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Tax Dollars Pay for Cyber Charter School Ads

As the state House considers a proposed Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Bill, Canon-McMillan officials question whether public tax dollars should be used to support these schools.

Joe Zupancic wonders why taxpayers aren't outraged when they view billboards along the highways, newspaper ads or television commercials—or hear radio spots—for Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

It's their tax monies paying for those ads to recruit students away from and other public school districts, the C-M school board director said in an interview with Patch.

"As a school board member, if I voted to pay $2,000 a month (for an advertisement) to get students to come back to Canon-McMillan, my taxpayers would roast me over an open fire. It outrages me because those are the same tax dollars that should go to the education of our (C-M) kids."

The Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday would, among other things, prohibit the use of public tax dollars to pay for advertising to promote enrollment in a charter or cyber charter school.

That measure can't come quickly enough, according to Zupancic and Principal Greg Taranto, both of whom have spoken out about the issue. At the same time, Fred Miller, communications coordinator for PA Cyber Charter School, based in Midland, Beaver County, talked with Patch to defend the school's use of that public money.

According to state law, local school districts must pay for students who choose to attend charter or cyber charter schools, which are funded by local school district tax dollars.

Taranto estimates that the small number of students—compared to the total student body—from Canon-McMillan School District who choose to attend Pennsylvania cyber schools cost the district and taxpayers well over half a million dollars a year.  

Zupancic, who serves on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said he observed a number of PA Cyber Charter School panel billboards along the Pennsylvania Turnpike on his trips to Harrisburg, along with a digital one near the Bridgeville exit of I-79.

The cost of those signs for a four-week period can range from about $985 for a 5-by-11-foot panel to $12,978 for a rotating digital billboard, according to online figures provided by Lamar Advertising.

Radioloungeusa.com estimates the average 60-second spot on Pittsburgh radio stations costs about $102 while bizjournals.com estimates the cost of a 60-second spot during an 11 p.m. newscast as about $2,500 in 2010.

PA Cyber Charter's Miller said that advertising accounts for approximately 1 percent of the school's annual budget—an average of 70 cents per student. He said radio is the predominant form of advertising used, though "word of mouth is our main source of new students."

Taranto pointed to the conventional advertisements, as well as YouTube videos, Internet ads and mall kiosks as using public money to recruit students away from public schools. 

"It's a travesty," he said, particularly in light of two years of "huge cuts of public education funding by the state, no matter how the governor wants to spin it."

"The state has allowed private companies to use tax money to pull students away from public schools, then make a profit," Zupancic added. "This is an existential attack on the public school system as a whole."

Miller explained the need for advertising, which he said is mandated in the existing charter/cyber charter school law passed in 1997. He said the school has no built-in student body, as a school district does, so advertising helps make parents aware of the option.

He said the school attracts transient students, who might be in need of cyberschooling for a period of time because of medical or other reasons, or kids who "don't fit in" a regular school setting. The school has a 20-percent attrition rate each year.

"The reimbursement ratio for the cyber school has nothing to do with the spending they do educating a child," Zupancic continued. "Every dime we (C-M School District) spend goes into education."

"They have a 100 percent to 200 percent profit margin," he added.

However, Zupancic said charter schools spend an average of $3,500 to $4,000 a student and get reimbursed more than double that amount.

On the flip side, Miller said the average cost of educating a cyber student is $3,400 less than a public school student, in part because the cyber school doesn't have brick walls, though it does own or lease four satellite offices and education support centers throughout the state. Also, because two-thirds of staff members work from their homes, the overhead cost is less than conventional schools, Miller said.

The rules aren't exactly the same for public and charter schools, one of the reasons the state is exploring amended legislation.

They don't have to hire certified teachers, Zupancic said. He also accused some charter/cyber charter schools of re-evaluating students when they enter the school and reclassifying them as in need of special education, which doubles the reimbursement rate.

