With classes heading online, Pa.’s public schools, online charters find themselves in stiff competition

Harrisburg High School
Students at Harrisburg High School will be able to opt out of in-person instruction and enroll in a full-time online program this fall. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

This summer, Leigh Ann Chow did something she hadn’t seriously considered until she found herself living through a pandemic.

She enrolled her children in cyber school.

“[Our family] decided pretty much from the get-go that this is what we were going to do,” said Chow, who teaches english at a public high school in suburban Harrisburg. “Not just to protect public health, but for the continuity of [my kids’] education. It’s very disruptive to start the year in one environment and then pivot to an online environment.” 

Chow could have chosen to enroll her two children in one of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber-charter schools, which educate 38,000 students statewide and have seen an influx of new students since Pennsylvania schools closed in March. 

She opted instead to keep her kids in their district, where they’ll take online classes through a local intermediate unit.

Thousands of Pennsylvania families may be faced with a similar choice this fall. Across the state, districts are rolling out full-time, online programs as they scramble to safely educate children and appease families and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some districts, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are going virtual out of necessity, faced with mounting COVID-19 case counts and growing pressure from teachers unions and parents.

But in places such as the Harrisburg City School District, educators are developing entirely new programs for students who choose to opt out of in-person instruction – and seeing a chance to lure students back from cyber charter competitors.

“We now have an option that will compete head-to-head with cyber charter schools,” Chris Celmer, Harrisburg’s acting superintendent, said during a July 26 webinar announcing the Harrisburg Virtual Learning Academy, the online learning program the district is rolling out for the 2020-2021 school year.

What may emerge is a new level of competition between public schools and cyber charter schools that both sides think they’re positioned to win.

“It’s going to be very telling,” said Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie, the House Education Committee chair who has introduced bills to rein in cyber-charter schools. “We’ve heard for years public schools continually say that [cyber-charter education] is a failure … Now that they’re forced into rolling out cyber programs, I’ll be really curious to see how they do.”

Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter students appeared to have a distinct advantage over their public school peers when Gov. Tom Wolf shuttered schools statewide in March.

Some public schools took weeks to start online instruction, and cyber-charters saw “significant enrollment increases” as frustrated parents sought alternatives, Jessica Hickernell, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said.

But public school administrators and advocates have long excoriated the state’s cyber-charter schools, saying they deliver pitiful outcomes for students at a great cost to taxpayers.

A 2019 Stanford University study found that cyber-charter school students learned less than their peers in traditional public schools, losing the equivalent of more than 100 days of instruction in reading and math. 

Half of the state’s cyber charter schools rank among the lowest-performing schools in the state. The largest, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter school, saw barely 40 percent of students test proficient in English and Science last year and fewer than one-third test proficient in math, state data show. 

Nonetheless, cyber-charters today enroll one-quarter of the state’s charter school students, and offer families one of the easiest paths out of a traditional public school. Advocates say they’re especially crucial for children in rural districts, who may not have access to brick and mortar schools, and for children who experience bullying.

They also say they’re uniquely qualified to educate students as districts make a rapid pivot to online learning. 

“Most school districts don’t have the experience providing online education that we do,” Tim Eller, a senior vice president at Commonwealth Charter Academy, the second-largest cyber-charter school in the state. “We’ve been through trial and error of what works and what doesn’t.”

Eller argued that cyber-charter schools are likely to offer students a greater amount of synchronous instruction – that is, the chance to attend a class in real-time with a teacher and fellow students – than they’d get from their district’s virtual academy. He also said they’re better equipped to help families adjust to a new form of instruction. 

Schools such as Commonwealth Charter Academy have full-time “family services” departments to help families troubleshoot technical glitches and manage their child’s online education, Eller said.

He doubts that public schools can muster the same level of attention while they’re rolling out new programs or trying to balance in-person instruction alongside their virtual academies.

Public school advocates such as Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, don’t dispute that cyber charter schools have the advantage of experience. 

But he pointed out that not all of Pennsylvania’s public school districts are new to online education. Nearly 200 districts offered a full-time, online program as of 2018, according to a survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA.) 

Since school districts aren’t required to report individual outcomes for their cyber school programs, it’s hard to say how effective those programs were for students. 

The PASA survey shows they were less expensive than the average cyber charter school, however, running districts an average of $5,000 per-pupil compared to the $11,000 per-pupil tuition they sent to cyber-charter schools.

DiRocco, whose organization has called for greater accountability for the state’s cyber-charter schools, argued cyber-charter schools can also market their programs more aggressively. Eller’s school, for example, spent nearly $4 million on tv, radio and digital advertising during the 2018-2019 school year, documents obtained from a Right-to-Know request show. 

DiRocco acknowledged that many public school families were unhappy with the virtual learning programs that teachers cobbled together this spring, when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown of public schools.

He thinks that will provide enough incentive for districts to burnish their online offerings until they have “a very strong, viable alternative that’s comparable or better than cyber charter schools,” which he says will be dogged by their poor performance records.  

Still, DiRocco believes that some families will find online instruction lacking, no matter who’s providing it.

“Many parents were disappointed with online learning because online learning is not an effective means of instruction,” DiRocco said. “I don’t care if they choose local or cyber options. I think they will find kids don’t like it as much as in-person instruction.”