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Pa. considers 8 new cyber charters, while critics question cost and quality

By thenotebook on Dec 5, 2012 06:44 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks

Pennsylvania's cyber charter committee asks questions of officials from the proposed Insight PA Cyber Charter School during a hearing in Harrisburg on Nov. 28.

by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

Amid concerns about quality, cost, and corruption in Pennsylvania's extensive system of cyber charters, state officials are considering eight new proposals for independently managed schools providing mostly online instruction.

The new cyber charters, which would receive public funding that would otherwise benefit traditional school districts, aim to serve almost 10,000 students by 2017.

If all the pending proposals are approved, the new cybers would receive roughly $350 million in taxpayer money over the next five years, according to a NewsWorks/Notebook analysis.

During hearings held in Harrisburg last week, Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq touted the value of online options.

"The beauty of the cyber charter is that any child, anywhere in Pennsylvania can participate," Dumaresq said. "I think they serve a unique role in providing additional opportunities for students."

But some public education advocates—as well as some traditional school districts, including Philadelphia's—are raising red flags. They argue that the state's existing cyber schools overspend public dollars while generating mostly poor academic results.

"We have to make sure that children are protected and that taxpayers are protected," said Rhonda Brownstein, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has called for a statewide moratorium on new cyber charters.

Pennsylvania officials are expected to make final decisions on this year's proposals sometime in January.

A growth industry

Though local school districts in Pennsylvania now have the sole right to approve new bricks-and-mortar charters, only the state Department of Education can authorize cyber charters.

In the last two years, the department has approved eight new cyber schools, bringing the statewide total to 16.

This year, Pennsylvania taxpayers will spend about $400 million so that roughly 35,000 students can be taught through cyber charters instead of traditional public schools.

According to the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm that produces an industry-sponsored annual report on the state of online education, only Ohio and Arizona had more students in "multi-district, fully online schools" in 2011-12.

A variety of options—and opportunities for profit

Hoping to capitalize on surging demand from parents, eight applicants are seeking to open new cyber charters for next school year.

Their proposals highlight the growing diversity in online education models.

The Allentown, Pa.-based Pennsylvania Career Path Cyber Charter, for example, proposes to focus on "work-based learning" that includes job shadowing and internships. The Philadelphia-based Akoben Cyber Charter, meanwhile, proposes to become the "first African-centered cyber charter school in America."

Dumaresq praised the variety of options.

"You name it, it's out there for children," she said.

During a hearing in Harrisburg last Wednesday, Diana Moninger gave her pitch for why the state should open the Insight PA Cyber Charter, which aims to serve 3,600 dropouts and other hard-to-serve teens by 2017.

"Insight PA's well-conceived virtual education program will boost student achievement, serve the unique need of Pennsylvania's at-risk students and families, and offer a new model for effective public education in the 21st century," Moninger told the nine members of Pennsylvania's cyber charter committee.

The school's application calls for a weeklong, in-person orientation for students; a first-year focus on "synchronous" online education in which students have real-time access to their teachers and other students; and the opportunity for regular face-to-face time at "learning centers" across the state.

Moninger is the family literacy coordinator at the Bowlby Public Library in tiny Waynesburg, Pa. She's also the parent of two students who attend cyber charters and a founding board member of PA Community Partners in Education (PACPE), a newly formed group applying for the charter to run Insight PA.

Pennsylvania law mandates that charters may only be granted to not-for-profit organizations.

If Insight PA is approved, PACPE intends to contract with K12 Inc. to manage the school and provide its curriculum.

K12, based in Herndon, Va., is the country's largest for-profit operator of online K-12 schools. Company officials were on hand for last Wednesday's hearing, answering state officials' questions about everything from the technology to be used by Insight PA to the school's plans to focus its recruitment efforts on Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

"My role is to help founders through the application process," said Todd Thorpe, a senior director of school development with the company.

K12 is now involved in at least two existing Pennsylvania cybers: Agora and PA Virtual. The company has recently come under heavy scrutiny for the academic performance of schools using its curriculum, as well its teacher-hiring practices, the amount its affiliated schools spend on advertising, and the company's aggressive lobbying efforts.

In Pennsylvania, K12 has also drawn questions because state budget secretary Charles Zogby is a former vice president in the company.

Thorpe defended K12's record, saying the company focuses on students' growth during the school year and provides a valuable option to families.

A second proposed cyber charter, Phase 4 America, also intends to use the K12 curriculum if approved. Others propose to contract with e2020, Inc. or Mosaica Education to provide curricula or management services.

