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 Canon-McMillan 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 Canonsburg Middle School 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.
Currently, the North Hills School District spends $1.2 million dollars a year for those students, according to Superintendent Dr. Patrick Mannarino. "That's zero return for our investment," he said at Monday's meeting when school directors approved a new budget and 1.7 percent tax increase.
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.