Pa. cyber charters again get low marks on state tests

A new study by Research for Action has found that Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter sector continues to yield subpar results on the state’s standardized tests.

 Using the state’s recently released school performance profile data for 2013-14, RFA found the average School Performance Profile score for the cyber-charter sector was 48.9 – well below the averages for the state’s brick and mortar charters and traditional public schools.

To date, no cyber charter has earned a SPP of 70 or higher, the state Department of Education’s quality threshold.

The department is now reviewing three applications for new cyber charters. Last year the department – which hasn’t approved a new cyber charter since 2013 – rejected eight applicants.

While the report says the school performance profile system is “suspect due to its heavy reliance on test scores that are highly correlated with socioeconomic characteristics,” it notes that cybers perform poorly even when compared with the state’s most impoverished public schools.

“Even when you compare the cyber charters to high-poverty traditional schools and high-poverty charter schools, they still underperform,” said Kate Shaw, RFA’s executive director.

The state’s cyber charter sector lost two schools between 2012-13 and 2013-14, but overall enrollment grew by more than 5 percent, raising total cyber enrollment to roughly 36,500.

Proponents of cyber charter education have argued that broad-based comparisons to other sectors are misleading because their charters tend to serve a particularly vulnerable subset of the population.

In fact, cyber charters enroll a lower percentage of economically disadvantaged students than bricks-and-mortar charters, and they serve very few English language learners.

In a shift from past years, though, cyber charters now enroll the highest proportion of special-education students when compared to traditional schools and charter counterparts.

While overall cyber enrollment grew by 2.4 percent, the special-education enrollment in cybers grew by 23 percent.

While Shaw couldn’t say what drove this influx, she indicated that cyber charters may be driven by a desire for fiscal gain.

“We do know that reimbursement for special education students is significantly higher than reimbursement for traditional students,” she said. “By 2014-15, a school gets $23,000 per special-ed student and only $8,000 for a traditional education student.”

Despite the fact that it costs wildly different rates to educate children with different special education needs, the state instructs districts to pay charters for one fixed amount no matter the actual need.

“The large per-pupil transfer of funds from districts to charters for special education students has already garnered criticism because Pennsylvania’s special education funding formula provides incentives for charters and cyber charters to overidentify special education students,” said RFA’s report.

In its report on cyber charters last year, RFA noted that the sector experienced a much higher rate of student transience than traditional schools. That comparison could not be made this year due to a lack of data from the state department of education, Shaw said.

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