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Pa. Districts, Cyber Charters Battle for Dollars

The party line for advocates of online learning is that virtual and brick-and-mortar schools should work collaboratively to find the best learning solutions for every student, which may or may not look like a traditional classroom experience.

But in many places, the fiscal realities of state policy in a down economy can pit potential collaborators against each other.

Take Pennsylvania, where the Altoona Mirror reported yesterday that a district in the Central Pa. paper's coverage area was one of several devoting $4,000 toward television ads promoting both face-to-face and virtual programs within their local districts to keep students from enrolling in one of the state's 12 cyber charter schools.

The ad comes in response to the recent passage of a state budget, that among many other items, eliminates the reimbursements school districts used to receive when students would enroll in cyber charter schools outside their districts.

In the Mirror report, Rodney Green, a superintendent from the 1,900-student Spring Cove district, said students need to be aware of the state-approved cyber curriculum available to district students at a cost he says is far less than the "inflated" cost districts have to pay cyber charters to enroll one of their students. A district like Spring Cove can lose approximately $8,000 in a per-student allocation, and $15,000 in the case of special education students, if that student enrolls in a cyber charter, the Mirror reports.

Nick Trombetta, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, whom I saw speak at last month's annual ISTE conference, told the Mirror he welcomed the competition, but that often districts may not be capable of matching the promises made in the advertisements. But numbers from the state education department that have also found more than 40 percent of cyber charters failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, during the 2009-10 school year.

Ironically, the session Trombetta co-led at ISTE was actually centered around organizing ways that brick-and-mortar, public virtual, and charter virtual schools could work together to reapportion educational resources.

While districts in small towns like Spring Cove, Hollidaysburg, and Tyrone each saw more than 40 of their students choose to enroll in cyber charters last year, or more than $320,000 in per-student funding, the Mirror says not all districts are on board with spending the $4,000 for the ad campaign sponsored by the Central Pennsylvania Public School Coalition and the Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools.

Pennsylvania is by no means the only state where traditional educational options are starting to feel the friction of competition with other alternatives for state and federal education dollars. For example, sources I've spoken with in Florida say a combination of the slowing of student enrollment increases combined with the evolution of more cyber charters have put a dent in the previously amicable relationship between public school districts and the Florida Virtual School.

In Pennsylvania's case, the tensions may be exacerbated because school districts are smaller and tend to be organized around city or township governments, and therefore feel a more immediate impact with the loss of per-pupil funding.

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