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**Enhancing Education Equity Through Cyber Charter Funding Reform**

Published on March 26, 2024, at 10:25 PM

The current funding system in Pennsylvania for cyber charter schools is draining resources from public schools and channeling them into substantial reserves for private online academies that are ineffective. It is imperative to reform this system as part of any school funding overhaul in the state. Governor Josh Shapiro’s suggestion to cap cyber charter funding at $8,000 per student presents a promising starting point.

At present, cyber charter schools receive funding at the same rate as traditional brick and mortar charter schools, leading to a nonsensical situation where online schools have accumulated excessively large reserves, totaling over \(250 million among 14 organizations as of 2022. The surge in enrollment in these schools post-COVID, fueled by parents seeking alternatives to conventional education models, is evident. With a combined advertising expenditure of nearly \)17 million in 2021 and 2022, it is evident that these schools are engaged in fierce competition to attract students, including those from other educational institutions.

The existing funding model, established in 2002 and now outdated, ties funding to each student’s respective school district’s per-student expenditure. While the intention was to ensure that public schools are not disadvantaged by students opting for charter schools, it inadvertently creates incentives to lure students from districts with higher funding levels while avoiding those with lower funding allocations.

Unsurprisingly, the most affected school districts are those in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Particularly, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) allocate significantly more funds to cyber charters compared to Philadelphia due to being one of the best-funded urban districts in the state, resulting in substantial payments to charters educating Pittsburgh students.

In the case of PPS, all charters collectively receive a significant \(146 million from the public school budget this year. However, reducing cyber charter funding to \)8,000 per student could allow the district to retain approximately $13 million annually. While this is a positive development, it may not suffice to address the budget deficit that is projected to lead to negative reserves by 2025.

Governor Shapiro’s proposal to limit cyber charter funding to \(8,000 per student would also redirect an additional \)14 million annually to public school finances across the rest of Allegheny County.

While ample funding for cyber charter programs might be justified if they yielded substantial academic improvements, the reality is quite the opposite. Proficiency rates in cyber charters consistently lag behind those in traditional public schools by 20% or more across all subjects and grade levels. Although online education may suit certain students, the widespread experience during the pandemic emphasized that it is seldom a satisfactory substitute for in-person instruction.

Some charter schools argue that the $8,000 funding cap could force them to shut down. While this seems improbable given their significant reserves, constructive discussions could lead to a moderate adjustment in the per-student funding limit. The primary objective is not to eliminate cyber charters entirely but to enable them to serve their intended purpose without unjustly straining the education system.

Currently, however, cyber charters are imposing an undue burden on the system, necessitating reform to rectify this imbalance.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette