Failed Philly cyber charter application highlights weaknesses in state law, observer says

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The state Department of Education has issued its first denial in years to a cyber charter school, thwarting a proposal for a new school that aimed to enroll 2,500 Pennsylvania students starting in 2021.

The Virtual Preparatory Academy of Philadelphia Cyber Charter School fell short on every standard Pennsylvania uses to evaluate cyber charter schools, including support among parents and students, long-term financial planning, and proof that its students would meet state educational standards, according to a Jan. 27 memo from the state Department of Education.

The school also flat-out failed to provide parts of the application, such as a sample curriculum and plans for staffing and professional development.

Reviewers also said its plans for serving children with special needs, or those learning English, were “nonexistent.”

The Virtual Preparatory Academy is the first new cyber charter school to apply for a license in Pennsylvania in five years.

Attempts to reach its Philadelphia-based board president, Richard Flynn, were unsuccessful.

The rejection comes at a time when Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has clamped down on the state’s cyber charter schools, which currently enroll 39,000 Pennsylvania children who take courses primarily through computers at home.

The Department of Education, which has sole authority to grant, renew or reject cyber charter applications, reached an agreement last year to close the lowest-performing cyber charter school in the state. 

Poor school districts are funding the state’s cyber charter schools, research shows. That wasn’t always the case

Wolf is also pushing legislation that would put a moratorium on new cyber charter schools and charge applicants $86,000 in application processing fees. 

Like brick-and-mortar charter schools, cyber charters are privately managed but funded with contributions from public school districts.

The schools are meant to offer families an alternative to traditional public schools. But two decades after Pennsylvania passed its charter school law, its 15 active cyber charter schools boast some of the lowest graduation rates in the states. 

A 2019 study by Stanford University found that Pennsylvania cyber charter students actually regress in their learning compared to demographically identical peers in traditional public schools. 

By its own admission, the Virtual Preparatory Academy didn’t expect to fare much better. 

It projected a four-year graduation rate between 60 and 75 percent for its first cohort of students, according to its application. It also predicted that a third of its students would not meet state achievement targets in English, and nearly half would fall short of proficiency in math. 

Officials at the Department of Education pointed out that the school would rank among the worst in the state if those predictions proved accurate.

State regulators also voiced concerns that the charter school showed “enormous reliance” on an entity called Accel Online Pennsylvania LLC, which offered to advance a $700,000 loan to get the school off the ground, according to the rejection letter.

Virtual Prep also planned to contract with Accel Schools for teacher evaluations and curriculum development, its application states. 

Founded in 2015 by former Goldman Sachs banker Ron Packard, Accel Schools is the largest charter school operator in Ohio, where it runs more than 40 campuses — many of them low-performing, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Despite its unequivocal rejection by state officials, Virtual Preparatory Academy still has a path to pursue a charter in Pennsylvania. 

It can appeal its rejection to the Charter Appeals Board, a six-member appointed body that can overturn charter school rulings made by the Department of Education and local school districts.  

Virtual Prep can also revise its application and apply to the Department of Education once more. 

Department spokesman Eric Levis said the state has previously granted charters to cyber schools after denying their applications on the first review.

That a charter school can prepare such a poor application, yet still have a chance of opening its doors to students, shows the deficiencies of Pennsylvania’s charter school law, said David Lapp, director of policy research at the Philadelphia-based education research organization Research for Action.

“It’s pretty baffling that they got a 20-page rejection letter with very detailed descriptions of their deficiencies, and now the law allows them to resubmit it,” Lapp said. “The law gives applicants a number of bites out of the apple before their application can get completely rejected.”

Ana Myers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said she wasn’t involved in the Virtual Prep application and didn’t know enough to comment on it. But she said the state generally shouldn’t limit charter school growth as long as families demand alternatives to traditional public schools.

“We should have as many educational options available to families as the market will bear,” Myers said. “Competition in the educational field is good and should motivate all schools to provide the very best service possible in order to retain their student population.”