By Ana Meyers
While parents throughout the state work to find the right educational environment for their children, many in Pennsylvania want to see the expansion of effective charter schools prevented altogether. These special interest groups are driven to protect the system, the traditional way of doing things, and their own pocketbooks rather than providing quality educational options for all students.
Recently, legislation was introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate (SB34) that would relieve school districts that provide their own cyber education programs from financial responsibility for resident students who enroll in a public cyber-charter school.
What is not mentioned is that this legislation would eliminate public school choice for parents by forcing students to remain with a district that does not serve and meet the expectations of families.
Cyber-charter schools are schools of choice in Pennsylvania whose demand has continued to increase dramatically over the past few years. Parents actively choose to leave a district because it does not meet their child’s needs or has failed their child either academically or from a relationship standpoint.
More than 35,000 families have chosen a cyber-charter school education in the Commonwealth for those reasons. The mode of instruction, if they are forced to stay in the school district, does not necessarily overcome these concerns.
The blatant attacks that we continue to see on cyber-charter schools focus on the symptom rather than the cause. Parents are choosing to leave district schools because of sheer dissatisfaction, and the fundamental reasons for that dissatisfaction are not being addressed.
School districts could stop the exodus by taking a few simple steps: listening to the parents’ concerns, changing to address those concerns and perhaps extending an olive branch to brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools in the state to learn from them in a collaborative manner.
As long as districts are unwilling, or unable, to take these steps, they will continue to underserve the educational needs of their children, which is their primary reason for existing. Cyber education is a different form of delivering learning that the established educational institutions do not yet understand.
The delivery model is different, and so are the associated costs, but that does not mean that the costs are less than traditional models. Comparison of cyber-charter schools and cyber programs offered by school districts is an apples-to-oranges comparison.
There is not a single district cyber option that would meet the benchmark as “equal” to a comprehensive cyber charter school.
All cyber-charter schools offer significantly more opportunities as far as academics, family communication and extracurricular activities, both virtually and in-person. Furthermore, cyber-charter schools are a great value and actually save school districts money.
For every student who attends a cyber charter school, school districts have additional money to support the students that remain within their brick-and-mortar buildings.
On average, cyber-charter schools receive just 72 percent of the per-pupil allotment for each student. School districts keep the remaining 28 percent that they can use for payments on debt, adult education programs, pre-K programs, transportation costs, and building and ground maintenance. Lawmakers need to require school districts that run cyber programs to track academic progress, attendance, special education rate and growth.
The few school districts that are reporting their cyber programs separately have poor results that are, for the most part, worse than cyber charter schools. School districts need to be accountable for their cyber programs just as cyber charter schools are accountable for theirs.
Only after we know how they are performing would any policymaker be able to make an informed comparison to cyber charter schools.
While cyber-charter schools have been criticized for low performance and financial pressure some public school administrators and advocates say they put on school districts, families across the state increasingly are choosing them because there is something not working for them in the traditional environment. This is their last chance and that’s our mission.
Finally, if cyber-charter schooling is indeed the “black hole” school district administrators and some lawmakers portray, why is it that districts continue to encourage parents to look into the district’s cyber programs as an alternative.
This may perhaps be the most outrageous, contradictory part of this legislation, which would force parents to send their children to district-run cyber programs. Senate Bill 34 creates even further divisiveness to the educational system in our state.
The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools certainly believes that cyber charter schools are a positive option for many families. We understand that for many others they may be perfectly satisfied with their neighborhood school.
The bottom line is simple: it should be up to the parents, who know their children best, to decide where their child attends school, and these parents deserve to have cyber charter schools as an option. In Pennsylvania we are fortunate to have public school choice.
Limiting the types of public school choice offered will not result in better outcomes for students.
Ana Meyers is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, the state’s largest advocacy organization representing public charter schools. She writes from Mechanicsburg, Pa.