How much each school district in Erie County could save if cyber charter tuition cap is approved

Erie County's 13 public school districts could save a combined $5.6 million in 2024-25 if proposals to cap cyber charter school tuition are approved by state legislators.

Pennsylvania school districts are required by law to pay the tuition cost for students living within their district who enroll in a charter school, including one of the 14 cyber charter schools doing business in the state.

The tuition rate that each district pays varies, generally based on what it spends per pupil on basic education each year. Local districts pay between $10,744 and $15,312 for each traditional student enrolled in cyber charter school. The cost swells to between $20,746 and $32,867 for each special education student enrolled.

"This is an issue that lacks public awareness and is extracting an exorbitant cost from taxpayers," said Wattsburg Area School District Superintendent Ken Berlin.

The Erie School District alone is paying almost $10.2 million in cyber charter school tuition this school year.

Berlin compares cyber charter school tuition costs to the Wattsburg School District's cost to provide cyber learning to its students during the pandemic. The district used its own teachers and contracted with an online learning platform at an approximate cost of $1,365 per student. Insight PA Cyber Charter School uses that same platform, billing Wattsburg taxpayers $13,072 per student and as much as $21,734 per special education student, Berlin said in testimony before the Pennsylvania Democratic Policy Committee in 2021.

"Given that we can provide the exact same cyber learning experience as the Insight PA Cyber Charter School for just $1,365 per student, a savings of $11,707, I believe that the current cyber school funding method is an unjustified waste of taxpayers' hard-earned money," Berlin said.

And cyber charter schools, with less overhead than brick-and-mortar schools, aren't spending all that tuition money on education — or even spending all that money, public school officials say.

In 2021-22, cyber charter schools in the state spent $16.8 million on billboards, radio and television ads, bus wraps and other marketing, according to information provided in response to right-to-know requests filed by Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public school advocacy organization.

That same year, cyber charter schools in the state had more than $164 million in surplus funds, up 647% from 2018-19. Increased enrollment doesn't account for the surplus, according to the Education Voters report. Enrollment increased by 63% from 2018 to 2021.

Proposals for change

Gov. Josh Shapiro's proposed 2024-25 state budget would cap cyber charter school tuition at a flat $8,000 per student, the same rate proposed in legislation approved by the state House of Representatives in July. House Bill 1422 would base the tuition cost for special education students on the services needed.

The bill passed the House by a 122-81 vote on July 7. State Reps. Pat Harkins, of Erie, 1st Dist., Bob Merski, of Erie, 2nd Dist., and Ryan Bizzarro, of Millcreek, 3rd Dist., were among Democrats unanimously voting in favor of the bill. Republicans Jake Banta, of LeBoeuf Township, 4th Dist., and Brad Roae, of East Mead Township, 6th Dist., voted against it.

The vote wasn't strictly along party lines. Twenty Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the legislation. It has been stalled in the Senate Education Committee since.

What local districts pay and how much they would save

The Erie School District alone would save an estimated $1,876,807 in 2024-25 if the proposed $8,000 cyber charter school tuition cap becomes law, according to district calculations.

Tuition for the 684 Erie students enrolled in cyber charter schools this academic year totals $10,161,344 — $10,744 for each traditional student and $29,434 for each special education student.

The need for cyber charter school funding reform isn't a political issue or even a school choice issue, General McLane School District Superintendent Matt Lane said in an Erie Times-News column in February.

Matt Lane
Matt Lane

"This is, however, about the fact that there are limited resources for funding public education, and they should be used efficiently and effectively," Lane said.

Here's how much other public school districts in Erie County pay in cyber charter school tuition and how much each would save if the $8,000 tuition cap becomes law:

Corry Area School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 91.

  • Tuition per student: $14,645.

  • Tuition per special education student: $27,501.

  • Total tuition this year: $904,385 as of Jan. 31 and as high as $1.5 million by June 30.

  • Estimated savings: $500,000 to $750,000.

Fairview School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 16.

  • Tuition per student: $11,808.

  • Tuition per special education student: $20,746.

  • Total tuition this year: $161,779 through Feb. 29.

  • Estimated savings: $62,348.

Fort LeBoeuf School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 45.

  • Tuition per student: $12,650.

  • Tuition per special education student: $28,673.

  • Total tuition this year: $366,215 as of Jan. 25.

  • Estimated savings: $209,240.

General McLane School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 50.

  • Tuition per student: $13,055.

  • Tuition per special education student: $26,076.

  • Total tuition in 2022-23: $800,000.

  • Estimated savings: $536,000.

Girard School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 38.

  • Tuition per student: $13,882.

  • Tuition per special education student: $32,867.

  • Total tuition this year: $519,488.

  • Estimated savings: $215,000.

Harbor Creek School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 41.

  • Tuition per student: $11,934.

  • Tuition per special education student: $24,477.

  • Total tuition this year: $659,570.

  • Estimated savings: $227,852.

Iroquois School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 47.

  • Tuition per student: $13,164.

  • Tuition per special education student: $32,107.

  • Total tuition this year: $920,000.

  • Estimated savings: $463,000.

Millcreek Township School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 124.

  • Tuition per student: $12,470.

  • Tuition per special education student: $26,143.

  • Total tuition this year: $2,013,400.

  • Estimated savings: $524,833.

North East School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 82.

  • Tuition per student: $11,933.

  • Tuition per special education student: $22,984.

  • Total tuition this year: $702,000 as of February.

  • Estimated savings: $155,041.

Northwestern School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 59.

  • Tuition per student: $13,357.

  • Tuition per special education student: $32,539.

  • Total tuition this year: $1,251,891.

  • Estimated savings: $236,000, just for non-special education students.

Union City Area School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 41.

  • Tuition per student: $12,339.

  • Tuition per special education student: $30,537.

  • Total tuition this year: $444,328.

  • Estimated savings: $138,900.

Wattsburg Area School District

  • Students enrolled in cyber charter schools: 53.

  • Tuition per student: $15,312.

  • Tuition per special education student: $27,779.

  • Total tuition this year: $1,013,721.

  • Estimated savings: $500,000.

The statewide push: Cyber charter school tuition reform may be gaining momentum

Contact Valerie Myers at vmyers@timesnews.com.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Cyber charter school funding reform could save Erie schools $5.6M