LANSDALE — It's been hinted at for years, and the North Penn School Board took a deep dive into the specifics last week.
How much do charter and cyber schools impact the school district's bottom line, and what results do they produce for students?
"Each individual North Penn school, in virtually every case — with a few exceptions — not only outperform the cyber schools, but dramatically outperform the cyber schools," said Director of Business Administration Steve Skrocki.
"We're not here to judge that data. We're just going to present that data, and certainly you can draw your own conclusions," he said.
As the school board and staff discussed and ultimately adopted their 2020-21 budget, and in several years prior, board members and staff have pointed to rising costs of cyber and charter schools as growing expenses that have produced little tangible benefit to the district. In January, district Superintendent Curt Dietrich joined dozens of other superintendents from across Pennsylvania to call on the state legislature to revise the formula by which local districts are required to support charter and cyber schools, and the board voted in March to back the same call.
Skrocki and assistant business director Kristin Johnson gave the board hard facts and figures during their Sept. 8 finance committee meeting, showing data derived from the Future Ready PA Index that measures student performance statewide. A total of 14 charter schools receive funding from the North Penn budget because students attend, and Skrocki said the three largest — PA Leadership Charter School, PA Virtual Charter School, and Commonwealth Charter Academy — contain roughly two-thirds of the total charter enrollment.
Using a color-coded chart showing student test scores sorted by subject, Skrocki showed the board results from the state's "Future Ready" index depicting whether the charter schools met state average testing levels or 2030 goals. For the PA Leadership school, a green chart showed the school does meet interim targets for proficiency in language arts subjects, but red graphs showed they fell below state standards for math and science.
"My eyes are drawn to the statewide average for English, Language Arts and Literature: 62 percent throughout the state — and these would be for all local educational agencies — 62 percent is the average, and at this particular cyber school, 56 percent are at a proficient or advanced level," Skrocki said.
Looking at the same data for the PA Virtual School, red "did not meet target" charts are seen for English, math and science, while Commonwealth Charter showed similar scores below state averages for all three categories.
In a sharp contrast, North Penn High School showed considerably higher scores on all major subjects, with blue charts indicating the school is already exceeding the 2030 goals for language arts and math and a green chart for science indicating those are above current goals, with just shy of 82 percent of the school's students rating as proficient or advanced compared to 66 percent as the state average.
"English and language (arts), here at North Penn, 84 percent are proficient or advanced, versus the 62 percent statewide average, so 22 percentage points above the statewide average. In math, 30-plus-percentage points above the statewide average, and a similar story with science and biology, well above the statewide average," Skrocki said.
"Green is good. Blue is very good. Red is bad. The story is pretty similar, with very few exceptions: virtually every North Penn school, on virtually every metric, exceeds the performance of our three largest cyber schools," he said.
Over the past month, Skrocki told the board, roughly 40 district students have dis-enrolled from North Penn and entered into charter or cyber schools, which under current state funding formulas would result in roughly $700,000 in state-mandated, and unbudgeted, additional costs to the district.
"Our historical growth is maybe three to five to seven students per year would leave North Penn schools, and go to a cyber school, but we've seen an inordinate amount this particular year," he said.
Those families are contacted by district administrators to gather data about why they choose to leave and to give them information about the district's virtual programs. Some do return within the first few weeks of starting cyber or charter school, Skrocki told the board, but the unprecedented jump in departures could cause a further budget crunch: "a $700,000 additional expense that's been put on our doorstep in the past month, because of the cyber school funding," he said.
A cyber school funding reform proposal put forth by Governor Tom Wolf in February would save the district roughly $800,000 if enacted, Skrocki told the board, but so far no action has been taken. Skrocki and Assistant Superintendent Todd Bauer said they'd give the board updates on any information they gather from families that have left, and Skrocki said the current 2020-21 budget has about $3 million already budgeted for cyber and charter school expenses, not counting the additional $700,000.
Board member Cathy Wesley asked if the administrators had data on whether certain grades or schools were seeing more departures than others. Skrocki said staff are automatically notified of each dis-enrollment, and had not yet compiled that particular data, but he recalled departures being "pretty spread out" among district schools.
Board member Johnathan Kassa said his research has shown the current state funding formulas causing those expenses were last updated in 1997, and called it "another unfunded mandate from Harrisburg" before asking Skrocki when the district last received state subsidies. Skrocki said the 2010-11 fiscal year was the last time North Penn received any state funding to offset those costs, and that funding tapered off in the wake of the late 2000s recession and subsequent state budget gridlock.
"That subsidy just died off as a result of some of the state budget difficulties. We were typically receiving around 15 to 20 percent of the total charter school expenses," he said.
"Back in 2010-11, we received $313,000 in the subsidy, but that was the last year," Skrocki said.
Kassa then asked if those budget figures, and the test score dashboard, could be publicized for easy access by those asking where their tax dollars go, and if cyber and charter schools perform better than public schools.
"I am not anti-charter school. I am anti-waste of public, taxpayer dollars, at the expense of students' lack of achievement," he said.
Board member Juliane Ramic said she hoped any trends seen in departures for cyber and charter schools could be used to help staff make staffing decisions, and board member Christian Fusco asked who oversees those cybers and charters.
"For charter schools and cyber schools, the governing body is basically appointed by the governing body. There's no election process. How the individuals are selected, I really can't answer that, but it's not by the public at large," Skrocki said.
Fusco said he thought that was a key point to make to the public: that taxpayer dollars do go to both public and private schools, but only the public schools have an elected board responsive to public feedback.
"They're doing it without any actual representation, for people to really voice their concerns about the direction of programs that clearly look, on paper, subpar to the programs we offer at North Penn," he said.
Dietrich added that the process for renewal of charter schools can vary depending on whether they are brick-and-mortar with a physical location or online-only, and charters with physical locations would need to contact their local school district to renew their charter.
"Presently, we do not have any brick and mortar charter school within the North Penn School District. We do have students that do attend a charter school, that brick-and-mortar, in Souderton, but the Souderton Area School District does that particular review, and I know they do that, and do it well," Dietrich said.
Online charter and cyber schools are vetted by the state Department of Education when the time comes for their renewal, Dietrich told the board, adding that he hoped they would examine the same testing data that showed far better scores for North Penn's schools.
"I am very concerned about the performance of some of these cyber and charters, as they are very dismal. I'm hopeful that PDE would take that into serious account," he said.
"We want to continue to encourage people to stay within the North Penn School District, because we do believe that those children will get a superior education in the North Penn School District."
North Penn's school board next meets at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17; for more information visit www.NPenn.org.