Dumaresq said she's not concerned about for-profit companies playing such a prominent role in the state's publicly funded cybers.

"Profit-making is not a dirty word," said Dumaresq, so long as schools are following the law and delivering a quality education.

'Dramatically less learning' in cybers

In the most comprehensive study to date, Pennsylvania's cyber charters as a group were found to have poor academic performance.

In 2011, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University compared the learning gains of students in eight Pennsylvania cybers with their counterparts in other types of schools.

They found that traditional public schools and bricks-and-mortar charters helped students learn at about the same rate in reading, while traditional public schools did slightly better in math.

But cyber charters lagged significantly behind both other types of schools.

"The cyber schools we were able to study have dramatically less learning per year in both reading and math for their students," said Macke Raymond, CREDO's director.

Robert Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, acknowledged the "mixed" performance of the state's cyber charters, but said that test-score data needs to be balanced with on-the-ground reviews.

"I would put more credibility in the perception of the parents who are actually increasing the enrollment of the cyber schools," Fayfich said. "They're seeing some improvement in their child that they're not seeing elsewhere."

Others, though, have seized on the results of the CREDO study as a major reason to be skeptical of Pennsylvania's cyber charters.

In their review of the Philadelphia School District's operations, the Boston Consulting Group described the quality of Pennsylvania's cybers as "notoriously low." The consultants recommended that the District start its own online program to draw students back.

And Brownstein of the Education Law Center said, "With all of the dismal academic performance, we think that the Pennsylvania Department of Education should slow down, take a look at what the problem is, and not go on to approve additional [cybers]," she said.

A threat to Philadelphia?

For many, concerns about the academic performance of the state's cyber charters are intertwined with concerns about their funding.

"Taxpayers are paying a lot of money for these schools that aren't performing perhaps as they should," said Steve Robinson, the director of public relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

When a Pennsylvania student enrolls in a cyber school, the charter bills the student's home school district for an amount equal to the per-pupil funding level in that district. In 2010-11, for example, Pennsylvania cybers received an average of just over $11,000 per student, according to the Department of Education.

Critics contend that's too much money, arguing that cyber charters -- which generally have higher student-teacher ratios and lower facilities costs than bricks-and-mortar schools -- receive more than they need to operate. In June 2012, state Auditor General Jack Wagner contended that Pennsylvania was dramatically overspending on cyber schools and called for a statewide cyber charter funding rate of $6,500 per student.

The state legislature has tried and failed twice in recent months to reform the way charters are funded. But Lori Shorr, the chief education officer for Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, said there is bipartisan consensus that the system needs to be reworked.

"The way we fund schools looks pretty much the same as it did 15 or 20 years ago, [but] the way we're delivering education is much different," Shorr said. "We need to sit down and talk about what the price tag is for delivering [cyber] instruction."

It's not just a question of fairness.

The state's largest cyber charter - PA Cyber, which last year served more than 10,000 students – was searched by federal agents in July of this year. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the school pays tens of millions of dollars annually to spinoff entities run by former executives of the school.

In addition, Shorr and other city education leaders are worried that the continued expansion of cybers will blow a hole in the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District's already unbalanced budget.

Before the hearings on the new proposals began, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite submitted written testimony on behalf of the District.

Last year, wrote Hite, almost 5,000 Philadelphia students were enrolled in state cyber charters, resulting in almost $50 million in per-pupil payments from the District.

"Cyber charter school enrollment has an enormous impact on the School District's budget and Five Year Financial Plan," wrote Hite. "We expect that by 2017, cyber charter seats will cost the School District more than $75 million per year" – even if no new cyber schools are approved.

Charter proponents argue that traditional school districts should be able to offset the expense of losing students through corresponding reductions in spending.

School districts counter that the correlation is not one-to-one: They don't get to cut their teaching staff, cancel a bus, or stop heating a school just because a given student leaves for a cyber charter.

Philadelphia school officials declined to be interviewed for this article. They've previously maintained that it is only possible for their District to recapture about 30 percent of the revenue lost when a student leaves their system for a charter.

Shorr said it doesn't take an accountant to understand the financial implications for Philadelphia if the state approves a new batch of cyber charters.

"It's like anybody's checkbook at home," she said. "If you have a big new cost, and you have no money left over from the previous month, you've got to take the money from someplace else."

9,800 students, $350 million?

If the state were to approve all eight of this year's proposals, the applicants project a total enrollment in the new cyber schools of 2,750 students in 2013-14 and 9,800 students by 2017-18.

