A little free market in action.
If you are in Pennsylvania, chances are that you have seen advertisements for cyber charter schools—on television, the sides of buses, parade floats, the computer screen, or in your local newspaper. All of this, and more, are part of the work of marketing these schools, a tremendous reach to create brand awareness, all paid for with public tax dollars.
Cyber charter schools are on line charter schools. Like all charter schools, they are privately owned and operated, but funded by taxpayers.
This morning, Education Voters of Pennsylvania released analysis of a large set of cyber charter school marketing invoices procured by Right To Know requests. There are over 3,500 pages to look through, though at least one school did not respond, and other responses appear incomplete.
The request was for the years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. Education Voters estimated that the invoices represent over $35 million spent on marketing for the charters.
The leading spender in the group is Commonwealth Charter Academy, which paid out almost $19 million for advertising and marketing over the two years. As with all the schools involved, that total may be incomplete. EdVoters attempted to find out how much CCA spent on the Jerold the Bookworm parade float and was told that information was “a trade secret and confidential proprietary information.” CCA was previously known as the Commonwealth Connections Academy, with connections to education giant Pearson. CCA is also busy in the real estate business, but that doesn’t count as marketing for record keeping purposes.
Education Voters highlighted some of the more striking expenses. Agora Cyber Charter spent $50,000 to sponsor Mummies of the World at the Carnegie Science Center. REACH spent $31,000 on air zooka blasters branded with the school logo.
My own dive into PA Cyber invoices found a great deal of taxpayer money spent on building community good will and creating brand awareness. PA Cyber’s invoices include sponsorships for a Monaca VFD 5K race, the “Easter Eggstravaganza” at Erie’s Millcreek Mall, the PA Shakespeare Festival, New Brighton Youth Baseball, the Harrisburg Senators baseball club summer reading program, Da Vinci Discovery Center of Science and Technology in Allentown, New Castle YMCA, and the Bradbury-Sullivan LBTQ Community Center Lehigh Valley Pride. PA Cyber is particularly generous in their home community of Beaver, PA, where they have supported everything from the humane society to the local library to the Habitat for Humanity Zombie Festival and Trail Run.
While all of these are worthy causes, PA Cyber is supporting them, and building its own brand with real estate tax dollars collected for education.
All of the cyber schools spend heavily for online advertising, from Facebook ads to Google search placement. PA Cyber spent about nearly $100,000 per year on Facebook advertising and $8,000-$10,000 per month on Google ad placement. PA Cyber is also willing to reach into smaller areas; in my own county, with a population of under 50,000, PA Cyber maintains a regular advertising presence in the local newspaper. The amount is not huge, but if local public schools started spending thousands of dollars on newspaper ads, local taxpayers would have questions. And the more than 2,000 pages of invoices for PA Cyber marketing does start to add up.
This costly, taxpayer-funded marketing is a reminder that Pennsylvania’s cyber charters play by a different set of rules than public schools. Their payment-per-student is based on the cost-per-student in the sending brick and mortar schools; as with cyber charters in California, Pennsylvania cybers are overpaid for their services. State oversight has also been lax; as of December 2020, six of the state’s fourteen cyber schools had never been audited, and several of the others had not been audited in almost a decade. Cyber charters are also exempt from PA laws that cap the amount of money they can park as an undesignated fund balance, leading some to stockpile huge amounts.
Governor Tom Wolf has proposed a set of reforms for charter funding that include addressing the amount of taxpayer money going to cyber charters.
This huge spending on marketing wastes millions of taxpayers dollars that were intended to be spent on students’ education. It also increases pressure on public schools to spend tax dollars on marketing of their own. One result of putting education on a free market basis is many taxpayer dollars aren’t spent on education at all.
A little free market in action.