Commentary

Study: Pa. cyber-charter schools lead on cost; lag on results | Friday Morning Coffee

Pa. spends the most out of the 27 states that have cyber-charter schools, but gets the least return on investment, according to new research

January 28, 2022 7:14 am

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

As public schools made the often-awkward pivot between in-person and online instruction during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commonwealth’s cyber-charter schools saw their enrollment explode as parents raced to find reliable schooling for their children.

In fact, the Keystone State’s 14 cyber-charter schools saw their enrollment rise from slightly more than 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students by October 2020, marking the largest year-over-year increase, the Post-Gazette reported last May, citing data compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

By last April, that popularity showed no signs of abating, with a poll by Republican-friendly Susquehanna Polling & Research in Harrisburg showing that nearly 7 in 10 respondents to a poll of 700 Pennsylvanians supported the online programs, the Post-Gazette also reported.

Despite that popularity, the online programs have come in for constant criticism by advocates for traditional public schools, who argue that the online schools aren’t worth the return on investment and that student performance suffers as a result (Obligatory Caveat: Charter schools are public schools that receive taxpayer money, but are run by private operators).

recently released report by a wing of the progressive-leaning advocacy group Children First keeps up that drumbeat of criticism, finding that, of the 27 states that authorize cyber-charter schools, Pennsylvania spends the most public money on these programs, but has the “weakest systems to ensure students and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.”

“Pennsylvania is the cyber-charter capital of the nation,” ML Wernecke, the director of the Pennsylvania Charter Performance Center, which conducted the study, said in a statement. “But given the persistent performance in cyber-charter programs, and the out-of-control pressure on local taxpayers, this is one place where it is not good to be first.”

Among its chief findings, the report notes that every one of Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter schools has “been identified as needing improvement under the state’s ESSA School Improvement and Accountability plan, placing them among the state’s lowest performing schools.”

According to the report, Pennsylvania taxpayers paid nearly $1 billion to cover the cost of cyber-charter school tuition last year, and will need an additional $1.7 billion by 2025 to cover the cost of all charter schools statewide. Cyber-charter programs are responsible for nearly all of that increase, the research showed.

“The explosive increase in spending for cyber charter schools coupled with the sector’s inability to demonstrate reasonable levels of student performance has a broad-reaching negative impact for the commonwealth,” Wernecke said in a statement.

As the Capital-Star reported in 2019, that poor performance tends to impact students who need the most help and the districts that can least afford to lose revenue to the online programs.

A study of enrollment trends in Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter schools between 2002 and 2014, published in the American Journal of Education, found that poor districts disproportionately funded the state’s cyber-charter sector, which reliably produces low test scores and graduation rates for its students.

Researchers David Baker of Penn State University and Bryan Mann of the University of Alabama said at the time that the trend jeopardized public school quality across the state, since the districts losing the most students to cyber charter competitors are also the least able to afford it.

(Image via pxHere.com)

Among the report’s other findings, the online programs suffer from, or are vulnerable to:

  • A high risk of cyber-charter enrollment and performance fraud: According to the report, six of the state’s 14 cyber-charter programs never have been reviewed by state auditors, and the largest such program, with a budget of $270 million, was last audited in 2012. Traditional public schools are annually required to post independent audits, and districts are routinely audited by the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office, the report’s authors observed.
  • Outdated payment and tracking system: According to the report, Pennsylvania does not base cyber-school funding on student performance and participation, even though five other states — Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Texas, and Utah, use such a system. Schools are paid irrespective of how much students participate in class, or how well they perform on tests, the report’s authors noted.
  • A wasteful payment formula: According to the report, Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter tuition rates range from $8,917 to $23,917 depending on the school district. Other states, such as Ohio, charge a flat fee. The Buckeye State charges $6,020 per-student and a $25 per student facilities fee, according to the report.
  • An absence of performance oversight: The report accuses state regulators of effectively “[turning] a blind eye to poorly performing cyber-charter” programs. The report contrasts the commonwealth’s approach to states such as Texas, where a “no-nonsense” policy has resulted in the shuttering of 40 cyber-charter schools.

Citing that litany of weaknesses, the report’s authors call on the state to convene a cyber-charter school funding commission to address shortcomings and weaknesses in the existing system.

“Such a Commission should examine options of increasing school district capacity to build out their virtual options so that taxpayers can avoid these costs and students are more likely to receive a quality education,” Wernecke said.

In a statement to the Capital-Star, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schoolsthe statewide organization that represents charter schools, acknowledged that the state’s 25-year charter school law was due for repairs — but so too is the state’s public school code, which has been on the books since 1949.

