Balancing Brick-and-Mortar & Bits-and-Bytes: An Analysis of Cyber Charter School Funding in Pennsylvania
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Cyber charter schools-K-12 educational organizations that offer full academic programs via the Internet-are a recent phenomenon in Pennsylvania, and have been surrounded by much interest and controversy since their inception in 1998. As the number of cyber charter schools across the country has nearly tripled in two years, Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of this movement. Currently the state hosts eleven cyber charter schools-the most of any state nationwide-with more
... ionwide-with more than 13,000 students enrolled statewide. However, for more than six years, the state has been mired in controversy as local school districts and education advocacy organizations have challenged the legitimacy of cyber charter schools-in particular, contesting how they are publicly funded. While Pennsylvania took steps in 2002 to resolve these issues with new legislation, a viable, sustainable solution has yet to be found that fulfills the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), encourages innovation, and satisfies districts and cyber charter schools. The question remains: how and by whom should cyber charter schools be funded? This paper examines the controversy related to the funding and management of Pennsylvania cyber charter schools through a discussion of the important characteristics of cyber charter schools and their emergence in Pennsylvania. In particular, it looks at the sustainability and fairness of the current funding model from the perspectives of both cyber charters and local school districts. The analysis also describes policy objectives, basic economics, and the politics of cyber charter school activity. It considers the benefits versus costs of cyber schools and analyzes the implications of the various alternative funding structures. Finally, several recommendations are made to improve the funding structure of cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. Most notably, the Pennsylvania Department of Education should seriously consider the adoption of a 'sliding-scale' funding approach based on actual operating costs, which in effect would place both oversight and funding responsibilities solely at the state level.