By Diane Van Dyke
Since the start of the new millennium, members of today's workforce travel virtually beyond conference rooms by teleconferencing, further their education via webinars and receive streams of information through podcasts. The technology revolution is in full force.
Not surprisingly, many parents are turning to cyber courses and cyber charter schools as an alternative to the traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions of education. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 12 cyber schools in the commonwealth have an enrollment of 13,245, representing an increase of approximately 3,245 students between 2005 and 2006.
While parents view cyber charter schools as an alternative form of education, school district officials view the increase in cyber school attendance as a drain on their budgets. As commercials and advertisements for cyber charter schools tout the message of no tuition for enrollees, school districts are faced with paying a large portion of the bill.
The Boyertown Area School District, for example, expects to pay an additional $390,000 this year for cyber charter and charter school students, bringing the total to $700,000. The district pays $7,173 per student and about $13,445 for each student with special needs.
These amounts, according to state Department of Education press secretary Mike Storm, are based on the instructional costs for students in the Boyertown district. The cost does not include transportation or other non-educational expenses. Districts receive a subsidy of up to 30 percent of the costs from the state.
Boyertown Area School Board member Michael Kulp recently suggested that the start its own cyber charter school, and administrators agreed to investigate the concept.
Robert Scoboria, assistant to the superintendent for student and administrative services, reported that about 72 students in the district are enrolled in charter schools, though that number fluctuates frequently. About 38 students in the group attend the PA Virtual Charter School in Norristown. The remaining students attend seven other cyber and charter schools.
A majority of the students, about 41, are elementary school age. Scoboria said about 40 percent of the students started charter school when they were in kindergarten or first grade. About one-third were formerly enrolled in the Boyertown Area School District and now attend charter schools.
Throughout the state, about 1.8 million students are enrolled in public schools in grades kindergarten through 12.
"Cyber charter schools are public schools," Strom said. "They must follow the same regulations including testing, curriculum and budget requirements as [traditional] schools. The only difference is the students are not sitting in a classroom."
As public school entities, cyber charter schools are responsible for meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and ensuring that each student is makes "adequate yearly progress," as evidenced by standardized test scores in reading and math. President Bush's education act of 2001 requires proficiency in reading, language arts and math by 2014.
Any public school, including cyber charter and charter schools, that does not show adequate yearly progress receives a warning from the state and is placed on a watch list.
While cyber charter schools initially registered through a school district, Act 88 in 2002 changed that procedure, and now all cyber charter and charter schools are registered through the state. Charters are reauthorized every five years, if schools show their students are making appropriate progress.
While school districts are accountable for the performance of their students, the state is accountable for cyber charter school students.
According to Strom, only one cyber charter school, Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation Charter School of Blair County, met the adequate yearly progress criteria, based upon the 2004-05 school year test results.
School districts cannot create their own cyber charter schools, Strom explained, since the law requires a separate, non-profit entity to initiate a charter school. School districts can, however, organize their own non-profit entities, which could register and oversee cyber charter and charter schools.
However, even if a school district were to establish a cyber charter or charter school through a non-profit entity, students in the district have the option of attending any cyber charter or charter school in the state. Because of this option, starting a local cyber charter school may not result in any savings for a school district.
Contact assistant editor Diane Van Dyke at 610-367-6041, ext. 228 or
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