PA lawmakers take aim at cyber charter schools

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/19/20

Harrisburg, PA — Private online schooling in Pennsylvania is facing some radical changes from both the executive and legislative side of the government. The House Education Committee recently …

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PA lawmakers take aim at cyber charter schools

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Harrisburg, PA — Private online schooling in Pennsylvania is facing some radical changes from both the executive and legislative side of the government. The House Education Committee recently held a hearing on a bill that would require cyber charter schools to “cease operation and dissolve” at the end of the 2020-21 school year. It would also require each public school district to offer its own online curriculum as an alternative to traditional schooling.

The private online education industry is big in PA—one of the largest in the nation. It’s also one wracked with reports of fraud, unaccountability and a poor quality of education. In 2016, the commonwealth’s auditor general called its charter law the worst in the country.

Currently, private cyber school is publically funded. That means school districts must pay tuition for every student who opts for cyber schooling. This cost districts collectively about one billion dollars in charter tuition over the 2017-18 school year.

Currently, the Western Wayne School District has eight students attending an online charter school, which costs the district about $1.4 million, Superintendent Matthew Barrett said. (Students attending a brick-and-mortar charter school cost the district an additional $200,000). That number would likely be higher, had Western Wayne not developed its own online program eight years ago that provides students an alternative educational experience without needing to leave the district.

Having an online program run by district employees allows for more oversight and accountability than private programs do. Aside from some language programs, all the online courses the district offers are monitored and graded by Western Wayne teachers and staff. Students in the program are also required to come into the school for regular, face-to-face check-ins with teachers. Still, Barrett said that it’s not as effective as traditional education and that “quite often,” students who opt for a cyber experience, whether through the district or a private provider, eventually return to the normal school setting.

“It’s a difficult way to learn for some students, you don’t have the face-to-face interactions… you don’t have the ability to ask questions as frequently,” Barrett said. “We feel that the interactions here with students are highly valuable, the relationships that teachers have with each kid, the ability to understand the learning styles of each kid; you don’t necessarily get that in a cyber realm.”

Coming back into the regular school setting can cause “headaches” for both the students trying to get caught up with the regular curriculum and the teachers trying to catch them up, Barrett said.

According to a comparative study of public versus charter schools by a research group from Stanford University, “the average student at a cyber charter in Pennsylvania lost 106 days of learning in reading and 118 days in math compared to their ‘twins’ in traditional public schools.”

Though less drastic than the legislation looking to shutter private cyber schools, Gov. Tom Wolf recently promised to reform the charter sector with his budget proposal for 2020-21.

“Too many charter schools here in the commonwealth have strayed,” Wolf said to the General Assembly. “Some are little more than fronts for private management companies, and the only innovations they’re coming up with involve finding new ways to take money out of the pockets of property taxpayers–like setting up sham online schools or exploiting a loophole in special education funding.”

His reforms promise to save taxpayers around $280 million annually. In terms of cyber schooling, the proposed budget would establish a statewide cyber charter tuition rate of $9,500; currently, the cost can range anywhere from $7,700 to $21,400 depending on the school. Wolf’s flat rate would save school districts $133 million annually.

The conversation over cyber schooling is a historically divisive one in PA, and not necessarily aligned according to political party. Rep. Curt Sonney, who introduced the bill that would shut down online cyber schools, received pushback from some fellow Republicans who called the bill “overkill” and felt it violated parent choice.

Wolf’s remarks about the issue angered a number of charter student parents and prompted the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools to issue a call to action resisting Wolf’s reforms. “It is crucial that lawmakers know how your families and your staff feel about their students being treated as second-class citizens,” the email read.

Barrett said that reforming the charter school system would ease the current financial burden on Western Wayne and its taxpayers.

“It would be highly beneficial if there was some cap to the amount of money we’re required to spend per student that decides to leave the district,” said Barrett. “That $1.6 million is pretty substantial, especially with taxpayers in the district that are struggling to get by as it is… We’re having to raise [taxes] on an annual basis as a result of some of these things that take money away from the district.”

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