Using the most recently available per-pupil allotment figure, that would mean the new cyber charters would receive roughly $30 million in public funding in the first year, and $350 million over five years.

Last year, Pennsylvania eventually approved four of seven cyber charter applicants.

Rulings on this year's crop of proposals must be made sometime in early 2013.

The inclination in Harrisburg seems to be for continued expansion, with a focus on trying to ensure quality.

"My interest is in making sure the curriculum is rich, [and] we need to make sure that [schools are] financially sound," Dumaresq said.

"I don't have any concerns about growing, as long as they're quality cyber charters."

This story is the product of a partnership in education reporting between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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Comments (14)

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on December 6, 2012 7:48 am

Calling cyber-charters successful because of enrollment is like calling soda healthy because of sales. The solution to fixing a bridge isn't to hire a private ferry company. 

Submitted by Lawrence A. Feinberg (not verified) on December 6, 2012 11:36 am

"I don't have any concerns about growing, as long as they're quality cyber charters."

Pray tell, Ms. Dumaresq, just where might we find these quality cyber charters?

The 2011 Stanford/CREDO study found that in 100 percent of Pennsylvania cyber charters, students performed “significantly worse” in math and reading than students at traditional public schools.

Of 12 PA cyber charters, none made AYP for 2012 using the standards sanctioned by the US Dept. of Education. In 2011, only 2 made AYP while 8 were in corrective action status.

Most of Pennsylvania’s cyber charters have never made AYP. The only one that might be considered “quality” is the 21st Century Cyber Charter School which was created by and is governed by the Chief School Administrators from the four suburban Philadelphia counties' intermediate units and public school districts.

Charters are supposed to be laboratories of innovation that help identify and disseminate best practices, not a means to replicate ineffective approaches, which, by the way, siphon off tax dollars to pay for advertising and corporate bonuses instead of instruction.

http://keystonestateeducationcoalition.blogspot.com/2011/11/pa-cyber-cha...

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 6, 2012 1:33 pm

Hi Mr. Feinberg. Yesterday, I made some very complimentary comments about you and your work, and somehow it got deleted. Since I know the Notebook people and figure they would never do that to me, I am sure it was an accident!

I just tried to let everyone know that I have been following your work for years in my studies of school governance and leadership and the issues as they emerge.

I also want our community and you to know that I find you to be one of the most knowledgeable and credible advocates for truth in what is going on around us all. You are also a strong advocate for democracy in education and running schools for the best interests of children and student centered eduction. That gives you high marks from me.

I applaud you for your work. You are Great school leader.

Submitted by Dan M (not verified) on December 6, 2012 4:35 pm

How did the scores of the cyberschool kids from Philadelphia compare to the scores of kids in the Philadelphia Public schools? Many cyberschool kids are from already failing public schools, so comparing the cyberschools to the "average" PA public school is a bit unfair. I teach at a public school and I'm sure both sides (like politicians) are very good at using statistics to promote their argument.

Submitted by GAMP PARENT (not verified) on December 13, 2012 11:32 am

My child did a year in a cyber charter and I have to say that I am positively thrilled that she is at GAMP now. The cyber charter only cared that tests were periodically turned in. They called to check in maybe once or twice during a school year. Although my daughter qualified for a gifted individualized education plan, and she was evaluated, they did nothing to implement the plan. There is no accountability except that they turn in tests. On a larger-scale, it's a system that can turn people into hermits that don't know how to interact with the rest of the world. Only a small fraction of money that the charters receive per student is spent on materials. Whereas there might be saving on the bricks-and-mortar buildings of traditional schools, where does the money go. All I got for my child was a box of textbooks and a barely acceptable laptop that she never used because she preferred my Mac.

Submitted by Greg (not verified) on January 31, 2013 11:32 am

I just placed my son in Agora Cyber School and have been extremely impressed with the support network in place and the learning content provided. My son was tired of all the bullying and nonsense that in his own words was distracting him from learning to his fullest potential. K-12 recruits for Agora and other cyber schools and they were upfront with the increased level of parent involvement required for success. I think many parents and kids expect an easy ride working from home. They were also upfront that a lot of children that end up in cyber school unlike my son are already having learning issues in there public school. These issues range from behavior problems to problems with schools failing. With this being the case I agree that cyber schools statistics are being unfairly compared to the whole number of bricks and mortar public schools. By the same token I believe many of the problems plaguing students in public schools are a result of poor parenting and the decline of proper social skills and not always teachers or budgets. For now I am excited for the opportunity provided by the existence of alternative choices. As a rule competition makes every industry stronger and services better. I will try to report back an update at the end of the year.

