The growth of the charter school industry has largely stalled in rural areas. Rural and small town school districts offer a small market to tap into, and they tend to be very loyal to their local schools, which often give small towns a large part of their identity.
But in states like Pennsylvania, one type of charter has been thriving in the smaller markets—cyber schools. Years ago, our retiring superintendent was asked career advice for someone starting out in education. “Start a cyber school,” he said. “It’ll be just like printing money.”
A recent Marketplace article by Amy Scott focuses on a small town not too far from my own. Union City is a typical small town setting—just one elementary, one middle and one high school in a community that is suffering through the loss of one of its major industries. The school is one of the institutional backbones of the town, and it is being hit by cyber school enrollment.
“Start a cyber school,” he said. “It’ll be just like printing money.”
In Pennsylvania, school districts must send the cyber school a set amount of money equal to the per capita spending in that district. Typically that’s around $10,000 for each student ($20,000 for students with special needs). Union City has about thirty-five students in cyber schools, so they must hand over at least $350,000. Meanwhile, cyber schools have few infrastructure costs. They provide the student with a computer and a printer and a connection to teachers (who carry huge student loads). Everything the cyber schools don’t spend on those costs per student, they get to keep.
Money follows the students, but infrastructure costs stay at the parent district. Union City has 1,100 students, and maybe 35 students doesn’t seem like it would make a significant difference in the district’s expenditures, but $350K is real money.
In some rural districts, the cyber bill has some fairly stark results. In 2011-2012, my own school district paid for seventy-six students to attend cyber school at a price tag of about $800,000. Our budget that year was a tad over $31 million; that’s a 2.5 percent budget cut for the district, with a zero percent cut in expenses. But that was not the big news in our district. The big news in 2011-2012 was that we closed two elementary schools—in an attempt to save $800K.
Are the results worth the cost?
There are certainly students with particular special needs for whom cyber school is a real boon. But that’s not the majority.
Union City Superintendent Sandra Myers told Scott that many students return to brick and mortar schools after one year, having completed just two or three credits while enrolled in a cyber school out of the twenty-eight expected in a year. That’s a story that’s repeated across many rural districts. Often cyber students are tired of daily assignments and classes, and listening to teachers, and they find the idea of a school they can attend in their PJs appealing. But cyber school requires a great deal of self-discipline or a parent willing to push the child every day.
That may be why the graduation rate for cyber schools in Pennsylvania is 55 percent. Several studies, including one by the pro-charter CREDO at Stanford have found that cyber schools do a lousy job of educating, with an “overwhelming negative impact.”
Pennsylvania Cyber CEO Brian Hayden told Scott, “We’re not kidnapping these kids off the street, you know—the families are choosing to come to us.”
True enough—and cyber schools spend a ton of taxpayer money to make sure they do. A 2012 study by USA Today found just ten of the big players in cyber schools spent almost $100 million on advertising over the previous five years, and things have not slowed down since. Cyber school ads promise that students will be happier or suggest that they will have more time for sports, and they emphasize the “free”—free school, free computer. These ads don’t mention cyber school’s academic outcomes, or success rates.
Just ten of the big players in cyber schools spent almost $100 million on advertising over five years, promising that students will be happier or have more time for sports. These ads don’t mention cyber school’s academic outcomes or success rates.
And let me say it again—those big ad buys, which are designed to market schools and not to inform parents, are paid for with taxpayer dollars.
Scott reports that, like many other districts, Union City is considering advertising of its own—meaning that still more dollars that could be spent on actual education will never find their way to the classroom at all.
The other damaging featuring of cyber schools is that they make budgeting more unpredictable. In Pennsylvania, where the state budget is never, ever done on time, this is just salt in the wound. Districts must budget for the coming year knowing that their figures could be wildly off depending on how many students bolt for cyber school.
Cyber schools are bad news for rural school districts and rural taxpayers, who have no say about how any of this plays out, and the cyber schools themselves don’t even offer successful results.