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Where There’s Big Money There Are Big Problems: PA Cyber Charter Schools Get Both

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Where There’s Big Money There Are Big Problems:

PA Cyber Charter Schools Get Both

By Linda Dobson

“Controversy swirls about cyber [charter] schools” blares the Times Leader’s headline to a piece written by Terrie Morgan-Besecker in the Education section. (Interestingly, she’s dubbed the “Law and Order” reporter.)

There are 11 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania which, given the size of the state’s population, doesn’t seem like much to make a to-do about. However, school districts losing funding – excuse me – revered students because of their presence aren’t exactly thrilled.

My personal verdict on charter schools of all varieties is still out. Years ago, I held out a lot of hope for true transformation of schools via cyber charter schools. Today, one one hand we have brick and mortar schools with unions after the big money. On the other hand, many of the charter schools are owned by billionaires after the big money. They aren’t panning out to be a solution where the children’s education is top priority, either.

That said, it’s interesting to watch the turf war.

The schools, which provide lessons to students via computers in their homes, have skyrocketed in popularity. The number of enrollees statewide increased more than 4,000 percent, from just 582 in the school year ending in 2001 to 27,779 in 2011, according to data from the state Department of Education.


School districts are required to pay both brick and mortar and cyber charter schools roughly 75 percent of the per pupil cost to educate each student, which is set yearly by the state. That cost Luzerne County’s 11 school districts a combined total of $6.5 million in 2011

Yet, local school officials have no oversight of students to ensure they are getting an appropriate education.

Districts are not privy to how many hours an individual student spends in cyber class, what their grades are or how they perform on statewide academic tests, area superintendents said.

“We are paying the bill, but the only thing we really know (about a student) is that they are there,” said Wilkes-Barre Area School District Superintendent Jeff Namey, whose district paid $1.3 million to cyber schools in 2011, the second highest of any district. “I’m not saying there is not a place for cyber charters. Parents have the right to select that. I just think there needs to be greater oversight.”

Cyber Charter Schools Getting a Piece of the Money Pie

100DollarBills cyber charter schoolsWhoa. Hold on there, little buddy.

Schools – You are not paying the bill. YOU don’t give the cyber charter schools money; they get a portion of taxpayers’ money, just as you do.

Oversight – The rules governing charter schools were written and approved when the charter was granted. Sorry, you don’t get to play middleman. They report to the state Department of Education, just as you probably do with regard to your own school.

Apparently there are two primary factors driving the war for the money (even though the first charter school began ten years ago). First, there’s the well-known fact that states are going broke. Where heretofore Pennsylvania had “a program that reimbursed districts roughly 30 to 40 percent of the cost of each charter school student,” that’s gone. (“David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the elimination of the subsidy will cost districts statewide a combined $224 million in 2011-12.”)

Union – When someone decides not to give me money anymore, it doesn’t cost me. It simply means my gravy train dried up.

Second, thanks to the convoluted process of determining how many dollars are attached to each child’s “butt-in-the-seat,” there exists disparity among the districts and counties which means each loses a different amount.

A report released in October by state General Jack Wagner showed that rates paid to all charter schools (cyber and brick and mortar) in the 2009-10 school year varied from $6,496 to $16,249 per student for regular education students, while special education student costs ranged from $12,333 to $111,033 per student.

(Please note the disparity as it relates to students determined by the schools to be special education. I can’t imagine the elevated funding  has anything to do with the epidemic of children labeled special ed, do you?)

Jon Marsh, executive director of the 21st Century Cyber School headquartered in Exton…vehemently disputed that cyber schools are not held accountable. He noted their curriculum is reviewed by the state and they are required to file an “exhaustive” annual report with the state Department of Education each year.

The schools also employ variety of tactics to ensure the students are actually doing the work, and not just logging on and then leaving the computer to do other things.

“There are systems in place. The machine knows what the top application is that’s running. If a student opens up a Web page and opens up Itunes, we know it. Our machine constantly goes through and pans the system to see what the child is doing.”

There are also methods to detect if someone else is doing the work for them, he said. For instance, if a teacher suspects a student didn’t author a paper, it can be run through “authentication checker” that analyzes the writing style and other factors that would detect if it was written by someone else.

“Do we know 100 percent that every paper was done by that child? No, we don’t, but nor does your school district,” he said.

Happy Cyber Charter Schools Customer

See also “Parents, It’s Time to Consider Your Educational Choices

One mom who had worried about her daughter getting lost in school socialization saw her daughter’s learning improve when switched to a cyber charter school. “’We got to spend more time together and I was more involved in her schooling,’” Morales said. ‘You look at a regular school, how much you do you know what’s going on? You know (your child) got an A, but what did she learn for that A?’”

Marsh said he understands and sympathizes with financial hardships districts are facing, but if they want to stop the migration to charter schools, they need to do more to improve so that students want to stay in their home school district.

“They don’t like the fact that dollars are leaving the district. I understand that, But you have to provide better service,” he said.

It looks like traditional school folks need to spend some time pondering why so many families are leaving. It’s best they solve their own troubles before worrying about what others are doing. It would probably help to begin by remembering it’s the taxpayers paying all of the bills at both traditional and cyber charter schools, and then focus on educating the remaining children instead of on the dollars that flew along with the ones that got away.




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2 Responses to “Where There’s Big Money There Are Big Problems: PA Cyber Charter Schools Get Both”

  1. Mary says:

    Once I started taking a closer look at charter schools I was very disappointed, too, Linda. They advertise themselves as independent, but when the school is dependent on the public school district and local school board for funding as well has having their charter revoked at any time for any reason, how independent can they be? Then I found a study done by the AFT early on and I learned so much of what I thought charters were was just plain wrong. Subsequent follow up studies indicate that trend of poor performance, fraud and excessive costs continues –

    Because they are non-union, the teachers in them are non-union, meaning they are less experienced, less educated, and because of that, low paid. As they gain experience, the leave for better paying union jobs, so the turnover it very high. And, as public schools charters still have to meet state standards for testing, class size, etc. that the states and federal government put on the public schools.

    And so many charters seem to have been set up specifically to defraud the taxpayer. Individuals come in as non-profit, then hire their relatives for-profit companies to run them. Part of No Child Left Behind is funding for charters without much oversight. Oversight is left to the locals who either have conflicts of interest or are too busy with public schools multiple problems to worry about that little charter. All I had to do was google “charter school fraud” and I had enough material to fill up an entire computer so I’ll just let your readers do their own googling to see where their tax money is going in their state with a warning – there are over 2 million hits.

    Cyber charter schools, too, are just more of the same. Yes, Junior got an A but would mom and dad write a fat check if Junior got an F? No. there is a strong incentive to have every child in a cyber charter get straight A’s – Mom’s checkbook.

    I think the time has come for taxpayers to admit that what seemed like a really good idea to reform education has failed miserably and move on to The Next Big Idea To Save Education. Hmmmm. Wonder if that’s homeschooling???? One can only hope I suppose.

    • grandma_linda says:

      Wow, Mary,
      As usual, you cover it all quite well! I encourage everyone who reads Parent at the Helm to do the research on charter schools (tho' I doubt I'd ask anyone to read all two million!!)
      I LOVE this: "I think the time has come for taxpayers to admit that what seemed like a really good idea to reform education has failed miserably and move on to The Next Big Idea To Save Education. Hmmmm. Wonder if that’s homeschooling???? One can only hope I suppose."
      Yup, that's my hope. {{{}}}

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