Friday, May 6, 2011
Solanco School District's $1,000 educational enhancement grant to lure students troubles school choice proponents
A Lancaster County school district has launched a new program aimed at enticing district students to attend the district's own virtual academy instead of some other cyberschool by offering a $1,000 educational enhancement grant.
Solanco School Board, which approved the program this week, sees this as a way to avoid the $8,300 per student bill that the district must pay to a cyberschool when a district student enrolls.
District spokesman Keith Kaufman said having those students transfer to the district's Solanco Virtual Academy could save local taxpayers as much as $500,000.
"It's another choice out there," Kaufman said. "And also it provides a savings to Solanco taxpayers, which is always important especially in these current challenging economic times."
State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis has concerns about the enticement. His press secretary Timothy Eller said, "School districts may not charge families for requirements under school laws. If a school district believes its program is high quality, it should allow the program to stand on its own merit."
Representatives of the school choice and charter school community, likewise, are troubled over what they label as a "reverse voucher." Instead of using taxpayer-funded vouchers to allow students to attend a public or prive school of their choice, Solanco is using taxpayer-funded vouchers to encourage students to attend their schools.
Otto Banks, executive director of REACH Foundation, a Harrisburg-based school choice organization, said, "To financially entice families to switch from their cyber charter school I think is somewhat shameful."
A statement from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said, "Instead of addressing the reasons why students left and seeking creative academic and cost-saving measures, the district chooses to buy back students. There could be no greater insult to the families who left the district in pursuit of a better educational opportunity for their children. Nor could there be a greater insult to taxpayers who would prefer the district fix what is broken rather than throw money at a problem that will continue to exist."
But Holly Brzycki, supervisor of online learning at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit and a former cyberschool employee, said she finds the choice community's reaction to be interesting.
"In this day and age, it is about school choice and in cyberschools ... that is all they used to say. We're just another choice," Brzycki said. "For them to be a little disgruntled with it is going against what they’ve always said.”
Eller said charter schools are prohibited from offering enticements to lure students to their schools. Banks said, "I think the same onus should be placed on districts as well."