Taranto noted that the governor and Legislature changed the funding formula for charters and cyber charters from its original 85 percent to 100 percent. Yet if a cyber student isn't logging on, the cyber charter's only obligation is to tell the home district, which then has to spend the money and time to take the student to a district judge for a truancy hearing.

Ninety percent of children attend public schools, leaving the principal with a number of questions.

"There's a place for cyber schools and charter schools. Don't get me wrong," Taranto said.

"But why aren't we supporting public schools? The irony of this whole thing is if you look at the research on this, at best, the charters perform as well as public schools—two-thirds are doing as well or underperforming. They take the best students and leave the public schools with the most challenging students."

“The most recent proposed bill sheds some light on the subject and gives us hope," Taranto said. "Again, there is a place for public schools and charters. We would simply like the system to be fair and equitable for all. There are far more public schools doing great things that we can look to and be proud about in the state of Pennsylvania. To cut funding from these schools and redirect the funding to charters simply does not make sense.”  

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that many charter or cyber charter schools, including PA Cyber Charter School, are run by nonprofit entities, although some are operated by for-profit corporations.

for real June 11, 2012 at 09:39 PM
http://www.repfleck.com/NewsItem.aspx?NewsID=14514 Support reasonable reforms in regards to charters and cyber charter schools.
Mana June 12, 2012 at 12:51 AM
for real .. . . this isn't reasonable changes. This bill is aimed to kill anything but public schools. Notice all the sponsors . . .
Mana June 12, 2012 at 12:51 AM
if the school (CM) is not educating my child, why should they keep any of the tax dollars allocated for their education?
Mana June 12, 2012 at 01:23 AM
education related groups that support the bill: Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools (PARSS). Have you looked at the lobbying dollars behind these organizations? So why is it ok for schools to lobby but not cyber charger schools? If there is to be no lobbying then all the school districts need to leave these organizations.
for real June 12, 2012 at 02:22 AM
PSEA gets money to lobby through PACE contributions of members rather than directly through tax payers. I know a little about PSBA but not where they get their lobby funds but I do know they are made up of school board members who are volunteers. I know nothing about the others. You folks should be glad you are getting any tax money at all and use it for education only. Why in the world should districts pay you to lobby and advertise? If you need money for that stuff, figure out how fund raise outside of tax money.
for real June 12, 2012 at 02:23 AM
I'm sure you would find a way to get by. You have such little overhead: transportation, bricks and mortar, energy costs, lower labor costs etc.
Roger June 12, 2012 at 02:45 AM
Quoting: "... You have such little overhead: transportation, bricks and mortar, energy costs, lower labor costs etc. ..." Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! This makes the point quite clear that there are other ways of delivering education to our children, OTHER THAN the traditional public schools. Despite the writer recognizing this fact, there are plenty of opponents who wish eliminate alternative delivery systems, ones that cost far less, and do an equal or better job.
Roger June 12, 2012 at 02:53 AM
As pointed out the Board member sent surrogates to take the mantle after being exposed. From reading the comments, it seems clear that the concern is competition, albeit small right now. Yes, protectionism of the status quo is at work. Education of our children of lesser concern that keeping the present system, being certain that the same jobs exist into the future, at even higher costs than before. Yes, keep the stream of cash coming, and in greater volume. Yes, there other alternative educational systems needed, including those focused on vocational training. The drought of students needed for trades, especially in this region with the demands of MS, points up a missing link in education in later grade levels.
for real June 12, 2012 at 03:08 AM
Fair enough Roger. Now such entities just need to actually do a better job educating and stop overcharging.
Cyberguy June 13, 2012 at 01:30 PM
