*This story was updated on Thursday, Oct. 15 with additional comment from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
As thousands of new students flock to online education during a historically difficult academic year, state officials are being asked to grant charters to two new cyber charter schools.
The Allentown-based Executive Action Charter School and Harrisburg-based Virtual Preparatory Academy aim to open their doors next year and enroll a combined 3,100 students by 2025, according to charter applications they submitted to the Department of Education last month.
The schools first must receive approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is the sole authorizer of charters for cyber schools in the state.
Pennsylvania hasn’t granted a new cyber charter since 2012. And while it accepts cyber charter applications annually until Oct. 1, this is the first time since 2015 that it’s been asked to consider more than one in a single year.
The Department of Education also will review the schools’ proposals in an unprecedented climate.
Pennsylvania’s cyber charter enrollment reached an all-time high in 2020, and some of the largest cyber charter schools in the state say they had to turn away students as traditional public school districts scrambled to roll out online learning options.
Last year, the state’s 14 cyber charter schools enrolled a combined 38,000 students – roughly one-quarter of the charter school students in the state and 2 percent of all public school students statewide.
But cyber charter schools have enrolled 14,000 new pupils for the 2020-2021 school year, according to school enrollment data gathered by the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, an industry group representing brick and mortar and cyber charter schools across the state.
Department of Education data show that many of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools rank among the lowest-performing in the state. But parents and other proponents say they provide a crucial alternative to traditional public schools, especially for students who experience bullying or live in rural areas without brick and mortar charters.
They say that need has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced traditional schools to roll out online programs on a moment’s notice this spring.
“The pandemic has probably increased the need for cyber education,” Stephen Flavell, executive director of the Executive Education Cyber Charter School, told the Capital-Star on Monday.
Flavell said he put the plans for his proposed cyber charter school in motion last year, well before COVID-19 upended education nationwide.
A longtime education consultant and charter school administrator, Flavell is also the founder of Executive Education Academy, a brick-and-mortar charter school that opened in Allentown City School District in 2013 and is on a state list of schools in need of improvement.
Executive Academy leaders told the Allentown Morning Call last year that they were considering an expansion so they could enroll more students from their long waiting list.
If Executive Education Cyber Charter School obtains approval from the Department of Education, it will be allowed to enroll students across the state and charge their districts for tuition payments, just like all other cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania.
It aims to start the 2021-2022 school year with 240 students and expand to enroll 660 by 2025.
Virtual Preparatory Academy is seeking a charter for the second year in a row after the Department of Education rejected its 2019 application in January.
The school is led by consultant Richard Flynn, and governed by a board that includes the one-time congressional candidate and former Pennsylvania state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny. Its enrollment projections call for the school to serve 2,500 students within five years.
The Department of Education will accept public comments on both applications through Oct. 31 and hold a series of public hearings in November before issuing decisions.
*An agency spokesman said Thursday that the statewide uptick in cyber enrollment will not affect the department’s review of either application.
The department will evaluate both proposals based on the criteria laid out in Pennsylvania’s charter school law, which takes into account “whether the applicant shows capability, in terms of support and planning, to provide comprehensive learning experiences to the students it aims to serve,” spokesman Rick Levis said in a prepared statement.
But cyber charter proponents say the growing demand for cyber education should play a role in how the state awards charters.
“The COVID pandemic has reinforced the need for families to have multiple educational options to meet their unique needs,” Jessica Hickernell, the coalition’s Director of Public Affairs & Policy, told the Capital-Star in an email. “We hope that the PA Department of Education will consider the cyber charter applications in a fair and timely manner.”
Critics of cyber charter schools, however, have long opposed any expansion of the cyber charter sector. They point to studies showing that cyber charter students learn at a slower rate than students in traditional public schools, and to data showing that per-pupil education costs in cyber charter schools are higher than in district-run cyber programs.
“Parents are being forced to choose between really poor options right now,” David Lapp, director of policy research at the Philadelphia-based organization Research for Action, said Tuesday.
The boom in cyber charter enrollment “doesn’t mean that cyber charters are an effective approach,” Lapp said. “It’s more a reflection of the desperation of the times.”