The surge in pandemic enrollment in cybercharters has cost Pennsylvania districts hundreds of millions of dollars — costs that could be magnified by the inability to predict whether some of these students will remain in virtual schools after COVID-19 declines. , according to a new report.
The report, released Wednesday by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education research group, calculated the so-called stranded costs resulting from the more than 60% increase in Pennsylvania cybercharter enrollments the year last. Stranded costs are expenses that school districts cannot recoup when students leave for a charter because they cannot evenly reduce expenses for teachers or buildings, for example.
Using calculations from a 2017 RFA study analyzing the fiscal impact on districts of increased charter enrollment, the group found that if districts paid an additional $335 million to send students to e-charters in 2020-21, they could only save between $27 million and $45 million. million to no longer have to educate these students.
That left districts with between $290 million and $308 million in stranded costs, RFA said — and an average cost of $12,819 to $13,613 per student lost to cybercharting.
At the same time, according to the report, e-charters nearly doubled their fund balances — bringing balances to $5,724 per student last year, compared to $3,478 per student in school districts.
“Spending on e-charters appears to be one of the biggest inefficiencies in our school funding system,” David Lapp, RFA’s director of policy research, said Wednesday.
The report comes as traditional public school advocates have pressed lawmakers to make changes to how charter schools — and cybercharters, in particular — are funded, citing growing budget challenges.
In Pennsylvania, charters, which are publicly funded but independently operated, receive payment from school districts based on enrollment and district expenditure per student.
Cybercharters are paid the same as physical charter schools — though districts across the region that run their own online programs say it costs significantly less to educate a child virtually. And because e-charters attract students from across the state, they receive different payouts per student depending on where they come from, because payouts are based on what the home school district spends, not how much. costs specifically to charter.
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The cost debate has drawn new attention as e-charter enrollment has skyrocketed during the pandemic — rising more in Pennsylvania than any other state. Virtual schools, which have been criticized for poor performance and management issues, enrolled 61,000 students in 2020-21, down from 38,000 the previous year.
Gov. Tom Wolf has called for a statewide cybercharter tuition rate, as well as changes to how all charters are funded for special education students — another area where districts say they pay too much. Charters argue that the Democratic governor’s proposal would cut funding for their students, and Republican legislative leaders have not signed on to the plan.
Parents “should not be demonized for exercising educational choice for their children,” said Jean Morrow, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which opposed Wolf’s proposal.
Asked about the new Research for Action report, Morrow said, “While education research is important, perhaps the most important questions to consider are, ‘Why has there been an increase in COVID enrollment? -19 in the first place? and ‘What is best for children?’
School districts face stranded costs every time students leave for charters — costs that typically go down but still exist years later, according to Research for Action.
But cybersecurity costs pose specific challenges, Lapp said. Unlike districts that are seeing a predictable trend or growth in the number of students going on charters before the pandemic, districts that have recently lost students to cyber charters may be challenged to make cuts without knowing if the students will return as the pandemic abates.
And while charter listings have traditionally been concentrated in urban areas of Pennsylvania and a relatively small number of districts, last year’s cyber surge occurred across the state, affecting districts of all sizes. . For small districts, stranded costs are more difficult to reduce because they don’t have the same economies of scale as larger systems, Lapp said.