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Practicality on Charter Schools finally becoming a Reality in PA but much more needs to be done!

The death of cyber charter schools in Pa.?

A new bill in the Pa. State Senate could mean the end for cyber charter schools in the state. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

A new bill in the Pa. State Senate could mean the end for cyber charter schools in the state. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

A proposal with potentially dire consequences for Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools re-emerged in Harrisburg this session.

And one of the politicians pushing it now has a key education post in the state capital.

The proposal, formally introduced as Senate Bill 34 last month, would require a family to pay out-of-pocket tuition to attend a cyber charter school if their home district offers a “cyber-based program equal in scope and content.”

Depending on its interpretation and implementation, this measure could halt the flow of millions in taxpayer dollars from traditional school districts to cyber charters. If the law applies to any school district with some sort of digital learning program, cyber charters could be in big trouble.

“I think cyber charter schools would no longer exist,” said Maurice Flurie III, CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, the state’s second-largest cyber charter.

Last week, Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie) announced plans to introduce a similar bill in the State House. Sonney has authored legislation like this in past sessions. But it’s the first time he’ll do so as chair of the House Education Committee, a position he assumed in January.

In a co-sponsorship memo, he said his bill “will encourage school districts to offer full-time cyber education programs to their students, will encourage students to enroll in these school district programs, and ultimately will result in savings for school districts.”

Cyber charter critics often point to the fact the schools generally score poorly on standardized tests. All but one of the state’s 15 cyber charters ranked in the bottom quartile of all schools on Pennsylvania’s rating system in 2017. Cyber charters say those scores reflect the students they serve, many of whom struggled in prior schools.

Other critics say cyber charters burden traditional school districts financially.

Districts have to send a per-pupil tuition fee every time a student from their district decides to attend a cyber charter. The same setup exists for students in brick-and-mortar charter schools.

Unlike brick-and-mortar charters, though, traditional districts don’t oversee or approve cyber charters. The state’s department of education does that. And it means districts don’t control the number of students who can opt for cybers — most of which are currently operating under expired agreements.

“We are taking money away from the students in our school district to give to a cyber charter school that has had no accountability [to the district],” said Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, which sends over $2 million to cyber charters each year.

Cyber charter opponents also argue that the amount of money traditional districts send to cyber charters outpaces the actual cost of educating a student online.

A 2018 survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) found districts pay, on average, $11,306, for each general education student attending a cyber charter, and $24,192 for special education students.

The same survey said the “vast majority” of district-run cyber schools cost $5,000 or less per student.

“It’s crazy,” said State Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks), of the fees districts pay to cyber charters. “It’s not based on actual delivery of educational programming.”

Over 35,000 students attend cyber charters in Pennsylvania, trailing onlyCalifornia and Ohio.

Opponents of the proposal say it would spur a parent revolt and contradict the values of school choice.

“They pick a charter school or a cyber charter school because the district has, in essence, failed their child,” said Ana Meyers, who heads the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Keystone Crossroads could not confirm the number of districts with in-house cyber programs that might meet the threshold established by Senate Bill 34. Schwank, the bill’s primary sponsor, couldn’t provide a list. Neither could the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The 2018 PASA survey found at least 152 of the state’s 500 school districts have a local cyber school option, and that two-thirds of those programs came online in the last five years. Only 172 districts responded to PASA’s inquiry, so that number could be even higher.

In 2016-17, traditional school districts sent $463 million to cyber charter schools. Just 20 school districts account for a third of that total, and 19 of those districts advertise some sort of in-house program on their websites.

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