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Money Motivates School Districts to Feed Desire for Online Curriculum

June 15, 2011

Money Motivates School Districts to Feed Desire for Online Curriculum

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Public schools across Pennsylvania are learning a valuable lesson from privately owned cyberschools: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Since the first cyberschools became chartered by the state nearly a decade ago, more than two dozen public school districts have established online curriculum to compete.

“Our mantra is: our students, our teachers, our curriculum,” said Jeff Taylor, director of curriculum and assessment for the North Hills School District, which has 21 full-time and about 50 part-time cyberstudents.

“Online education is here. You can’t just stick your head in the sand. Clearly, there are students who have the need for that type of delivery, and it certainly behooves us to meet our students’ needs.”

North Hills began experimenting with online education in 2008. A year later, the district offered online courses to its high school students. By fall, it will expand to include students in seventh and eighth grades. By 2012-13, the district serving Ross and West View will have an online curriculum for elementary students.

Districts who run their own cyberschools provide the students at home with a computer, Internet access and tech support, if needed, at no cost. Students take the same—English, math, science—as their counterparts in brick-and-mortar schools, and take the same achievement assessments.

Elementary and middle school students generally have a parent supervising them during the day.

Although overall public school enrollment has dipped by 0.04 percent since last year, enrollment in the state’s 12 cyberschools increased 14.46 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Because districts must pay the tuition for students within their borders who attend charter and cyber-charter schools elsewhere, opening a cyberschool to retain students or lure them back is in the districts’ financial interest.

For each child enrolled in a cyber- or brick-and-mortar charter school, the district receives just 20 percent of the state funding it would otherwise. In October, state Auditor General Jack Wagner placed a moratorium on new charter and cyber-charter schools until the Legislature establishes a funding formula based on actual costs.

In Western Pennsylvania this year, tuition payments by public schools to cyberschools range from $7,634 in Norwin to $12,973 in Quaker Valley. Payments for students with special needs are about double.

Many districts say that providing more opportunity for their students has been the key motivator for their interest in online programs, but Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said their driving force is a financial one.

“The biggest issue is the money loss,” Robinson said. “By setting up their own cyberschools, districts are actually able to save money.”

Creating online schools simply to save money is troublesome for Fred Miller, a spokesman for the state’s largest cyberschool, the nonprofit Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, Beaver County.

“If money is the primary motivator, they’re going to look at the best way to save money, not educate children,” Miller said.

Directors of online programs at public schools tout many of the same advantages cyberschools were preaching a decade ago, such as allowing students to go at their own pace, having flexible schedules and permitting students with special needs to get individual attention.

But Charleroi Area Schools Superintendent Brad Ferko isn’t shy to admit that money was the main motivator in the district’s decision to begin offering online classes in 2007. Ferko said his district was losing $18,000 to $20,000 for each student who left the district to attend a cyberschool. The in-house program has brought about a dozen children back to the district in each of its first few years, Ferko said.

“If we lose three students, we lose a mill of tax. That really is what drove us to develop our own,” Ferko said.

The prospect of her home district offering online schooling that would benefit her three children may be too good for Christine Emmick of White Oak to pass up. Emmick said her daughter, a student at The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, is “thriving” by learning at her own pace. She would, however, consider Gateway School District’s cyber program after the family moves to Pitcairn later this year.

“If it does offer what we need, then we will most likely join,” she said. “Cyberschool enables us to do the enrichment activities we like and time to explore the areas we like to explore.”

Students are permitted to participate in any activities offered by their home school if their cyberschool does not offer it.

Marci Klinger, director for Gateway’s cyber program, said the district is discussing options to expand its online program, which served 26 full-time students in grades nine through 12 this year.

“Everyone has different needs,” Klinger said. “It’s no longer one size fits all.”

 

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From → E-Learning, Education

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