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Senate Bill 34: Cyber Charter vs District Cyber Options

The recent big news in Pennsylvania online learning has been the introduction of Senate Bill 34. The purpose is to amend the PA school code to include the following language:

If a public school district offers a cyber-based program equal in scope and content to an existing publicly chartered cyber charter school and a student in that district attends a cyber charter school instead of the district’s cyberbased program, the school district shall not be required to provide funding to pay for the student’s attendance at a cyber charter school.

Currently, whenever a student attends a cyber charter school, the local district pays a per student amount to that charter school. This payment is made each year that the student remains enrolled in the cyber charter school. For schools in central Pennsylvania this averages out to be about $12,000 per regular education student and $22,000 per special education student. The problem from the school district’s perspective is that, even thought a district might have 20-30 students at cyber charter schools, they are distributed across the entire k-12 grade span. Because of this, they cannot hire fewer teachers, less staff, or close buildings. Yet they still must pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This brings us back to the purpose of Senate Bill 34. The essence of the way the bill reads is that as long as a district has their own cyber school option in place – and that option is of a high quality – they no longer have to pay cyber charter schools the per-student cost for students who decide to leave the district. By contrast, the per year cost for a full-time student in a district program is only about $3,600 (excluding staffing costs which vary greatly per district). This translates to an immediate savings of about $8400 per student per year. Even districts who hire a full-time, highly qualified teacher to assist their online students are saving over $5000 per student.

Whether or not the bill passes or not remains to be seen. Defining the statement “equal in scope and content” will also be very important to districts moving forward. Districts and cyber charters across the state will be following Senate Bill 34 closely.