’t oversee or approve cyber charters. The state’s department of education does that. And it means districts don’t control the number of students who can opt for cybers — most of which are currently operating under expired agreements.

“We are taking money away from the students in our school district to give to a cyber charter school that has had no accountability [to the district],” said Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, which sends over $2 million to cyber charters each year.

Cyber charter opponents also argue that the amount of money traditional districts send to cyber charters outpaces the actual cost of educating a student online.

A 2018 survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) found districts pay, on average, $11,306, for each general education student attending a cyber charter, and $24,192 for special education students.

The same survey said the “vast majority” of district-run cyber schools cost $5,000 or less per student.

“It’s crazy,” said State Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), of the fees districts pay to cyber charters. “It’s not based on actual delivery of educational programming.”

Over 35,000 students attend cyber charters in Pennsylvania, trailing onlyCalifornia and Ohio.

Opponents of the proposal say it would spur a parent revolt and contradict the values of school choice.

“They pick a charter school or a cyber charter school because the district has, in essence, failed their child,” said Ana Meyers, who heads the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Keystone Crossroads could not confirm the number of districts with in-house cyber programs that might meet the threshold established by Senate Bill 34. Schwank, the bill’s primary sponsor, couldn’t provide a list. Neither could the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The 2018 PASA survey found at least 152 of the state’s 500 school districts have a local cyber school option, and that two-thirds of those programs came online in the last five years. Only 172 districts responded to PASA’s inquiry, so that number could be even higher.

In 2016-17, traditional school districts sent $463 million to cyber charter schools. Just 20 school districts account for a third of that total, and 19 of those districts advertise some sort of in-house program on their websites.

Cyber charter leaders say it’s unlikely their families could afford to pay tuition. At nine of Pennsylvania 15 cyber charter schools, more than half of students are considered “economically disadvantaged” by the state.

“It’s just not practical,” said Flurie. “Very, very few of our families would be able to pay.”

This plan could make it effectively impossible for parents to choose a cyber charter, some in the sector say.

“That defeats the entire purpose of school choice,” said Michael Conti, head of Agora Cyber Charter School, the state’s third largest cyber school.

Conti also worries districts without in-house cyber school would hastily set up some facsimile of a digital learning program to qualify for the tuition exemption. He and others said the cyber schools established by many districts aren’t as comprehensive.

Dan McGarry, acting superintendent of the Upper Darby School District in Delaware County, says his district started a cyber program to compete with cyber charters. But he believes the quality of the district’s option is higher than what charters offer.

Students leave Upper Darby for cyber charters and then return — often coming back having accumulated few credits, he said.

“When they wanna transition back, they’re behind. And we’re oftentimes having to play catch up,” McGarry said.

That sentiment has been echoed across Pennsylvania, including in Rep. Sonney’s Erie County backyard.

“Nothing’s happening to [students who go to cyber charters] except we’re making a payment for them to the charter school,” said former Corry Area School District Superintendent William Nichols in a 2017 interview. “And then we have to remediate them when they come back, or we have to face high discipline problems.”

The debate over cyber charters is as old as cyber charters themselves, which were sanctioned by a 2002 law. The question is whether the political climate has changed enough to make major changes possible.

Sonney did not return Keystone Crossroads’ request for comment on this story, but in an interview last month he said “the cyber issue interests me” and that he wanted to visit cyber charter schools to learn more about their operations.

The incoming chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), said he’s heard from school officials across the state about the need for “funding reform” on charters.

“For both brick and mortar charter schools — and I would say especially cyber charter schools — we hear that regularly from our traditional school districts,” he said.

In 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed capping the payments districts send to cyber charters at $5,950 for each enrolled student. The idea did not gain traction in the midst of a prolonged budget battle.

Schwank has “a bit of optimism” that this session could produce some change in how the state funds cyber charters, even if it’s not the sea-change she’s proposing.

Cyber charter leaders and supporters, however, say they don’t think something as drastic as Schwank’s bill has a real chance to become law. It would simply be too disruptive and too counter to the philosophy of school choice, they say.

“There’s always a little concern, but we’ll just have to wait to see what happens,” said Conti.

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads/.