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Pa. auditor general blasts cyber-charter funding, again

By the Notebook on Dec 7, 2012 04:58 PM

by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

Outgoing state Auditor General Jack Wagner has said for years that Pennsylvania sends too much money to its 16 cyber charter schools.

This week, Wagner said an audit of the state's largest cyber school showed the outcomes of that flawed funding system: unspent millions of taxpayer dollars, wasteful contracts, and too much money spent on advertising.

"There is excess public money being spent to educate a child that sits at home and goes to school on a computer compared to a child that goes to school at a school district," said Wagner in a Thursday interview with public radio station WESA-FM  in Pittsburgh.

In Pennsylvania, cybers are independently managed schools that receive public funding to operate. They provide most of their instruction online. Wagner and other critics contend that cybers — which generally have higher student-teacher ratios and lower facilities costs than brick-and-mortar schools — receive more money than they need to operate. The auditor general's office has called for an overhaul of the state's charter funding system.

"There is over $300 million in public taxpayer dollars being lost each and every year due to the flawed funding formula for charter and cyber charter schools," Wagner said.

The audit released Thursday was of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. With over 10,000 students drawn from across the state, the school is Pennsylvania's largest cyber. Wagner said PA Cyber ended the 2009-10 school year with a $13 million budget surplus and spent nearly $4 million in advertising expenses between 2008 and 2010. 

"These are taxpayer dollars that were allocated specifically for funding public education," said Wagner in a press release. "Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School should stop spending taxpayer funds for advertising and should allocate them to additional student education services."

PA Cyber officials did not respond to a request for comment. 

The audit by Wagner's office found that the school "complied, in all significant respects, with applicable state laws, contracts, grant requirements, and administrative procedures."

Pennsylvania Department of Education Press Secretary Timothy Eller said there's nothing illegal about a cyber charter, or any other public school, holding a reserve fund or advertising. Eller noted that because cybers operate on a statewide basis and don't serve as the default school for any particular community, they have no choice but to recruit students. He said decisions about how much should be spent on things like advertising should be left to local decision-makers.

"Trying to determine what's appropriate and not appropriate, it's in the eye of the beholder," Eller said. 

On Thursday, Wagner called for the Department of Education, as well as Gov. Corbett and the state legislature, to fix what Wagner called "a broken system."

Eller said that Ronald Tomalis, Pennsylvania's education secretary, has acknowledged that there "is a need to look at the cyber-charter funding formula" and called it "unfortunate" that legislators have twice in recent months failed to enact charter reform legislation.

Earlier this week, NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook reported that state approval of pending proposals for eight new cyber charters could cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $350 million over the next five years. Concerns have been raised about cost and academic quality.

Eller said the state Department of Education is required by law to follow the existing process for reviewing charters and that "there would be no impact on approving or denying those charters" based on the concerns raised by the auditor general.

This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

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Comments (11)

Submitted by Ken Derstine on December 7, 2012 7:23 pm
This being the case, why does Pennsylvania want to open eight more cyber charters as has been reported in the Notebook? Not only is there tremendous waste and misuse of public funds, as the article below details the cyber charters do not perform as advertised. "Pa. considers 8 new cyber charters, while critics question cost and quality" This article states: "In the most comprehensive study to date, Pennsylvania's cyber charters as a group were found to have poor academic performance. In 2011, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University compared the learning gains of students in eight Pennsylvania cybers with their counterparts in other types of schools. They found that traditional public schools and bricks-and-mortar charters helped students learn at about the same rate in reading, while traditional public schools did slightly better in math. But cyber charters lagged significantly behind both other types of schools. "The cyber schools we were able to study have dramatically less learning per year in both reading and math for their students," said Macke Raymond, CREDO's director."
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on December 7, 2012 7:41 pm
Ken--because money talks louder than integrity. ALL charters should be monitored independently and NOTHING should be intramural. The fox guarding the hen house. It's the same as The Boston Consulting joke--paying people good money to tell you what you just paid them to tell you and THEN acting vindicated. Little by little, the good guys are fighting back...............finally.
Submitted by Teachmyway (not verified) on December 8, 2012 8:08 am
They have a high percentage of students that do not graduate or transfer to traditional public schools teacher pay is crappy and what about phys Ed kids are supposed to report what they do each week such a waste I know I know a teacher she loves sitting at home with her infant and just flipping on the computer to teach lol
Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on December 8, 2012 9:31 am
These schools are full of kids who would have been homeschooled anyway or kids who have been kicked out of every other school for discipline issues. In other words, kids who we don't need to be spending such a large portion of our budget on. It doesn't cost as much to pay teachers who can't/won't get a job in a real school to sit at home. You don't need to pay for the building, pay for building staff, pay for disciplinarians or aides, pay for transportation... the list goes on. And yet they get most of the per-pupil allotment. The outrages in this state are getting to be too much for me, knowing I'll be laid off again this year. There's plenty of money, they just won't spend it right.
Submitted by Arby (not verified) on December 8, 2012 10:04 am
Auditor General Wagner first reported this is 2007. That is five years ago. If then Governor Rendell and the Legislature had acted promptly, Pa. taxpayers would have saved $1.5 billion dollars by now. Instead that $1.5 billion went to line the pockets of the Middle Eastern investors who own the managenment companies fthat are the profiteers of this outrageous funding formula. Now, two years into the Corbett Administration, still no action.
Submitted by Pseudonymous (not verified) on December 9, 2012 9:37 am
Companies like K12 and Pearson (which owns Commonwealth Connections) lobby heavily. Money talks, students lose.
Submitted by Harry Bailey (not verified) on December 8, 2012 10:07 am
Open-ended, "eye of the beholder" Elder philosophy is paying for mansions built by public education dollars. Wrong from the beginning and must be stopped.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 9, 2012 10:45 pm
even if you support cyber schools you have to admit that $4 mil in advertising and a $13 mil surplus is a lot of money. I'm just saying, explain why you need those kind of numbers. it's hard for the taxpayer to understand.
Submitted by Phila. Teacher (not verified) on December 10, 2012 4:24 am
The advertising for cyber charters is pervasive - billboards, to newspaper ads (on-line) to radio and TV ads. Why not ban advertising for ALL charters and instead require school districts to make families aware of all the school options in their district. Families can be referred to a web site which includes the cyber charters. This makes families aware of the option while getting rid of the excessive budget for ads. Then, follow the Attorney General and provide funding for cyber charters in line with their costs. The "excess" should be returned to the school districts to help fund the additional costs they incur for brick and mortar schools (e.g. security, repairs/construction, utilities, maintenance of grounds, extra curricular activities, etc., etc.) In Pennsylvania, cyber charters are big business with groups like K12, Foundations, etc. amassing huge profits while paying their leadership excessive (and immoral) salaries for running "public" schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 10, 2012 5:09 am
I'm no against advertising, or budget surpluses either. i felt the amounts were excessive. $4 mil in advertising is enough to run for governor. i don't know what the cyber schools budget is, but $15 mil seems like more than the suggested 6 month reserve. they may need more but that should be explained. lots of school districts advertise and they did so before charters were around. that decision is the school's to make. you don't have to legislate common sense. that doesn't work anyway.
Submitted by ion (not verified) on July 22, 2014 9:53 am

I am not for online learning. I think it's non sense. Nothing can replace the experience of a classroom and an actual person beside you. There are some things that just can't get across through a computer screen. echipamente profesionale

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