Panel: Level the playing field for traditional schools, cyberschools

Published May 8, 2013 at 11:03 am (Updated May 8, 2013 at 11:03 am)

State legislators and school officials from around Southwestern Pennsylvania met on the morning of April 27 to discuss the future of public education and the growing presence of cyberschools.

The consensus during the casual discussion at Canon-McMillan High School appeared to be that more options should provide better education, but the playing field between “brick and mortar” schools and the online classroom needs to be leveled.

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said he’s worried that money is influencing the education requirements for cyber and charter schools, giving them a competitive and financial advantage over public education without improving learning.

“The inequality between the two is widening,” White said. “There is a lot of money – it’s very shadowy – and unfortunately it’s allowing the cyberschools to get more exemptions than the normal bricks and mortar schools get.”

Roberta DiLorenzo, superintendent for Washington School District, echoed that point and said there often is a lethargic approach to online schooling that has some students just “logging on” to be counted in attendance, but not making progress.

She added that there is a burden on the public schools to find out if students have moved out of the district, meaning taxpayers are sometimes erroneously footing the bill for some cyberschool education.

“I understand there are kids thriving in cyber, but to allow our students to leave our schools and sit and do nothing, putting the taxpayers on the hook for that, is a crime,” DiLorenzo said.

State Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, agreed and said he has heard from administrators that some students who return to public schools after taking online classes are behind their peers. He said legislators don’t always see the problems facing educators, and he is planning to push for more accountability.

“You live this every day,” Neuman said. “We’re voting on 20 different issues in one day. You’re on the streets with this every day.”

More than a dozen school administrators and board members from Washington, Greene, Westmoreland and Fayette counties attended the two-hour discussion and raised their concerns with the state legislators and Pennsylvania School Board Association officials. One of their other biggest questions was the future of funding for public education.

Jon Hildebrand, a school director at Jefferson-Morgan, pleaded with the legislators to find new funding sources to improve public education. He pointed to casino gambling revenue and the Marcellus Shale impact fee as lost opportunities to make adjustments to how schools, especially those in rural areas with small tax bases, receive money.

“We’re always doing these things and never thinking about our kids,” Hildebrand said. “We need to change the way we fund our schools. The environment we have for our kids is horrible, and we don’t have the funding to fix it.”

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, noted that removing the state sales tax exemption on certain items could bring in an additional $10 million to $15 million per year. That wouldn’t eliminate property taxes, he said, but it could assist property owners or boost education revenue.

“There’s not a cookie-cutter approach to this thing as to how you can make things better in those (poorer) districts,” Solobay said. “If we’re going to allow this to go on, we need to have an even playing field.”

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