After 20 years it’s past time for the Legislature to act on cyber-charter school funding reform | Opinion

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By Lawrence A. Feinberg

With the anticipated loss of revenue facing school districts due to COVID-19, now, more than ever, the Pennsylvania Legislature must grab the bull by the horns and reform the way that cyber-charter schools are funded.

Cyber-charters may be a great fit for some highly motivated, self-disciplined students or those with very involved parents or guardians. But overall, by any measure, after 20 years the state’s cyber-charters have consistently underperformed.

Generally speaking, cyber-students are not learning, and taxpayers are paying twice what they reasonably should, with the excess funds being taken away from all the other students remaining in a school district when a parent chooses to send their child to a cyber-charter.

Responding to parents’ concerns about returning to school buildings in September, cyber-charters will be spending your tax dollars on advertising, trying to convince parents that the education they offer is better than what your student might receive if they stay in their own district.

Despite the impression those ads may give, your child will not be sitting in front of a screen facing a live teacher all day, and many cyber-charters require that a parent be involved as a coach.

Our school districts have pivoted quickly to offer remote learning, are planning to expand and strengthen programs for the fall and can offer everything cybers offer, plus closer personal attention, rigorous learning, a full range of extracurricular activities and no break if the students choose to return to in-person instruction.

And as far as quality goes, cyber-charters certainly have a proven track record. A dismal one.

Founded in 1916, the Brookings Institution has been described as America’s most prestigious think-tank.

So it struck me as significant when a June 2, 2020 Brookings paper stated “We find the impact of attending a virtual charter on student achievement is uniformly and profoundly negative” and then went on to say that “There is no evidence that virtual charter students improve in subsequent years.”

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In 2016, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the national charter lobbying group 50CAN released a report on cyber-charters which found that overall, cyber-students make no significant gains in math and less than half the gains in reading compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

A Stanford University CREDO Study in 2015 found that cyber-students on average lost 72 days a year in reading and 180 days a year in math compared with students in traditional public schools.

From 2005 through 2012 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, most Pennsylvania cybers never made “adequate yearly progress.”

Following NCLB, for all five years (2013-2017) that Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile system was in place not one cyber-charter ever achieved a passing score of 70. Under Pennsylvania’s current accountability system, the Future Ready PA Index , all 15 cyber-charters are currently identified for some level of support and improvement.

Our taxpayers spend more than $500 million on cyber-charter tuition annually. Based on currently available data for the 2019-20 school year from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, tuition rates paid by school districts ranged from $7,409 to $21,602 per student, resulting in a statewide average tuition rate of $12,604.

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Yet, most school districts offering cyber-learning options were spending $5,000 or less annually to educate students through their local online learning options.

Special education cyber-charter tuition ranged from $10,182 to $55,727 for an average of $27,607 per student across the state, while local school districts provided similar special ed online learning services for $7,000 or less per student.

Why is there more than a $7,000 excess cost for cyber-tuition for regular education students and more than a $20,000 excess cost for cyber-tuition for special education students when comparing district-run cyber programs with cyber charter programs?

Why should taxpayers be funding cyber-tuition at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters when the cyber charters have none of the expenses associated with buildings?

I have spoken with many legislators from both parties who find this to be absurd and ridiculous. Another troubling aspect of the COVID-19 environment is that while districts statewide anticipate a $1 billion shortfall in local revenue for 2020-21,  PASBO estimates that charter and cyber-tuition will increase by more than $200 million. Legislators could help by holding tuition level for the 20-21 school year.

After 20 years it is well past time for the legislature to act on cyber-charter school funding reform.

Lawrence A. Feinberg has been a school director in Haverford Township, Delaware County, for 21 years, serving in various advocacy capacities at the county, state and federal levels. Since 2010 he has curated a daily statewide PA Ed Policy Roundup targeted to school leaders, legislators and members of the press. Readers may email him at [email protected]