In response to the recent commentary piece in the Notebook that asks the question “How can we improve the performance and accountability of Pennsylvania cyber charters?” (Lawrence A. Feinberg, Aug. 18) we feel it absolutely necessary that we reply, as Agora was the only one of the Pennsylvania’s 13 cyber charter schools that was mentioned specifically in this piece.
First, it should be known that Agora admits it has endured a tumultuous year. However, our administration and board have always done what is in the best interest of our students. In 2015, Agora severed its management relationship with K12 to become an independently managed school. When we open our virtual doors on Sept. 6, our primary relationship with K12 will be limited and the firm will serve as a provider of curriculum and support services.
To argue that cyber charters are alone in contracting with for-profit companies is quite misleading. School districts everywhere use for-profit companies to purchase textbooks for classrooms, keep technology on the cutting edge, and stock vending machines in their brick-and-mortar cafeterias. These expenses are not unique or out of the ordinary– they are simply part of maintaining a successful school or district.
Feinberg notes the millions of dollars paid to cyber charter schools, but fail to explain how those dollars get to us. For those unfamiliar with Pennsylvania’s funding stream, every district determines a dollar amount based on per-pupil spending specific to each district, of which cyber schools only see between 70 and 80 percent. “Tuition” paid to cyber charters is drawn from the per-pupil allotment number (minus costs for food service and transportation, among other expenses), NOT as an added expense or vendor to the district. Last year, Agora graduated more than 1,100 students, a class larger than most Pennsylvania high schools' total enrollment. As a kindergarten-through-12th grade school, Agora serves thousands of students, which does come at a substantial cost, but there has been no financial mismanagement of the funds collected to educate our students.
A frequent claim of those who oppose cyber charter education is that the cybers inflate their special education numbers to receive more funds. Discovering that a child learns differently can only help their educational experience in the long run. With Agora, the school is paid for exactly the number of special education students that are enrolled each month, and only the amount mandated by law, no more and no less.
As one of the largest online educators in the commonwealth, we, too, call for reform of the outdated and antiquated charter laws. Cyber education does not look the same way it did in 1997. Our phones, computers, and even watches have evolved with technology – and our education system should too, if the archaic laws that work against school choice in Pennsylvania did not hinder it. We want accountability and improved performance just like every other traditional, private, parochial or charter school in Pennsylvania so that we can best educate every child, not just the ones in a traditional classroom.
Dr. Michael Conti is CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School.