We need an honest discussion about charter school reform in Pa. | Opinion

That discussion needs to include charter school leaders, who so far have been absent from the reform debate

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

By Rich Jensen

I appreciate that Lawrence Feinberg, in a recent Capital-Star commentary piece  (What’s the real cost of charter school tuition in Pa.? It’s more than you think, 10/31/22) related to the funding of charter schools, recognizes that “charter and cyber-charter schools have a place in our public education system.”

However, it seems counterintuitive to then advocate for defunding charter and cyber-charter schools, which would significantly limit school choice options for parents. The premise of his entire article is that the tuition rates that districts pay to charter schools far exceed the actual expenses needed to operate a charter school.

To support this claim, Mr. Feinberg cites resolutions passed by school districts asking for reform to the funding formula, a statewide task force from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and a bipartisan statement for charter reform. There is one glaring omission in all these groups, and that is leadership from the charter schools themselves. No one has considered it necessary to bring charter school administrators or board members to the table to get their perspective.

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In an effort to address the question raised by Mr. Feinberg, I would like to give an account of the way the funding that Agora Cyber Charter School receives is used to directly and indirectly educate students.

First, Mr. Feinberg asserts that cyber-charter schools do not have the same level of expenses as brick-and-mortar schools, specifically related to buildings, food service and extracurriculars. He is correct in this statement, but it should be noted that this is why roughly 25% of the funding to educate a child remains with the district. Also, when put it the proper context, you can see that “cyber” does not equate to having no physical locations.

As a cyber-charter school, we do not have multiple buildings, but we still have the expense of maintaining a required central office location. And though we may not have sports like a traditional district, we do have multiple clubs and provide several learning experiences outside the classroom to provide a rich extracurricular program. Offering all these opportunities to our learners generates related expenses.

Also, Mr. Feinberg does not address the additional costs a cyber-charter school has that a brick-and-mortar school does not. At Agora, we have a position called Family Coach.

It’s beyond time to address the soaring cost of cyber-charter schools | Opinion

This position is a liaison between the home and the school. These staff members are geographically based across the commonwealth. There are other expenses, like internet reimbursement, which is mandated by law. Also, we incur a substantial cost for state testing because we are required to secure testing sites across Pennsylvania.

The point to take from this is that you cannot make an apples-to-apples comparison between cyber-charter and brick-and-mortar schools. Therefore, it’s critical that administrators from cyber-charter schools are included in the conversation. If cyber-charter schools truly have a place in the public education system, then their voice cannot be ignored.

Mr. Feinberg goes on to recommend that the charter reform should “institute a flat, statewide cyber-charter tuition rate.”

However, what is that flat rate? Past proposals have been totally unreasonable when considering all the costs associated with running an independent school system.

Mr. Fienberg also made the comment that districts are “overpaying” for charter tuition, thus reducing the resources districts have for nurses, social workers and other staff. However, that is exactly the impact that a flat rate would have on cyber-charter schools.

At Agora, we can show that over 90 percent of our revenue is spent, directly or indirectly, on serving learners. The three largest buckets for this spending are salary and benefits for staff; costs for online content, supplemental programs and other platforms needed to provide effective online instruction; and related services for students with IEPs. The other 10 percent is basic operational expenses needed to run the school system.

Again, the takeaway is that administrators from cyber-charter schools must be included in conversations that determine what an appropriate flat rate would be.

To adequately fund cyber-charter schools, the flat rate would need to be high enough to cover all expenses needed to serve students and run an entire school system. This rate would be significantly higher than any proposal that has been suggested. It would also most likely benefit wealthier school districts and become an even heavier burden on lower-income districts.

Finally, Mr. Feinberg takes aim at special education funding calculations. He uses an example of a student who needs special education services that only cost $5,000, but the cyber-charter school receives $16,600. On the surface, this sounds like a sound argument.

But, what about the student who has multiple disabilities? The costs to educate them and provide necessary services could be $80,000 or even $100,000—but the district still only pays $16,600? This example demonstrates the problem of considering isolated one-off examples instead of looking at the aggregate.

And though Mr. Feinberg states that “superintendents, school business managers and school board directors have been raising the red flag on these issues for years,” you can, once again, see the total omission of the voice of charter school administrators.

In closing, I would like to encourage superintendents, school business managers and school board directors who believe charter and cyber-charter schools have a place in our public education system to engage in conversation with charter and cyber-charter school administrators.

Have an open discussion about what is the best way to ensure all public school students are adequately funded, regardless of whether parents choose to send their child to a district school, brick-and-mortar charter school or cyber- charter school.

Dr. Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School. He writes from King of Prussia, Pa.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.