Opinion

Are cyber charter schools making the grade?

Across the nation and right here in the Centre Region, online charter schools are growing in popularity as a choice for parents and guardians, and children. However, along with the advantages that cyber charters present to both students and their families, they also raise issues worthy of deeper examination.

Students who have specific circumstances that require great flexibility in scheduling may benefit the most from cyber schools. There are positive accounts from talented students who found cybers to offer them their only opportunity to continue their extensive music or sports training schedules without disrupting their school progress. These students tend to be high achievers and particularly organized in self-scheduling. This is not the case for most students. Students without the rigor of a school day schedule and daily social engagement with peers and teachers may find themselves floundering socially and academically.

Others who benefit from cyber charters include students from rural areas whose family obligations and schoolwork may be affected by hours spent on buses and some high school students who may contribute to the family’s income and need scheduling flexibility.

The quality of the education each individual student receives is hard to evaluate, but a number of alarming trends require a closer look. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s School Performance Profile, three out of the 14 cyber charter schools operating in Pennsylvania had an SPP just above 60 in 2015-16. (The Pa. Department of Education considers 60 SPP and below to be substandard.) Moreover, none of the cyber charters scored above 70, the minimum goal for all schools, and some scored in the 30s. Alarmingly, data for 2015-16 from both the Pa. Department of Education and Schooldigger.com show that eight of the 11 Pennsylvania cyber charters in their databases have a graduation rate below 70 percent in comparison with the 2016 statewide rate of 86 percent. (Schooldigger.com, a free informational website, has a database of U.S. schools that includes enrollment and test scores.)

Some cyber charters advertise free tuition; however, the money to finance students enrolled in cyber charters comes from local public school district budgets and, ultimately, all of us as taxpayers. The local districts pay the cyber charters the amount the district would spend on each student, an amount that varies from district to district. Under current law, local school districts cannot oversee the quality of the programs or how the cybers use the public funds. Cyber charters are ultimately accountable only to the Pa. Department of Education; school districts can only make recommendations. Generally, cyber charters’ per-student costs are lower than those of traditional public schools, translating to a profit, which, in some cases, benefits out-of-state management companies.

Revisions to Pennsylvania’s 20-year-old charter school law (including cybers) have been proposed in the past few years, most recently this past April. The House Education Committee approved a charter school reform bill (House Bill 97), sponsored by Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland County, which includes what Reese calls, “sensible changes to the formula for funding cyber charter schools.” Other goals of the bill include establishing a commission to recommend a new way of funding charters, an academic performance matrix and a new teacher evaluation process.

Revamping the current law should include changes in several areas. Equalizing funding and opening fiscal operations are necessary steps, as is making all schools equally accountable for the quality of the students’ education. One part of equalizing funding should be a more efficient system of per-student payment that does not give cyber schools profits. Cyber charters must be held accountable for their finances. For example, tax violations uncovered by the Pennsylvania auditor general’s office resulted in criminal action against some cyber charter administrators. In addition, academic rigor must be a top priority, including careful monitoring of students, whether they are in cohort classes or upper-level independent study courses.

We urge legislators to take prompt action in revising the state’s current charter school law to more effectively meet the needs of all involved through equitable and consistent standards.

AAUW State College Branch invites you to attend an informational panel discussion to learn more about background and issues connected with cyber charter schools. Join us on Saturday, Oct. 7, at the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800 E. Park Ave., State College (visitor center off Porter Road). Refreshments, 9 a.m.; panel discussion, 9:30 a.m.

The American Association of University Women State College Branch is part of a nationwide network of about 1,000 branches that are dedicated to advancing equity for women and girls.

The above op-ed was submitted by the AAUW State College Branch.

If you go

What: Informal discussion on cyber charter schools

When: 9 a.m. refreshments, 9:30 a.m. panel, Oct. 7

Where: Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, 800 E. Park Ave., State College

  Comments