By Lawrence A. Feinberg
The Pennsylvania Department of Education held public hearings this month regarding the proposed authorization of two new cyber charter schools.
I had the opportunity to present comments at both hearings. I am a school director serving in my 21st year as a member of the Haverford Township school board. For the past dozen years or so, I have also served as chair of the Delaware County School Boards Legislative Council with school board representatives from each of the fifteen districts in Delaware County.
In 2007, I presented “Testimony on Cyber-Charter School Funding, Oversight and Accountability’ to the Pennsylvania House Education Committee. And I have been following cyber charter issues closely ever since.
Cyber-charters may be a great fit for some highly motivated, self-disciplined students or those with very involved parents or guardians. But 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.
With the COVID pandemic, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) recently estimated that cyber charter enrollment has increased by 24,000 students over last year, with taxpayers on the hook for an additional $350 million in tuition.
As of Nov. 12, 323 volunteer elected school boards have passed board resolutions calling for charter school funding reform.
I believe that any additional Pennsylvania cyber-charter applications should be rejected for the following, four reasons:
Lack of Academic Performance
As far as quality goes, cyber charters certainly have a proven track record. A dismal one.
By any measure, (AYP, PSSA scores, SPP scores, graduation rates, Future Ready Index, ESSA) over 20 years, cyber charters have consistently underperformed both brick and mortar charters and district public schools.
From 2005 through 2012 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), most Pennsylvania cyber charters 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. (see chart below)
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.
In 2016, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and the national pro-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.
Last month, NACSA revisited the issue and stated “In the most recent round of assessments, every single cyber charter school scored below the statewide average in both English and math. That is not a statistical fluke but rather clear evidence that cyber charter students are falling behind.” And currently, due to this poor performance, every cyber charter in the state has been identified as needing significant support under the Federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Under Pennsylvania’s current accountability system, the Future Ready PA Index , all 14 cyber charters are identified for some level of support and improvement.
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.”
Lack of Need
There is no need for additional cyber charters. Pennsylvania presently has 14 cyber charters. All but one have unlimited seats available, providing plenty of existing capacity for families seeking that option. Furthermore, with the onset of COVID, all school districts are now able to provide a cyber education option.
Broken Funding Formula
While it is understandable that some families desire the cyber charter option, it is outrageous that when students leave they take with them not only the tax dollars required to provide a cyber education, but also excess tax dollars, diminishing the resources available to all of their school district classmates who choose to remain in the district. In 20 years, I have never heard any reasonable justification for cyber charters receiving the same tuition as brick and mortar charters.
Our taxpayers now spend more than $600 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.
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 sides of the aisle who find this to be absurd and ridiculous.
It should be noted that any new cyber charter would also result in additional tax dollars being diverted to administrative costs and advertising.
Lack of Oversight
Unlike brick-and-mortar charter schools, locally elected school boards never authorized cyber charters, which are granted charters by, and ostensibly overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Despite being required to send their constituents tax dollars, local school boards have virtually no oversight regarding how those funds are used, the perpetual lack of academic performance by the entire cyber charter sector, or whether a charter should be renewed.
In a Jan. 14, 2019 story, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that ten of the state’s cyber charters were operating with expired charters. Given that the Education Department authorizes cyber charters, the state should be monitoring them and playing an active role in overseeing both the academic performance and public funding of these schools.
If the state is not able to hold the existing 14 cyber charters accountable why would we even consider authorizing new ones?
Lawrence A. Feinberg is a school director in Haverford Township, Delaware County. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected]