BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Interest in cyber charter schools skyrocketed during the pandemic.
"This year, we've seen a very high demand for school choice, in public cyber charter schools in particular," said Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School.
In Bethlehem, cyber charter school enrollment shot up 60 percent from last year, though overall charter enrollment increased just six percent.
In Allentown, charter enrollment is up four percent, but cyber charter school enrollment is up 35 percent.
"I think when parents were faced with the issue with the pandemic, they began to look for the best option to work with their kids and families, and often that led them to a space where they shopped a little bit more," said Allentown School District Superintendent Thomas Parker.
When the pandemic hit, Allentown was playing catch up. It took time to equip every student with computers and WiFi to be able to learn online. Then, the district had to scramble to put together an online campus.
Eventually, Parker said, Allentown launched a dynamic and robust virtual learning platform.
But cyber charter schools, of course, already had cyber learning ready to go.
"It's not a situation where we could place all our eggs financially into the distance learning, virtual learning basket," Parker said.
The district still had to reserve funds for building maintenance, for example. On the topic of charter schools, Parker doesn't label himself pro or anti charter. The reality is, losing students to charter schools has financial impacts on the district.
"The overall impact on the district is that there are then less resources to educate the children that exist in the district," Parker said.
School districts give a portion of their funding for every student that leaves for a charter--it doesn't matter if it's cyber or brick and mortar. In Allentown, the district reimburses charter schools $10,000 per child, $27,000 per special needs child. The reimbursements vary per district.
On Friday, Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a charter school accountability plan to fix things he saw as problems even before the pandemic. One of those issues pertains to cyber charter school reimbursements. He wants to set a flat rate across the commonwealth.
"This would significantly impact our ability to provide high-quality instruction," said Jensen.
Despite being a cyber school, Jensen said the school still has fixed expenses, including real estate.
"We have some expenses brick and mortar don't have," Jensen said.
Wolf also wants to cap enrollment at under-performing cyber charters.
"The majority of Pennsylvania's cyber charter schools are among the lowest performing schools in our commonwealth," Wolf said.
"It's interesting they continue to want to cap schools parents want to go into, no one has ever said anything about capping school districts that have been failing kids for generations," said Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
McAllister said the coalition is against cutting funding for any schools, including traditional schools.
"Now is not the time to pick winners and losers when it comes to funding, when it comes to cuts," McAllister said. "This is not the time for us versus them, wolves versus sacrificial lambs when it comes to public education and how we're going to do funding. This is the time we should all be coming together collectively at the table and talking about how we address public education moving forward now that we've learned so much over the last twelve months."