For Real, the Fleck bill is designed to kill charter schools, not reform them. For instance, it provides that if a school district has its own cyber program (never mind the quality of that program), students in that district would not be able to enroll in a cyber charter school. As to your comment about cybers costing less to operate, you and Roger and I agree. . . to a point. Cybers don't have classroom buildings, football stadiums or bus fleets or coach salaries. That's why we receive 76 cents on the dollar compared to what school districts spend per-pupil. We do have buildings for staff, however, along with utilities, maintenance and all the other costs of facilities. We have principals, teachers, school nurses, guidance, tutoring, school records, plus some costs that B&M schools don't have, like a large tech support staff, compurters, shipping costs, online curriculum, educational software (Blackboard etc.) and Internet access for every student. Last year it cost PA Cyber $875,000 to administer the state PSSA tests at 30 sites across the state. With the exceptions listed above, our school has virtually (pardon the pun) every cost to operate that brick and mortar schools have. People who believe we operate an online school for 11,000 students from laptops on our kitchen tables, or that online curriculum consists of canned lectures on videotape, absolutely do not understand how a quality cyber school operates.
for real June 14, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Not likely. The Republicans love school choice such as charters and cyber-charters. Fleck and many others realize that accountability and reform are needed. Don't forget that Corbett cut the 30% reimbursement which was put in place since they knew the formula was flawed. The lawmakers can see that the scores are bad and the money is being used for things that it should not. Maybe your particular operation is better than others but no way can the status quo be maintained. These guys are not going to raise taxes at the state level, close corporate loopholes or look for new revenue sources. All education systems everywhere are going to get hit.
Mana June 14, 2012 at 10:09 AM
@amanda, how many children in canon Mac are enrolled in a cyber or charter school? What percentage of the budget is this?
Mana June 14, 2012 at 10:13 AM
Here is the flip side here: mwhat happens if this bill passes and canon Mac decides to create their own cyber school and parent doesn't want their child to go? Can you imagine if all these parent began to homeschool and did not have to follow state guidelines (to a degree) like pacyber does? No matter how you look at it, school vouchers are the answer to keep people accountable as well as create a better more competitive system. When the dollars, i mean children really start to leave that is when school districts will,wake up to the problems.
Cyberguy June 14, 2012 at 01:08 PM
In 2007 Rep. Karen Beyer led a legislative effort to reduce funding for cyber charters. It foundered on the rocks of the underlying inequity in funding between districts, and Beyer was turned out of office. If a single statewide tuition rate is enacted, the poorer districts won't be helped and the wealthy districts will pay half what they are paying now. The Fleck bill is so draconian it is not going to go anywhere, though proponents may attempt to add specific provisions from it as amendments to the real charter reform bill, HB 2352. Constructive reforms to the charter school law, including funding, will be welcomed by charters and cyber charters. Mana, I don't know total numbers of cyber students from Canon-Mac, but as of Oct. 1, 39 were enrolled in PA Cyber.
Joe Nesp June 14, 2012 at 01:53 PM
If you want to get the inside view of school choice from someone who lives it, check out Natalie Hopkinson's article written in the NY Times published on December 4, 2011. She talks about how it affected her neighborhood in Washington, D.C. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/opinion/why-school-choice-fails.html
truth seeker June 14, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Looked up the Fleck Bill. I support it 100%. Look at what our Audtor General is saying about charters and cyb. charters. http://newsitem.com/news/state-concern-over-cyber-school-funding-mirrors-criticism-from-local-administrators-1.1297248#axzz1xmSZGaTe This needs to be changed now. the funding formula for these schools is a joke.
Cyberguy June 15, 2012 at 02:23 PM
