If it sometimes seems as if “tuition-free” cyber charter ads are running non-stop, consider that in just one year, tax dollars paid for 19,298 local TV commercials for Agora Cyber Charter, just one of Pennsylvania’s 13 cyber charters. And far from being tuition-free, total cyber tuition paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers from 500 school districts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 was $393.5 million, $398.8 million and $436.1 million respectively.
Those commercials were very effective, especially if you were an executive at K12 Inc., a for-profit company contracted to manage the cyber school. According to Agora’s 2013 IRS tax filing, it paid $69.5 million that year to K12 Inc. According to Morningstar, total executive compensation at K12 in 2013 was $21.37 million.
What the ads don’t tell you is, first, that they are paid for with your school tax dollars instead of that money being spent in classrooms and, second, that academic performance at every one of Pennsylvania’s cyber charters has been consistently dismal. The Pennsylvania Department of Education considers a score of 70 to be passing on its School Performance Profile (SPP). Agora’s score for 2013 was 48.3, for 2014, it was 42.4, and the 2015 score was 46.4.
In fact, not one of Pennsylvania’s cyber charters has achieved a passing SPP score of 70 in any of the three years that the SPP has been in effect. Additionally, most Pennsylvania cybers never made Adequate Yearly Progress during all the years (2005-2012) that the federal No Child Left Behind law was in effect. Although cybers may be a great fit for some students, overall they have been an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars drawn from all 500 school districts without any authorization by those districts. Unlike brick-and-mortar charter schools, which must be authorized by their local school district, cyber charters were authorized and are ostensibly overseen by the state Department of Education.
Even if a cyber’s SPP score is 50 points less than a school district school, locally elected school boards have virtually no discretion when it comes to paying cyber tuition bills. If they don’t pay the cyber school, the state Department of Education will draft their account.
Cybers' poor results are reflected in national studies. Stanford University reported that online schools have an "overwhelming negative impact," showing severe shortfalls in reading and math achievement. The shortfall for most cyber students, they said, was equal to losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math during the typical 180-day school year. In math, it is as if they did not go to school at all. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a charter advocacy group based in Washington, said the findings were so troubling that the report should be "a call to action for authorizers and policymakers."
What can Pennsylvania policymakers do to improve the performance and accountability of our cyber charters? Here are some possibilities for our legislators to consider as they return from summer break.
Consider cyber charter reform separately from brick-and-mortar charter school reform legislation. Charter reform has proven to be a very tough nut to crack. There seems to be increasing agreement that cyber education as presently configured is not working for most of our students or our taxpayers.
Consider closing some of the most persistently underperforming cybers with scores in the 20s, 30s and 40s and have their students transfer to one of the better-performing schools. One of the tenets of school choice is supposed to be that failing schools would be closed.
Consider funding cyber education via a separate dedicated budget line instead of tuition payments from school districts. These schools are already authorized by the state Department of Education, not by school boards.
Consider providing the state Department of Education with the staffing and resources needed to effectively oversee the cyber charters that they have authorized.
Consider the recommendations of the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s June 2012 special report on Charter and Cyber Charter Education Funding Reform. http://www.paauditor.gov/Media/Default/Reports/CyberCharterSpecialReport201206.pdf
Consider the recommendations of the Pennsylvania Special Education Funding Commission’s December 2013 report that calls for using three funding categories based on the intensity of services required to meet special education students’ needs.
In 2014-15, cyber charters reportedly received over $100 million more in special education tuition payments than they actually spent on special education services.
onsider requiring all ads for cyber charters to clearly state that the ads are paid for using school tax dollars and to clearly state the cyber charter’s SPP score and the fact that a score of 70 is considered passing.
Consider creating a centralized marketing website at PDE instead of having cyber charters spend tax dollars on ads. This site would link to the websites for each of the state’s cyber schools.
A blog post titled “Can policymakers fix what ails online charter schools? by Dara Zeehandelaar and Michael J. Petrilli recommended three strategies for improving online schools:
(1) Consider adopting performance-based funding for e-schools. When students complete courses successfully and demonstrate that they have mastered the expected competencies, cybers schools would get paid. This creates incentives for cybers to focus on what matters most — academic progress — while tempering their appetite for enrollment growth and the dollars tied to it. It would also encourage them to recruit students who are likely to succeed in an online environment.
(2) Policymakers should seek ways to improve the fit between students and e-schools. It seems that students selecting cyber schools may be those least likely to succeed in a school format that requires independent learning, self-motivation, and self-regulation. Lawmakers could explore rules that exempt cyber schools from policies requiring all charters, virtual ones included, to accept every student who applies and instead allow cybers to operate more like magnet schools with admissions procedures and priorities.
(3) Policymakers should support online course choice, so that students interested in web-based learning can avail themselves of online options without enrolling full-time in a cyber charter. This might include encouraging students to use their own school districts’ programs if their school district or intermediate unit offers cyber education.
Cyber charters were intended to be a better alternative to traditional schools that were deemed as failing. More than 10 years later, that has consistently proven not to be the case. We have spent more than $1 billion in tax dollars on cyber tuition in Pennsylvania in just the past three years. Our students and taxpayers deserve better.
Lawrence A. Feinberg of Ardmore is serving his 17th year as a school director in Haverford Township. He is the founder and a co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Coalition.