Moving to Northeast Philadelphia three years ago, Rebecca Penglase had reservations about sending her son to a traditional school.

Caleb, then 7, needed speech therapy and had experienced bullying at his school in New Jersey — a situation Penglase wanted to avoid. She was also concerned that a cousin’s child with speech issues was placed in a special-education class in a Philadelphia public school.

“I didn’t want that to happen for my son. I didn’t want him to fall in the cracks,” Penglase said. She enrolled him in a cyber charter school, which enables him to do his schoolwork at home.

Caleb McGough, 10, doing schoolwork with a headset last week. McGough takes both speech therapy classes and his schooling online.
MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
Caleb McGough, 10, doing schoolwork with a headset last week. McGough takes both speech therapy classes and his schooling online.

More than 34,000 children across Pennsylvania attend cyber charter schools that are managed by independent operators. Tuition is free, but school districts pay the bills. A cyber charter student costs a district the same as one attending a brick-and-mortar charter.

Penglase and other parents say the cybers are refuges from what they view as less-than-ideal learning environments of some conventional classrooms. But the funding system, along with the academic struggles of cyber charters, is at the core of the years-long debate over whether they are wise investments for taxpayers.

“The taxpayers are being fleeced by this model in most cases,” said Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a group that says it supports high-quality charters.

Although previous efforts to revamp Pennsylvania’s cyber funding have failed, advocates hope this year is different. They are publicizing the cyber-charter costs to each district — nearly $68 million for Philadelphia — and pushing for a statewide standard for a lower tuition rate, saying increasingly cash-strapped school districts can’t afford the current system.

“We’ve reached the point where it’s unsustainable,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters P, which released a report last month calling for cybers to receive a flat $5,000 fee per student, with higher rates for special-education students. A flat-rate system would save school districts across the state an estimated $250 million.

Some school districts offer cyber programs, and Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie), chair of the House Education Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would require parents sending their child to a cyber charter to pay tuition if a home district offered one.

Sonney, who introduced the bill twice before, doesn’t expect it to pass, but he said the committee would evaluate the cyber programs offered by charters and school districts and “at the very least try to make some good, needed changes."

Cyber charter schools have been controversial nationally, coming under fire for low academic performance and management troubles.

And funding has been an issue from the beginning in Pennsylvania, where cyber charters grew quickly after the charter movement began in the 1990s. By 2001, Pennsylvania had eight of them, the most of any state; today it has 15 and a large share of national enrollment. New Jersey has no fully cyber schools.

“You had these statewide charter schools growing so rapidly. ... [School districts] were getting invoices out of the blue for students they didn’t know existed,” said Gary Miron, a professor of educational leadership at Western Michigan University who evaluated cyber charters for the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2004.

Pennsylvania school districts don’t have oversight over cyber charters, which are authorized by the Education Department. Earlier this year, 10 of the state’s cyber charters were operating with expired charter agreements; the department has since granted new five-year charters to two schools whose agreements had expired in 2016.

Like Pennsylvania, most states with cyber charter schools fund them at the same level as brick-and-mortar charters, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

But a 2012 study by the Fordham Institute, a pro-charter group in Ohio, estimated that per-pupil costs for virtual schools range from $5,100 to $7,700, compared with $10,000 for a student in a traditional school.

A survey last year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators found that “the vast majority” of 152 school districts with cyber options that responded were spending $5,000 or less per pupil. That’s the basis of Education Voters Pa.’s funding recommendation.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called the report “a pile of one-sided garbage from an organization that is against parental choice." She said lawmakers should evaluate school district cyber programs before comparing them with charters. The state doesn’t track enrollment or academic performance in district-run cyber programs, a spokesperson said.

To receive funding, cyber-charter schools should be required to show their costs, said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, adding that they should be funded based on performance.

“There’s just been way too many examples of problems across the country,” Ziebarth said, noting reports of cyber charters being paid for students that aren’t earning credits. “It’s giving charter schools as a whole a bad name." The founder of PA Cyber, the state’s largest, was sentenced last year to 20 months in federal prison after prosecutors said he siphoned $8 million from the school to businesses he created.

Cyber charter leaders say their costs aren’t necessarily less than those of brick-and-mortar schools.

At PA Cyber — which last year enrolled nearly 10,000 students — students can take virtual classes or work on their own schedule. While teachers in the virtual classrooms have 20 to 25 students each, those overseeing students working independently can be assigned as many as 300 students each, said CEO Brian Hayden.

Hayden dismissed comparisons between PA Cyber and a district-run cyber school, describing his school’s programs as more comprehensive.

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he didn’t know why cyber charters would cost more than district cyber programs, inasmuch as they often share curriculum providers.

“What leads many districts to even consider starting their own cyber learning option is to try to pull kids back,” DiRocco said.

In Upper Darby, which started a cyber school two years ago, 247 of the program’s 350 students were recruited back or dissuaded from going to other cyber schools, officials said.

“The problem that’s being sold is it’s free and it doesn’t cost anybody any money,” acting superintendent Dan McGarry said of the charters. “It’s a drain on our community.”

For many cyber-charter families, the draw isn’t the mode of education, Hayden said. “They don’t believe the school district is providing the best education for their kid," he said.

Arlinda Ahmeti had been considering homeschooling so her children could “learn on their pace and be challenged," but instead enrolled them in cyber school. Her youngest, Muhammad Abdulwadud, is in 10th grade at PA Cyber.

The Easton mother previously lived in Wilkes-Barre, where “racism is a big problem,” Ahmeti said. She didn’t want to send her African American children to district schools. “It wasn’t a welcoming environment.”

Research has shown that Pennsylvania school districts face long-term costs when students enroll in charters.

“I can see their point,” Penglase, of Philadelphia, said of districts’ cost complaints. But “Philadelphia’s had a long time to fix their school system and offer programs for kids.”

For children such as her son Caleb, Penglase said, charter school is “a much better deal.”