Despite dismal record of Pa. cybercharter schools, six more apply to open

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    (Photo via ShutterStock)

    For many, “Cyber Monday” may mean shopping.

    But for the more than 35,000 Pennsylvania students attending the state’s 16 cybercharter schools, it’s just another day of the hitting the e-books.

    The question now is: Should those numbers climb higher?

    In the past few weeks, six prospective cyberschool operators have made pitches to the state department of education in hopes of gaining a charter.

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    Looking at the performance of the 16 existing cybercharters, some education advocates say the state’s decision should be easy.

    Analyzing the state’s recently released School Performance Profile information, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action found Pennsylvania’s cybercharters to be some of the lowest performing schools in the state.

    Of the 11 cybercharters for which information was available, none met the the statewide average for publicly funded schools (77.2). The state’s cybercharters received a score of 44.7, far below the scores of brick-and-mortar charters (67.3) and traditional public schools (77.8).

    Researchers also found that the average cyberschool had a much higher than average annual student turnover rate. In 2011-12,  27 percent of the students in cybercharters withdrew from school.

    “While it’s clear that virtual education is going to be increasingly a part of what the future holds in education, that particular model of working entirely at home at all times is not proving to be very effective,” said David Lapp, staff attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Education Law Center.

    It’s not just poor performance.  To public education advocates such as ELC, cybercharters also raise eyebrows with their prolific advertising practices.

    “They’re ubiquitous. We see them all across the commonwealth on billboards, radio advertisements, television advertisements, websites. Everywhere we look, there’s cybercharter school this, cybercharter school that, and this costs money,” said Lapp. “This is millions of taxpayer dollars.”

    Last year, eight prospective cyberschools applied for charters; all were denied by the state Department of Education.

    Those denials were supported by Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, a group that advocates for more “high-quality seats” in public education.

    Although Cetel acknowledges that the performance of the state’s cyberschools has been “empirically poor,” he would not go as far as joining ELC in its call for a moratorium.

    Each applicant, he says, deserves thoughtful consideration.

    “There’s still a chance that the right individual comes along with the right proposal,” he said. “And we should give them a chance.”

    Pennsylvania’s 16 existing cybercharters cost $366.6 million statewide; $49.2 million of that is spent by the Philadelphia School District.

    The Department of Education said it did not have the statutory authority to implement a moratorium.  Spokesman Tim Eller said the department would analyze the applications with a “laser focus” while “increasing the rigor of the review process.”

    The department will announce it decisions on the six applicants by the end of January.

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