Cyber charters schools are an experiment that failed.
It’s time to pull the plug and recoup our losses.
First, let’s get straight exactly what we’re talking about here.
Like all charter schools, these are contracted institutions. In fact, that’s what charter means – they’re independent businesses that sign a deal with the state to teach kids.
So they’re publicly financed but privately run. And in the case of cyber charters, they agree to educate children online without the benefit of a physical building.
Students access lessons via computer or other device, submit work electronically, get virtual feedback and assessment.
At best, these institutions are the grade school equivalent of the University of Phoenix – good only for independent, self-motivated learners. At worst, they’re the kiddie version of Trump University – a total scam.
In Pennsylvania, 10 of the state’s 15 cyber charter schools are operating with expired charters, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
That’s incredibly significant – especially for an industry that enrolls about 35,000 students across the state.
These are charter schools operating without a charter. They only get the right to operate because a local school district or the state has signed a contract allowing them to do so.
If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet, you give him the right to enter your house and do what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean the plumber can walk in anytime he feels like it. There is a limited term of service. Once that term is up, the plumber needs to get out.
In the case of these cyber charters, the authorizer is the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).
Charters are initially issued for three to five years. They are an essential contract between the schools and the supervisory body. The school details how it will operate, what curriculum and education strategies will be used, etc.
The state has the option to revoke the charter if the school violates its agreement or fails to meet requirements for student performance or fiscal management.
After the initial period, charters must be renewed every five years in the state.
Yet for the majority of the Keystone state’s cyber charter schools, this has not happened. The charter agreements have been left to lapse without any decision being made by state officials to renew or cancel them.
Some of the reluctance to decide may stem from the fact that the state Charter Appeal Board – the body which decides on appeals of charter applications – are all serving out expired terms, themselves. They were all appointed by the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, a notable privatization ideologue.
The current Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat now elected to his second term of office, still hasn’t gotten around to appointing new ones.
Another issue gumming up the works could be staffing issues at PDE that make it impossible to handle the reviews in a timely manner. It could be because the cyber charter schools have not provided all the data required of them by the state for the review to be completed on time. Or it could be because state officials are struggling with a fair and adequate metric with which to assess these schools.
CYBER CHARTER’S DISMAL ACADEMIC RECORD
To be frank, the latter option has to weigh heavily on state auditors. After all, it’s no secret that these schools are an educational disaster. On-line schools in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico are all being closed by their respective states.
Study after study consistently shows that cyber charters are much less effective than traditional public schools – heck! They’re even less effective than brick and mortar charter schools!
A recent nationwide study by Stanford University found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading instruction than traditional public schools.
Keep in mind that there are only 180 days in an average school year. So cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.
The same study found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.
Student-to-teacher ratios average about 30:1 in online charters, compared to 20:1 for brick and mortar charters and 17:1 for traditional public schools.
Researchers concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.
And these results were duplicated almost exactly by subsequent studies from Penn State University in 2016 (enrolling a student in a Pennsylvania cyber charter school is equal to “roughly 90 fewer days of learning in reading and nearly 180 fewer days of learning in math”) and the National Education Policy Center in 2017 (cyber charters “performed significantly worse than feeder schools in both reading and math”).
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Even the state’s own data shows lower graduation rates and standardized test scores at cyber charters than at traditional public schools.
According to a 2015-16 state PDE report, about 86 percent of public school students across the Commonwealth finished high school in four years. During the same time, only about 48 percent of cyber charter school students graduated in four-years.
CYBER CHARTER’S COST TOO MUCH
But providing such a poor service to Pennsylvania students is only one reason these schools are problematic. They’re also ruinously expensive.
They cost taxpayers more than $463 million in 2016-17 alone.
The state charter law grants these schools as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, yet their costs are much less having forgone a physical building and all that goes with it.
So cyber charters get whatever the local per-pupil expenditure is. It doesn’t matter if a district spends $8,000 on each student or $20,000. Whatever the amount, that goes to the cyber charter.
However, the cost of educating kids is drastically reduced online. Their programs are bare bones compared with what you get at a traditional public school. Most online charters don’t have tutors or teacher aides. They don’t offer band, chorus or extra-curricular activities. You don’t have to pay for any building costs, grounds, upkeep, large staff, etc. But the funding formula ignores this completely. Cyber charters get to keep the difference – whatever it is. In fact, they have an incentive to keep as much as possible because they can do almost whatever they want with it. That includes putting it into operators’ pockets as profit!
And when it comes to special education funding, it gets worse. In Pennsylvania, our funding formula is so out of whack that charters schools of all stripes including cyber charters often end up with more funding for students with special needs than traditional public schools get. However, because of this loophole in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania online charters have been increasing the number of special education students they enroll and even working to label as many of their students as possible as needing special services on the flimsiest of pretexts.
According to a report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), tuition for special education students is often twice as much at cyber charter schools than at traditional public schools.
CYBER CHARTER FRAUD
Unsurprisingly, these conditions have lead to rampant fraud and malfeasance.
Just this past year (2018) the head of the largest cyber charter chain in the state was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from his school into his own pockets.
PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta was found guilty of tax fraud in relation to the theft of public funds. He used that money to buy an airplane, a $900,000 condo, houses for his girlfriend and mother, and nearly $1 million in groceries and personal expenses, according to the grand jury. Trombetta allegedly set up numerous for-profit and nonprofit businesses to provide goods and services to the cyber charter. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.
Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She was well known for student test scores and had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
It’s no wonder the state has been tardy renewing these schools’ charters!
Frankly, there is no good reason to continue lavishing taxpayer dollars on a system of education that provides subpar services at an exorbitant expense and is subject to runaway fraud.
But lawmakers have always been reluctant to do the right thing.
After all, there are a slew of wealthy investors who want to make sure the money train of taxpayer dollars keeps flowing to their shady businesses. And lawmakers who enable them are assured hefty campaign contributions.
The only chance we have of saving our children from this monstrous abuse of power and saving our wallets from this shameful waste of funding is if voters make their intentions known.
The people of Pennsylvania need to stand up and demand an end to the cyber charter school experiment.
We need lawmakers with the guts to stand up to big money and rewrite the state’s charter school law.
And that’s part of the problem. The law is a joke.
It’s more than 20 years old and was only amended once in 2002 to allow cyber charters.
Subsequent attempts at requiring more accountability have resulted in horrible compromise bills that would have made the situation much worse and – ultimately – no vote.
With Ohio and California, Pennsylvania was in the “big three” cyber-charter states in 2016, accounting for half of cyber charter enrollment nationally, according to the industry’s authorizers’ association. While 35 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time cyber charter schools, eight do not, including neighboring New Jersey.
The right course is clear.
We just need a people-powered movement to force our lawmakers to do it.
Either that or replace them with those who will.