Report: PA Cyber Charter Schools Spent $16.8M On Advertising, Promotion In 2021-22

Commonwealth Charter Academy

As budget season in the Pennsylvania legislature turns its attention toward public school funding, a new report shows that the state’s cyber charter schools spent nearly $17 million in advertising and promotion alone in the last year.

Education Voters of PA, a project of the Keystone Research Center, filed Right to Know requests with Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools seeking all invoices for advertising, marketing, and promotions, including invoices for communications firms and third-party vendors contracted to do this work for the 2021-2022 school year. The group also asked for information about gift cards, cash payments, parties, and events.

What it found in nearly 3,000 pages of invoices and multiple spreadsheets of transactions was what it called a waste of more than $16.8 million in a single year on advertising and promotion.

Why is this important? Charter schools, organized as public, nonprofit corporations, do not charge students tuition – they receive the majority of funding from their students’ resident school districts. The amount a charter school receives is based upon a statutory funding formula, which requires tuition rates for both nonspecial and special education students.

In 2021-2022, school districts sent nearly $1 billion in tuition payments to cyber charter schools. It costs the Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County $22,608 for each nonspecial student and over $60K for each special education student. Manheim Township School District in Lancaster County has spent $1.8 million in the past year alone. Because there is no state reimbursement for these costs, cyber charter tuition payments are funded primarily by property taxes.

The Pennsylvania Association for School Business Officials found that local tax revenue increases were eclipsed by increases in cyber charter tuition payments alone and thus never reached students in PA’s school district classrooms.

Schools that operate under a charter are divided into three general categories—charter schools, regional charter schools, and cyber charter schools.

Charter schools are exempt from many educational mandates. Some of the mandates that charter schools are not exempt from include health and safety, special education, civil rights, student accountability, employee criminal history checks, open meetings, freedom of information requirements, generally accepted accounting principles, and certain provisions of the Pennsylvania School Code.

A cyber charter school is an independent public school established and operated under a charter from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and in which the school uses technology in order to provide a significant portion of curriculum and to deliver a significant portion of instruction to its students through the internet.

The actual cost to operate a cyber charter school is estimated to be 25-30 percent less than the cost to operate a brick & mortar charter school. However, Pennsylvania law requires school districts to pay per pupil tuition to cyber charter schools at the same rates paid to brick & mortar charter schools.

Education Voters of PA cited a number of examples of what they are referring to a waste of their property tax dollars.

The Commonwealth Charter Academy spent $3.4 million on advertising in a three-month period from January-March 2022, while also spending more than $150,000 on Major League Baseball tickets, catering, parking and other parties.

PA Cyber Charter School spent $58,000 on swag, including $9,725 on owl-shaped erasers, $6,750 on custom lapel pins, $8,678 on branded Post-It notes, and $18,120 on branded magnets, while also purchasing high-end hoodies, embroidered cardigans, and track jackets.

The PA Virtual Charter School allocated $132,404 on bus wraps and other transit advertising, as well as $28,807 on sponsorships of minor league baseball teams.

Reach Cyber Charter School spent $125,308 on Target gift cards for students. And Insight Cyber Charter School spent $959,053 on a contract for undisclosed services with for-profit management company K-12, Inc.

The governing school boards of 432 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have passed resolutions calling on the General Assembly “to meaningfully revise the existing flawed charter school funding systems” including overpayments to cyber charter schools.

There are at least 10 bills under consideration by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and another four in the State Senate on cyber charter schools.

State lawmakers could end the excessive profiteering of cyber charter schools with the stroke of a pen, says Education Voters of PA. Simple reforms to Pennsylvania’s 25-year-old charter school law that more closely match the tuition districts pay to cyber charters with the actual cost of a cyber charter education would leave cybers with plenty of funding to educate their students and reduce tuition costs for districts. This would mean more money in school district classrooms, less pressure to raise property taxes, and fewer dollars for cyber charter schools to waste.

12 Responses

  1. Why does your information not contain HOW MANY STUDENTS THEY ARE SERVING? these charters provide a vital option for kids whose needs are not being met in traditional public schools.
    I’m sure it is a challenge for the locals to not get all those dollars, however the local districts still get 25% of state dollars for the charter kids who don’t go there. What are they doing with that money?

    1. Advertising is money spent to promote For Profit, private charters. It is our PROPERTY TAX Paid by us homeowners, money intended for our Free Public Schools.

      1. Once again, they aren’t for profit. If you keep saying it, it doesn’t make it right. It just makes you seem dumber.

        1. Oh, they make a Profit, all right. It just doesn’t get to the bottom line. It is siphoned off into Executive Salaries, and contract payments to affiliated for-profit companies as “expenses” – all to make it look like there is no end profit. The owners and executives are getting PLENTY of profit.

  2. So schools that are online that are private and want taxpayer dollars have spent $17 million advertising! Let alone special interests and what they spent that is hidden. Understand this: if we as a society give up on public education and allow public schools to be the haven for the unruly and for those luckless who couldn’t find a charter our society is in trouble. Public education was the dream of our founding fathers and of many champions of the people and asking the public to support private education is unwise.

    1. They are public schools. It’s not giving up. It’s investing in public schools, just not traditional brick and mortar.

      1. No, they are private for profit cyber schools. Our public schools often run their own online cybers, but they are not for profit. The GOP is pushing more and more money to the private charters/cybers in an deliberate attack on public education. Which they object “having to pay for”

        1. No. They aren’t. They explain it poorly in the article, but they are public schools and the main difference being they have no taxing authority of their own.

          Hence, no school board. It’s a non profit tax status and governing board.

          They get 75% of money per student and the brick and mortar keep the rest.

          It isn’t private.

          1. They ARE private, and the public has NO input on how they spend all that taxpyer money. You must own a charter school scheme.

        2. Linda- you claim this, but tax filings, articles of incorporation, and legislation say otherwise. Can you provide any evidence of being “for profit”?

          If so, you could report them and they would lose their NON PROFIT STATUS.

          I’m going with facts.

          I would suggest you stop lying if you want to get support and focus on a fair funding formula change, which many public cyber charters support discussing.

  3. Cyber charter schools are ripping off the public and an insult to public education. They are laughing at us all the way to the bank and the Republican legislators are letting them get away with it

    1. Yeah. That’s why their enrollment has been growing. It’s because taxpayers are getting ripped off – not because it’s cheaper and more responsive to students. Teachers are leaving classrooms, but cyber is paying less and hiring still. Is that because of some Republican scheme?

      People are frustrated with the traditional school systems being unresponsive. They should be partnering with Cyber schools to make public education better.


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