Aug. 29, 2017

Pa. charter schools spend millions of public dollars in advertising to attract students

By Stephanie Hacke and Mary Niederberger

Aug. 17, 2017

Pa. charter schools spend millions of public dollars in advertising to attract students

By Stephanie Hacke and Mary Niederberger

(Gif by Natasha Khan and Ryan Loew)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

If you’re a parent, it’s likely Facebook knows it.

If you’re not happy with your child’s current school, Facebook probably knows that, too. And you are likely to be hit with paid, highly targeted ads offering alternatives. That’s why when you scroll through your news feed on Facebook you may see a sponsored photo of a wide-eyed child and parent thrilled about their tuition-free, personalized education at a Pennsylvania cyber charter school.

If you pay property taxes, you likely paid for this ad campaign.

See the ad on the side of the Port Authority bus that shows happy students and a message that Propel Montour High School has spaces available in grades 9 and 10.

Your property taxes paid for that, too.

Television ads, radio promotions, social media ads and billboards promoting cyber and brick-and-mortar charter schools are everywhere.

Some charter operators pay for online keyword searches that prompt their school’s websites to show up first when a parent searches for certain terms related to charter schools or a student’s need for an alternative education setting.

In the last three school years, 12 of the state’s 14 cyber charter schools spent more than $21 million combined in taxpayer dollars promoting their schools, PublicSource found through Right-to-Know requests. The Commonwealth Charter Academy spent the most of the cyber charters on advertising; it spent $3.2 million in 2015-16 and $4.4 million in 2016-17.

Twelve of the 14 brick-and-mortar charter school operators in Allegheny County paid a total of about $678,000 over the same three school years to promote their schools and recruit students.

At the same time, most of the 43 traditional school districts in Allegheny County said they spent nothing on advertising or student recruitment. The main exception was Pittsburgh Public Schools, which spent $346,000 on commercial and government access TV productions aimed at what the district called increasing pride in the district.

Television ads for two Pennsylvania charter schools that ran during local and network news programs. (Photos by Mary Niederberger/PublicSource)

Leaders of traditional school districts say they either don’t feel comfortable using taxpayer funds to advertise or have been told by residents it’s not an appropriate use of public funds.

“It’s not the best use of public dollars,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “It’s still the mindset of the education community: They are here to educate students, not put out slick advertising campaigns to attract students.”

But charter school leaders aren’t shy about spending public dollars to advertise their schools. They say the promotions are needed to let parents know they have a choice on where to send their children outside of the traditional public school system. With cyber schools, students are able to enroll from across the state and their officials say they have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to advertising.

Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said charters do not have students automatically assigned to them based on where they live the way that traditional districts do.

“Charters have to attract students,” Eller said. Advertising is the way to do that, he added.

Eller, who represents brick-and-mortar charter schools, said it makes sense that cyber charters would spend more than brick-and-mortars because of their statewide audience.

Advertising tactics

One of the methods several cyber charter schools use to get more business is paid Internet searches, often through Google AdWords, where they pay to have their school’s website show up first when parents search terms like “Pennsylvania cyber charter school.”

Pennsylvania Distance Learning, which enrolled about 646 students in 2016-17, spent the majority of its advertising budget in the last three years on paid Internet searches. The school spent $155,000 of its $349,000 public relations budget on paid Internet searches in 2014-15; $233,000 of its $359,000 budget on the expense in 2015-16; and $225,000 of its $384,000 public relations budget in 2016-17 on the targeted searches.

James Hanak, CEO of PA Leadership Charter School, said his school uses paid Internet searches as one of many advertising tools to drive traffic to its website, where they offer a wide variety of information on the school.

PA Leadership uses search terms that include “alternative school” and “whatever you think a parent might type” in if they’re searching for a school, Hanak said. The idea, he said, is to get more traffic to the school’s website, so people can find out more.