“Accountability, transparency, and academic excellence are key foundations for our entire … K-12 public education system. Yet, we often only hear of calls from [Gov. Tom Wolf] and others to fix the 25-year law, all while keeping the broken 80-year law in place,” the coalition’s CEO, Lenny McAllister, said, adding later that he welcomes honest conversation.

“Singling out public cyber charter schools when we have experienced shortcomings throughout public education for decades – especially when concerning the families that disproportionally flock to charter schools – is myopic,” McAllister continued. “The recommendations of the report are not the solution and follow the typical narrative: “we must fix (i.e., decrease) funding for cyber charter schools.”

McAllister called on policy-makers to “empower all Pennsylvania families for the best options for their children.

“The barometer of education reform should be what is best for the uniqueness of each and every Pennsylvania student,” he concluded. “The funding belongs with the student, to be able to use at an educational setting that best works for the student.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed legislative Republicans’ congressional map, arguing it was “the result of a partisan political process” and will deprive voters of free and fair elections, Stephen Caruso reports.

Redistricting is now in the courts. In our story, you can see all of the proposed congressional maps submitted to themStephen Caruso is your guide.

Every Pennsylvania county has signed onto a settlement that’s expected to bring in $1 billion — potentially as soon as this spring — to address the opioid crisis, Marley Parish reports.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate joined Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh on Thursday, as the nation and world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Dayto announce a new round of state funding for a program intended to keep marginalized and vulnerable communities safe from harm. Details from me.

Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin will resign next monthCassie Miller reports.

The Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation is seeking “well-informed” applicants to represent several eastern Pennsylvania counties on the state Game Commission’s Board of DirectorsCassie Miller also reports.

A top official at the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs said Pennsylvania “needs to do better” by older Pennsylvanians with substance use disorder, Cassie Miller reports.

Parents hoping to vaccinate their young children against COVID-19 will need to be patient, Dr. Anthony Fauci has cautionedCapital-Star Washington Reporter Jennifer Shutt reports.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer formally announced his retirement Thursday, giving President Joe Biden his first, and possibly only, opportunity to make a nomination for the lifetime appointmentJennifer Shutt also reports.

En la Estrella-Capital: ‘Vergonzoso’ y ‘peligroso’: El Caucus LGBTQ + de Pa. pide una acción rápida sobre el proyecto de ley contra la discriminación después de la votación de Chambersburg. Y la administración de Biden retira la regla de la vacuna o prueba en el lugar de trabajo.

On our Commentary Page this morning: Michael Cogbill, a community organizer from Philadelphia, looks at the common threads linking the fight over voting rights to a landmark school funding case now in state court. And redistricting in 2022 is making gerrymandered districts safer, thus undermining majority rule, an Indiana University scholar writes.

Elsewhere.
Progressives are looking to derail a GOP appointment to Philadelphia’s elections board, the Inquirer reports.

President Joe Biden will head to Pittsburgh today to punch up the benefits of the federal infrastructure law for western Pennsylvania. The Post-Gazette has the details.

A new state law has created a task force dedicated to protecting children born into addiction, PennLive reports.

Cathy Rychalsky, the executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Development Boardwill leave the agency in MayLancasterOnline reports.

During a visit to Erie on ThursdayGov. Tom Wolf said the state’s redistricting process should be above partisan bickering, GoErie reports (via the York Daily Record).

Lehigh and Northampton counties are in ‘desperate’ need of Spanish-speaking poll workers for the May primary, the Morning Call reports.

Luzerne County’s hospitals are still stressed as COVID cases level off, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

Philadelphia Councilmember David Oh has introduced legislation to repeal the city’s soda taxWHYY-FM reports.

WITF-FM’s ‘Smart Talk’ program considers whether the EPA is really committed to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

President Joe Biden will announce his pick for U.S. Supreme Court in February, Roll Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Brad Mersereau (@bradleymersereau)


What Goes On
10 a.m., Live Stream: Senate Democratic Policy Committee

WolfWatch
Gov. Tom Wolf heads to Pittsburgh today as President Joe Biden rolls into the city to pitch his agenda.

Heavy Rotation
We’re gonna go crate digging this Friday morning with a vintage jam from Liquid Liquid. The track is ‘Cavern.’ Email me at [email protected] if you know why this bass riff is so hauntingly familiar. And no fair using the Google machine to get to the answer.


Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Carolina hung on Thursday, notching a 3-2 win over Ottawa in a shoot-out at Canadian Tire Centre.

And now you’re up to date.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

MORE FROM AUTHOR