An invitation to all who have commented on this thread: Come to PA Cyber for a tour of the state's best cyber school, and lunch on me. Email me (fred.miller@pacyber.org) and we'll find a date time convenient for you to visit our school in Midland, Pa.: . This has been an excellent forum for discussion of some very complicated issues. The thread has gone on much longer than I expected. My thanks to Patch.com and Zandy for providing the platform and monitoring the exchanges, which have been civil and constructive for the most part. Truth Seeker, For Real, Mr. Zupancic, Jerry, Mana, Roger, Zandy, everyone is welcome. Come and ask whatever questions you want to, see whatever you want of our facilities, employees and operations. I promise a friendly welcome and open discussion. Mr. Zupanic, I'd also welcome the chance to tour Canon-Mac and see your cyber program. Best to all - Fred Miller, communications coordinator, PA Cyber Charter School. 724.777.5918 cell
Amanda Gillooly June 15, 2012 at 08:42 PM
Mr. Miller, I've not met you yet—but I'm Amanda, the editor of the site. Thank you for your kind offer, and for the information you provided the forum. If I may ever be of further assistance to you, please feel free to call me anytime. My number is 724-510-5659.
for real June 21, 2012 at 04:03 AM
http://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/pennsylvania/mc-pa-wagner-charter-school-20120620,0,1023117.story Maybe you should invite the auditor general to lunch. Sounds like he would love to talk to you and some of your other friends.
Mana June 21, 2012 at 04:06 AM
@amanda have you considered taking mr miller up on his offer for lunch and writing about what you learn?
Amanda Gillooly June 21, 2012 at 04:18 AM
@Mana: I certainly have. I will be in contact with Mr. Miller on the matter–especially since the subject has generated so much interest. Thanks for following up Mana!
Mana July 21, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Amanda, how did you lunch go?
Mana July 21, 2012 at 09:06 PM
For those who followed this, the majority of the legislation didn't pass! My children will continue to have limited school choice! I am very pleased about this!
Amanda Gillooly July 21, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Mana - I have not yet had lunch and I thank you for putting it back on my radar. I had a vacation and an illness in between these posts!
Mana July 22, 2012 at 02:38 AM
Poor you! Vacation and illness should not be used in the same sentence. Hope you are well now.
Amanda Gillooly July 22, 2012 at 03:36 AM
Oh, Mana! I'm writing a column about vacation—and Urgent Care's role in it LOL. I am almost all better! Thank you so much for the kind words! I put "Call Mr. Miller" on my to-do list for this week! :)
Cyberguy July 23, 2012 at 01:10 PM
Fred Miller from PA Cyber here - amazing that this thread is still going. It shows how concerned people are about having real educational choices for their kids. My offer for lunch and a tour of PA Cyber operations in Midland is still open. To get everyone up to date on state charter school legislation, the anti-cyber Fleck bill never went anywhere, but the charter reform legislation backed by our school and the coalition didn't get passed, either. Supposedly both House and Senate supported the reforms, but differences in their versions was holding up the state budget and leadership decided to put charter reform off for the moment. The governor promised to put this issue front and center on the legislation's agenda this fall.
Amanda Gillooly July 23, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Thank you, Mr. Miller!
Jean Smith August 21, 2012 at 01:11 AM
j, I pay my taxes on 12 homes in WHITEHALL and it is my choice if I want to send my son to a Cyber School next year. Baldwin/Whitehall is still doing to keep 20% of the money that is suppose to be spent on my son's education. It isn't fair that they get to keep 20%, since they won't be doing anything for my son at all. The reason that I pulled my son out of Baldwin/Whitehall School District is because it is ran by a bunch of clowns "School Board and Administration" that keeps on cutting Departments and Teachers so that we can pay outrageous salaries to Dean's of Sports that are only there to coach and can't be vice Principles because they don't have the Education to be one. I would love to see Pennsylvania go to a Voucher System and to let the parents decide where they want the money for their child education to go too and they get the full amount, not 80%. I pulled my son out of Baldwin because they have horrible teachers and can't keep up with students that are extremely smart. Not only will he be doing his school year though a Cyber School he will also be taking College Courses at night. How can you say "oo many people get a free ride on taxpayer dollars.", when in fact I am probably paying more in taxes than you are.
Jean Smith August 21, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Mana you are so lucky you don't have your child in Baldwin/Whitehall. Talk about a horror story and so glad I pulled my son out of there.

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