PA Leadership also has an agreement with the Reading Phillies Minor League baseball team, where they get a billboard in the outfield, occasionally throw out the first pitch at a game, have announcements made at the games and get several hundred tickets, which they give out to parents and students when they hold school nights at the ballpark.

The school spent $656,000 in 2014-15 and $628,000 in 2015-16 for marketing and communications related expenses. In 2016-17, it planned to spend $1.1 million in that area.

In the last three school years, 12 of the state’s 14 cyber charters schools spent more than $21 million combined in taxpayer dollars promoting their schools.

(Source: Charter school records PublicSource received from Right-to-Know requests)

Out of all of its forms of advertising, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School spent the most on TV ads. Of the $1.9 million it spent on advertising in the 2014-15 school year, it spent $946,000 on TV ads. One of the largest and oldest cyber charter school in the state, with about 10,900 students in 2016-17, PaCyber spent $1.7 million in 2015-16 and at least $1.4 million in 2016-17 advertising its school through the radio, Internet, TV, marketing services, periodicals and promotional events.

CEO Brian Hayden agreed $1 million in TV advertisements sounds like a lot of money, but pointed to the school’s operating budget, which for the 2017-18 school year is at $142 million.

“In terms of how we are spending our money, that’s not a very large percentage of our budget,” Hayden said. “We spend far, far, far more — I mean tens of millions of dollars — on curriculum and other expenses directly related to what goes on in the classroom.”

Commonwealth Charter Academy, with 9,200 students in 2016-17, spent the most of the state’s cyber charter schools on advertising through sponsorships, and ads in print, TV, radio, Internet and outdoor marketing, along with sessions meant to provide more detailed information to interested families.

This equaled between 2.78 percent and 3.56 percent of the school’s total operating budget for three years, according to the school.

The school changed its name in 2016-17 from Commonwealth Connections Academy to Commonwealth Charter Academy. It also ended its relationship with a national education management company and became fully independent with a Pennsylvania-based board of directors, leaders said. These changes prompted a boost in advertising in 2016-17 to inform people of the changes.

PublicSource did not receive records from two cyber charter schools: ASPIRA Bilingual Cyber Charter School owes PublicSource records after an Office of Open Records ruling, and the other, Reach Cyber Charter School, indicated it pays a per-student fee to Connections Education, an educational management company, to provide a variety of services, including curriculum, technology and advertising. The methods of advertising and its associated costs are at Connections Education’s discretion.

Twelve of the 14 brick-and-mortar charter school operators in Allegheny County paid a total of about $678,000 over the last three school years to promote their schools and recruit students.

Of the brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County, Propel Schools spent the most on advertising with a three-year total of $174,032 on a variety of ads, sponsorships, kiosks at shopping centers and direct mail. But those costs were spread among 12 schools in the 2016-17 school year.

The single school that spent the most over the three years was City Charter High School which spent $136,797. CEO Ron Sofo said the funds were used to develop mail brochures, reminder notices of important dates, costs associated with promoting the school on its website, Facebook and Twitter.

Provident Charter School, which serves students with dyslexia, spent $73,847 in advertising for recruitment of students in its first year.

The school that spent the least was Environmental Charter School, with a total of $2,776. CEO Jon McCann did not provide details.

The second lowest was Urban Pathways 6-12 Charter School, which spent $5,438 in the the last three years for billboards, ads in the Pittsburgh Parent magazine and posters.

The Academy and Manchester Academic said they had no advertising costs. The Academy enrolls court-adjudicated students, and Manchester CEO Vasilios Scoumis said he has not needed to advertise to fill the seats at his school.

Among the 42 suburban districts, only a handful reported spending money to recruit students. The districts that advertised included McKeesport Area, which spent $3,560 for yard signs and banners to advertise kindergarten registration, and Duquesne, which spent $944 for kindergarten recruitment postcards. Also, the North Hills School District spent $238 to send postcards to students attending cyber charter schools inviting them to try out the district’s cyber school, which launched in fall 2012.

