June 12, 2024

Philadelphia Inquirer: For Pa. cyber charter schools, there’s little accountability but plenty of profit

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In Pennsylvania, there is growing pressure to rein in cyber charters, which pull in a billion dollars a year and provide poor results. The editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer took a firm stand on the issue.

Cyber charter school operators tout the benefits of online learning, such as accelerated instruction, flexible scheduling, or providing a haven for children who are being bullied or have special needs.

But left out of the pitch is how Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools have poor graduation rates and rank near the bottom in test scores for reading and math. More troubling is the lack of oversight by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Most cyber schools operate with expired charters and have never been audited by the state or were audited years ago, according to Education Voters PA, a pro-public education advocacy group. Another report found Pennsylvania’s cyber charters have the highest costs in the country but some of the worst results.

With no one minding the store, the four largest cyber charters — which enroll nearly 75% of online students statewide — have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets as they take in more money than they spend.

 

Overall, the four charters reported net assets totaling $486 million in 2022, up from roughly $600,000 in 2018. Cyber charter advocates said the growth in assets reflects an investment in educational infrastructure and resources. Tim Eller, an executive at Commonwealth Charter Academy, said it spends “every penny” on the education and support services for its students.

Really? The Education Voters PA report found cyber charters spent $21 million in 2022-23 on advertising, promotions, catering, branded giveaways, and gift cards.

 

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposed capping the funding for cyber charters at $8,000 per pupil. That’s a start, but others estimate the cost of educating students online is lower. Why not pay the actual cost instead of an arbitrary number?

Or better yet, follow the lead of five other states — Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Texas, and Utah — and base the cyber school funding on student performance and participation.

Cyber charter schools can serve a niche. But instead, Pennsylvania lawmakers have used taxpayer money to fund a $1 billion-a-year business with a sprawling real estate portfolio, poor education outcomes, little oversight, and dubious spending.

The full editorial can be found here. 

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