Submitted by tom-104 on January 31, 2013 12:58 pm

I sympathize with you situation in regards to the bullying at your son's school. Support and security personnel have been drastically cut over the last five years so the District could build up charters.

However, doesn't this concern you?

"The department began a hearing in August 2009 to revoke the charter of Agora Cyber School following allegations of financial mismanagement involving a company owned by Agora's founder, Dorothy June Brown.

The state hearing was halted, and multiple state and federal lawsuits were filed. As part of a settlement, Agora was allowed to continue operating, but its board was replaced. Brown agreed to cut all ties to Agora, but received $1.7 million from the state and $1.3 million from K12, which ran the school.

A federal criminal investigation that includes Agora's operations was begun in 2010 and is continuing, according to knowledgeable sources."

http://articles.philly.com/2012-07-03/news/32524431_1_cyber-charter-onli...

Also, do not be conned by all the ads you see online for cyber schools. That is your tax dollars at work. They have huge publicity budgets for publicizing their schools, something public schools cannot afford to do, nor should they.

Submitted by tom-104 on January 31, 2013 12:10 pm

In regards to the issue of cyber charter school advertising, you might want to read this article.

"Online Charter Schools Spent Millions Of Taxpayer Dollars On Advertising To Recruit New Students"

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/29/online-charter-schools-advertis...

Submitted by Greg (not verified) on January 31, 2013 4:23 pm

It would be more concerning had the founder and board not been replaced. There is plenty of fruad to go around. Tenur allows for some teachers to collect there tax payer funded salarys while completely failing their students. All I can say about Agora for now is that my son received all his materials including a modern laptop and printer along with nice clean new text books and the support has been awesome. I would email his teacher at his old school and sometimes need to send a followup just to get a responce but yesterday I had a question and I emailed his learning coach and teacher and recieved call backs with answers in less then 3 hours! My son is also working his butt off and is challaged so far by the classes he is attending. He also needed tech supportt the other day and was on the phone getting help in minutes. The only thing that threw me off a little if I am going to be completely honest was the fact that one teacher apoligized ahead of time for her baby that she said will sometimes be crying in the back ground as if she is careing for her baby while teaching and another who apoligized if her dogs might sometimes bark during class. Seems to me they should at the least be teaching from a quiet office in there home. But other then that it has been steller. I will report honestly as we progress through the program.

Submitted by Greg (not verified) on January 31, 2013 5:01 pm

Sorry my other responce was sent prior to spell checking it.......... here it is again! It would be more concerning had the founder and board not been replaced. There is plenty of fraud to go around. Tenor allows for some teachers to collect their tax payer funded salaries while completely failing their students. All I can say about Agora for now is that my son received all his materials including a modern laptop and printer along with nice clean new text books and the support has been awesome. I would email his teacher at his old school and sometimes need to send a follow up just to get a response but yesterday I had a question and I emailed his learning coach and teacher and received call backs with answers in less than 3 hours! My son is also working his butt off and is challenged so far by the classes he is attending. He also needed tech support the other day and was on the phone getting help in minutes. The only thing that threw me off a little if I am going to be completely honest was the fact that one teacher apologized ahead of time for her baby that she said will sometimes be crying in the back ground as if she is caring for her baby while teaching and another who apologized if her dogs might sometimes bark during class. Seems to me they should at the least be teaching from a quiet office in their home. But other than that it has been stellar. I will report honestly as we progress through the program.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 14, 2013 1:58 am

I am currently working for Mosaica Onlince, I have been employed there for 4 years as a classroom teacher. Mosaica Online of Southern California actually has classrooms, but in the upcoming school year 2013-2014, will be entirely virtual. The others the teachers teach virtually from Georgia and Florida to students in Arizona and Colorado. After being with this company for four years, I can truly say that you could not pay me to send my own children there.

This past year, Mosaica Online of Southern California classroom students out performed all of the online students over the past three years combined! Mosaica is shutting down the classrooms and going virtual even though they know, their online instruction can't compete with classroom teaching. It's all about profit, and has NOTHING to do with student achievement.

What is considered Mosaica's core curriculum, is traditional public school's supplementary curriculum (Compass Odyssey). The lessons and homework are poor. The instruction is poor. Student achievement is poor. The leadership is poor.

How long are we going to educationally experiment with our children? This is going to put us even further behind other countries. Invest tax dollars in the traditional public schools or brick and mortar charters! Online schools do not work for the vast majority of students enrolled in them. There has got to be reform!!!!

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