Letter: The true costs of unchecked charter growth

    Ben Herold’s recent article “Rising cyber-charter costs fuel push for statewide reform” focused on the financial cost of cyber charters. In the article, much attention was given to responses from cyber charter operators and supporters who emphasize catchy policy terms like “innovation,” but wholly ignore the reality of student experiences in these programs. 

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Ben Herold’s recent article “Rising cyber-charter costs fuel push for statewide reform” focused on the financial cost of cyber charters. In the article, much attention was given to responses from cyber charter operators and supporters who emphasize catchy policy terms like “innovation,” but wholly ignore the reality of student experiences in these programs.

    Cyber schools failing our kids

    Discussion of cyber education must focus on evidence of what has actually occurred in Pennsylvania as opposed to a theoretical discussion of the supposed benefits of this “innovative” movement. Our state has allowed unchecked cyber charter growth, and the consequences have been grave. Cyber charter school growth has further harmed funding-starved districts and incentivized unregulated district-run cyber programs. The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania is deeply troubled by the financial costs. But more devastating are the educational consequences of these programs. Students enrolled in Pennsylvania cyber charter schools are not receiving a quality education.

    Attorneys at ELC have heard from the families of many students attending cyber charter schools. Here’s what those families have reported: Students spending countless hours behind computer screens without any required human interaction; students with disabilities who are not receiving any appropriate academic instruction; and students who have been pushed into computer-based programs as a result of behavioral incidents.

    There’s conclusive quantitative evidence, as cited in the article, that Pennsylvania cyber charter school students are failing to meet academic standards and are academically trailing their counterparts in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Now a new national study released this month shows the failure of these schools — throughout the country — to meet any kind of academic standards.

    Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013” released by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder revealed that in the 2010-2011 school year there was a 28 percentage point difference between full-time virtual schools and traditional brick-and-mortar district and charter schools meeting adequate yearly progress benchmarks on standardized tests: 23.6 percent compared with 52 percent, respectively.

    Additionally, the on-time graduation rate for the full-time virtual schools was less than half the national average: 37.6 percent versus 79.4 percent.

    No more cyber charters

    The Education Law Center would strongly support the report’s recommendations for policymakers. They include:

    Slow or stop growth of virtual schools until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.
    Impose caps on student enrollment until evidence of satisfactory performance for a provider is available.
    Develop guidelines and governance mechanisms to ensure that virtual schools do not prioritize profit over student learning.
    Assess the contributions of various providers to student achievement, and closing virtual schools and programs that do not contribute to student growth.

    Pennsylvania has taken some preliminary steps toward stemming the unchecked authorization of cyber charter schools. In January, the Pennsylvania Department of Education rejected the applications of eight new cyber charters. PDE also recently announced it was closing down one of the new cyber charters for failure to comply with its charter.

    The Law Center supports these actions and urges policymakers to make the process of cyber charter review and approval even more robust.

    Cyber charter supporters tout policy recommendations that focus on a theoretical version of the future without addressing the ill effects of Pennsylvania’s 13-year embrace of cyber charter schools. Some of those supporters go so far as to say that Pennsylvania is in jeopardy of falling behind other states in an imagined race to expand the number of cyber charter schools. But the truth is that, despite mounting evidence of the academic failure of these schools, Pennsylvania has blindly led the full-time cyber schooling movement for years. In fact, during the 2011-2012 school year Pennsylvania accounted for 16 percent of all students enrolled in full-time cyber schools in the entire country.

    Pennsylvania has been experimenting with students in cyber charter schools under the guise of “innovation” for more than a decade. We no longer need to hypothesize about the results. Cyber charters do not work for the majority of the students they enroll.

    In smartly planning for the future, Pennsylvania lawmakers must first address the troubling educational reality of full-time cyber charter schools. To that end, discussions of reform should focus on improving the educational outcomes for cyber charter students, not simply restructuring how we fund these programs.

    Rhonda Brownstein is executive director of the Education Law Center.

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