By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent
A state lawmaker has proposed that all special education services for cyber school students be funneled through the state’s regional educational intermediate units.
The move is intended to assure that all students receive the services they need and allay fears that cyber schools are inflating the number of students identified as requiring special education services to get more money.
Seven of 11 cyber charter schools that reported special education data to the Department of Education had rates of special needs students higher than the state average.
Lawmakers have begun to scrutinize the special education rates at cyber schools as bricks-and-mortar schools complain that the computer-based schools are costing too much while performing poorly. The computer-based schools receive tuition payments from the local school district based on what it would cost the bricks-and-mortar school to educate the student. In the case of special needs students, that tuition rate can be more than double.
Rep. Stephen McCarter’s legislation would offer several key revisions to the current charter school law to provide much needed relief to local taxpayers by creating one statewide cyber charter school district to be administered by the state Department of Education. It is estimated that this component of the CLASS Act could eventually save school districts approximately $230 million to $250 million annually statewide.
The second component of McCarter’s plan would stipulate that students enrolled in charter schools and cyber charter schools with special needs receive the services they require by assigning responsibility to the local intermediate unit.
“This also greatly reduces, if not eliminates, any financial incentive for charter schools to over-identify students as having special needs or on the other end of the spectrum, financial disincentive from accepting students with severe physical and intellectual disabilities,” McCarter, D-Montgomery County, said in a memo circulated to other lawmakers.
A review by the former state auditor Jack Wagner found that, of the states with the most students enrolled in independent online schools, Pennsylvania pays the highest tuition rate.
Pennsylvania’s spending of $12,657 was clearly the highest among the five states with the most charter and cyber charter students. Ohio spent $10,652; Michigan, $9,480; Texas, $8,954; and Arizona, $7,671.
In most districts, the cost per pupil is between $10,000 and $15,000, but for special education students, the cost can exceed $20,000.
Cyber schools say that they are not inflating the numbers, it may just be that a lot of parents with special needs children are dissatisfied with public schools.
At least one cyber school had re-examined their numbers in light of the allegations, said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Charter Schools.
In that case, the school, which he didn’t identify, now has an enrollment in which 26 percent of the student body is identified as requiring special education. That is almost double the statewide average.
But when school officials reviewed their records, they found that 95 percent of the students they had determined required special education services had been previously identified by the public school they were fleeing, Fayfich said.
McCarter’s legislation is just one of several legislative remedies that have been introduced this spring. Next week, there will be a hearing before the Senate education committee on a bill that would free school districts from having to pay cyber charter school bills if the district operates its own online classes. That bill, authored by Sen. Judith Schwank, D-Berks County, was co-sponsored by Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County.
Districts across the state have already begun operating cyber schools in a bid to retain the tax dollars associated with the students and control over the students’ education.