Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

CARES Act funding under fire, as Harrisburg School District loses students to cyber charters

Commonwealth Charter Academy’s building in Harrisburg

Inequity has been an issue for decades, according to Acting Superintendent for the Harrisburg School District, Chris Celmer.

He was referring to what he sees as unfair funding for charter schools—specifically cyber charters.

While he’s spoken on this numerous times, this time had a new edge to it—new meaning.

Allocation amounts of second-round federal CARES Act funding recently were announced, and Celmer expressed his disappointment in what he saw.

When the pandemic hit, the Harrisburg School District had to pivot quickly, like most brick and mortar schools, closing classrooms and doling out laptops.

They scrambled to create options for students, knowing what would inevitably come and trying desperately to stop it.

The district formed the Harrisburg Virtual Learning Academy (HVLA), a cyber-only alternative to their mainstream option in which students will eventually return to the classroom.

“We understand that we need to provide options for our students and families, and we are willing to put in the time, money and effort to do so,” Celmer said.

And yet, that didn’t stop over 200 students from moving to charter schools. He said, without HVLA, which has over 200 students, the number could’ve been closer to 500.

In past years, there’s been a steady rise in students making the switch to charter. Usually, close to two-thirds choose cyber, the remaining, just over one-third, opt for brick-and-mortar, Celmer said. But during the past year, 100% of students who left for charter picked cyber schools.

With each student goes $10,000 from the school district that they must pay to the charter school, he said. For each special education student, that number jumps to $28,000. For the 200 students the district lost this year, Celmer said they are looking at a $2 to $3 million payout.

With another round of CARES funding coming down the tracks, Celmer is not happy with how money is being distributed. Sure, the district is on track to get $25 million, but what sticks in Celmer’s mind is the near $50 million the state is funneling to 12 PA charter schools.

“That is totally inequitable,” he said. “Not only is a cyber charter getting our funding, now they’re getting additional CARES funding. They’re already a cyber charter operation, they don’t have the brick-and-mortar expenses.”

The Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA), a Harrisburg-based cyber school, will likely receive the most of the 12 charter schools—possibly $13 million.

But Tim Eller, senior vice president of outreach and government relations at CCA, disagrees with Celmer, saying the funding is fair.

From the beginning of last school year to the beginning of this school year, Eller said the student body has doubled. CCA now serves around 19,000 students.

While the school doesn’t have traditional brick-and-mortar costs, it does have expenses distinct to cyber schools, he explained. CCA supplies students with laptops, curriculum materials, printers and often subsidizes internet costs. Eller said that they also have to pay for services for small cohorts of special education students. During COVID, costs have increased as services must be one-on-one with a teacher and either at home or in a sanitary location.

“Cyber charters have unique expenses,” he said. “Districts don’t want to admit it or just don’t consider it.”

Eller noted that, under Act 13-2020, from March 13 to the end of last school year, districts did not have to pay tuition to charter schools due to the pandemic. He said that the first round of CARES Act funding helped them make up those lost funds and pay for new teachers’ salaries.

He also pointed out that, in total, $2.7 billion of the second-round CARES money is being distributed to public schools in the state, with $2.3 billion going to school districts and only $4 million to charter schools.

“These are public school students, and they deserve the same funding,” he said.

As part of his 2020-21 budget, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed charter school reform legislation that he said would create fair, predictable and equitable funding for school districts. The proposal has not been acted on.

If the reform doesn’t happen soon, Celmer believes it will never happen, given the state of education in PA today.

“This has been an issue, quite frankly, that the legislature has continued to skirt for decades,” he said. “It’s not just about the Harrisburg School District, it’s a statewide issue. Now is the time.”

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