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    Pennsylvania’s misguided cyber school choice

    Online learning can provide many benefits, but it is not of service to all who enroll. In Pennsylvania online learning finds itself at the intersection of education reform, societal changes, economic realities and political extremism. Specific problem areas are cyber charter school funding, approval, oversight and accountability.

    The following essay, a work of opinion, is submitted by the author in response to a letter from cyber school teacher Pat Parris, titled “Support cyber schools, or Internet learners will be made second-class students,” published June 17.

    Online learning can provide many benefits, but it is not of service to all who enroll. In Pennsylvania online learning finds itself at the intersection of education reform, societal changes, economic realities and political extremism. Specific problem areas are cyber charter school funding, approval, oversight and accountability.

    State funding of cyber schools

    The current funding process is devoid of any evaluation of value or quality. For example, regardless of the education services provided, but based on the cost of education in a student’s home district, taxpayers may pay from $6,405 to $16,390 for a non-special education student and $12,152 to $41,595 for a special education student to attend any of the cyber charter schools in the state. [Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education]

    At the same time, the quality and value of education varies wildly from cyber charter school to cyber charter school.

    Cyber charter schools vary in quality

    The money that follows a student is the same regardless of the quality of education provided by the student’s school of choice. So a large school like Commonwealth Connections Cyber School costs the taxpayer in the home district the same as a small cyber charter school startup. Programs vary considerably from one cyber charter school to another. The current system does not take into consideration these substantial quality differences. In the current funding system, both of these cyber schools would receive the same funding. What incentive is there to innovate?

    The goal is financial — to find ways to enroll more students by any means rather than to deliver an innovative, high-quality education. A slow-growth model develops a better-quality education for students that saves time and money in the long run. It is more difficult and costly to innovate during periods of rapid expansion.

    It is puzzling that most cyber charter applications predict rapid growth. So success is not achieved through increased quality, but through growth in enrollment numbers alone. In many cyber charter schools, the focus morning, noon and night is “more students…more students” — except when the state’s Department of Education visits, and it is temporarily replaced by the school’s mission statement and goals.

    Even more puzzling, there have been excellent cyber charter school startups that could not get the enrollment numbers they needed to remain sustainable. Allegheny IU’s STREAM Academy found itself in this situation. Based on background information, it took years in planning, research and innovation to develop its model even before enrolling any students. It had a solid core curriculum, but because it was created by educators (not entrepreneurs) quality education was deemed paramount to profits, and it is currently struggling to survive.

    Cyber school enrollment incentives

    One of the differences between a cyber charter school and a brick-and-mortar school is that the first person you encounter at a cyber school probably has a personal financial incentive to get you enrolled. You definitely don’t have that conflict of interest in any interactions with traditional public school employees. Who is looking out for the best interests of the child?

    Another major problem is that prospective school choice candidates don’t have a good way to compare cyber school programs. They can look at the Adequate Yearly Progress report cards on the PDE site, but this is not widely known. All 16 cyber schools appear to be performing poorly, based on AYP data that shows none of the cyber charter schools making their annual goals.

    Because there is no good way to evaluate the quality of instruction before choosing a cyber school, parents are left to rely on marketing and propaganda to persuade them. As competition for students gets more intense, more money is needed to sustain enrollment. This leads to deceptive advertising, but it also has a profound effect on the quality of teaching, because rigor is diluted to keep enrollment up.

    One improvement to the funding system might be to have taxpayers pay one initial price based on a flat cyber school student rate. Then a factor could be assessed to apportion additional funds based on the value of education that school can typically provide. This would tend to tie costs to value.

    Access to information

    Many of the cyber charter schools post their board meeting minutes, but most of the important information is covered in the executive session. The Access to Information law does require access to some cyber charter school information, but access requires giving your name and may require copying costs. Getting internal information is not an easy task and is much more difficult than getting information from any public brick-and-mortar school. Access to information varies widely from one cyber charter school to another.

    Brian Lutz is a retired cyber school teacher.

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