Other districts reported they spent money to place articles about the district in community magazines but that the articles were not geared to recruiting students.

Is it needed?

The state allows for charters (and traditional public schools) to advertise for the recruitment of students and charter leaders say that’s a good thing. House Bill 97, which sits in the House Rules committee, would amend the Public School Code to require public schools, including charters, to state in advertisements referencing free tuition that the money comes from taxpayer dollars.

Commonwealth Charter Academy CEO Maurice Flurie said advertising charter schools creates a “free market” and “true school choice.”

“Our schools are different. And I think the better we are with our marketing and our advertising, it starts to draw out those differences so a parent can make an informed choice on, ’What’s the best one for me?’” he said.

A Propel billboard is displayed on Hazelwood Avenue in Greenfield. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Agora CEO Michael Conti compares advertising his school to the marketing that department stores conduct. “It’s the same reason Macy’s or Penney’s or anybody else advertises, to try and get customers to show up at their door, right? That’s why you do it.”

Agora contracts with K12 Inc., an education management company, for its advertising, Conti said.

Another reason for advertising is survival.

“If we didn’t advertise, we’d probably be 200 students strong,” Hanak of PA Leadership said. “We probably never would have reached economies of scale. We would be offering a very mediocre school to our students. And you can’t have a strong school until you reach about 1,200 students or so. Otherwise everybody is doing double duty.”

"...the better we are with our marketing and our advertising, it starts to draw out those differences so a parent can make an informed choice..."

Cyber charter school leaders point to traditional public schools, like the Bethlehem Area School District in Lehigh and Northampton counties, that are spending money to promote themselves as they lose students to charter schools.

But not many districts are making that choice.

In Woodland Hills, where 18 percent of the district’s budget goes to charter school tuition, Superintendent Alan Johnson said he hoped to hire a media firm to promote the district this year. But his board nixed the idea when residents at public meetings opposed the idea.

“It frustrates me more than I have the capacity to express in words because we are in a competitive market and in the market-based society where we live you get your market share by advertising, by getting your message out there,” Johnson said.

Charter school leaders also talk about the football stadiums built by traditional public school districts for their athletic programs.

“Can you make an educational argument that that’s money well spent? Sure you can,” said Hayden of PA Cyber. “But is that money better spent on technology or teachers’ salaries or library books or something? I don’t know. I mean, it’s judgement calls that all school districts make.”

Does it work?

Not everyone agrees that advertising is the right way to spend public tax dollars.

Malynda Maurer, who took over as CEO of the Central PA Digital Learning Foundation during the 2015-16 school year, pulled back on advertising as the school is in a transition period.

The school, with an enrollment of about 188 students in 2016-17, went from spending $47,000 in advertising in 2014-15 to $16,000 in 2016-17.

“I just felt that that was not a good way to be spending educational dollars,” Maurer said. “I’m not in it to be one of those schools that’s 1,000, 2,000 kids. My goals are a little different. I really want to stay personal, and it’s really hard to be personal when you have that many.”

"They are here to educate students, not put out slick advertising campaigns to attract students."

Even with the ads, Maurer said there was no way to know if they were what was bringing in students.

Maurer said the school put money into redeveloping its website in 2016-17. She plans to reintroduce advertising in radio and print in 2017-18.

“It’s just about informing people, letting them know we’re here,” she said. “It’s not about drawing people in.”

Despite the money spent on advertising, some school leaders say they get most of their students through parent recommendations and social media. Some of that happens on community Facebook pages where parents ask for advice on which school to send their children. On a Washington County community page, more than 50 people gave recommendations for cyber charter schools in January to a woman seeking advice.

“Quite frankly, our best form of advertising is serving our current parents really well because they reach out to other families and say, ‘I love this school. We think you should come, too,’” said Flurie of Commonwealth. “That’s the very best marketing and advertising we could ever do.”

StoryStephanie Hacke and Mary Niederberger

Stephanie is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at

Mary covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web developmentNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.