Avi Stein, a resident of Camp Hill, overcame learning disabilities and the challenges of mentoring four younger siblings to be one of only 20 Central Pennsylvania students honored with a 2013 Best & Brightest award. With his unique gifts, he decided to attend Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA), a cyber school with teaching centers across the state, including one in Harrisburg.
A member of the National Honor Society, Avi was also part of a team that designed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the Pennsylvania Real World Design Competition. CCA won first place in the statewide competition—for the third straight year—and will be competing at the national level. Avi, who was chosen to give a TEDxYouth talk earlier this year, plans to attend the honors program at Susquehanna University, studying engineering and pre-medicine.
But due to bills pending in the state legislature, his four younger siblings may not benefit from the same opportunity for choice in public schooling that helped Avi achieve success.
One week ago, hundreds of cyber and charter school parents and students marched on Harrisburg in support of these popular alternatives to traditional public education. Supporters rallied at the capitol where Sen. Mike Folmer and Rep. Dan Truitt were among the speakers urging continued pressure on legislators with the goal of saving cyber and charter schools from punitive and arbitrary funding cuts
The proposed cuts would leave cyber schools struggling to compete with already better-funded brick and mortar schools. Cyber schools are a solution for the education needs of more than 32,000 kids like Avi and Stephen who will excel if given the chance.
Help us protect cyber schools as a viable option for families at CyberSchoolsSave.org, where you can send a message to your legislator supporting parental choice in public education.
Hannah and Alyssa will tell you that the freedom to choose a school that works for them was essential to their academic success. They are just two of the 32,000 students across the nation enrolled in cyber schools. But you don’t have to take their word for it. Now, there is new research backing the academic benefits of school choice, specifically voucher programs.
A new report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that children and families who utilize school vouchers achieve better educational outcomes. According to "A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice," 11 out of 12 "gold standard" studies showed that students excel with school choice vouchers, and none suffer when they chose educational options outside of the public school realm.
The report also found that 22 out of 23 studies on how school choice impacts public education showed that competition actually improved public school performance. No research concluded that school choice harms public schools.
The Friedman Foundation also reviewed empirical research related to the impact school choice has on taxpayers, diversity and civic values. Research consistently supports school choice in those areas.
Despite decades of carping by skeptics, vouchers and school choice in any form are a win-win for children—whether they attend private school or remain in a public school affected by school choice, said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Competition works in all segments of our society, and it certainly helps children when they’re permitted to attend a school that fits their needs.
Pennsylvanians don't have to look far to see school choice at work. Last week, kids and parents celebrated the 12th anniversary of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. The program has allowed hundreds of thousands of children to escape failing schools while saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
In the past two years, five new states have adopted private school choice, and other states have expanded their school choice options, including the Pennsylvania's Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit—a lifeline for kids trapped in violent and failing schools.
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Rep. Dan Truitt (R-Chester) joined us for a Google Hangout this afternoon to discuss charter and cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. Rep. Truitt, a parent of cyber school students, and Matt Brouillette, whose children also attend cyber school, discuss how cyber schools are saving lives and saving Pennsylvania taxpayers.
To learn more about cyber schools and their successful students, visit CyberSchoolsSave.org, and join us in saving kids and saving taxpayers.
In second grade, Rachel Coleman vividly remembers classmates teasing her about her high test scores and ability to learn at a sixth-grade level. "You'll never get a husband!" girls taunted her. Over the following years, Rachel struggled with getting the right support as a gifted student, dreading how she would cope socially if she was promoted too fast. She found that support at Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA), one of Pennsylvania's 16 public cyber charter schools.
At CCA, Rachel was able to graduate by age 15, and is now a junior psychology major at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. "If anything, I got more personal attention in cyber school," she said at CCA's May 2 official opening of its second blended learning center in Pennsylvania. Rachel is not alone: More than 32,000 students are now enrolled in cyber schools, finding the flexible, personalized programs best fit their learning needs.
At the grand opening of CCA's Harrisburg blended learning center, students carried on with their day as dignitaries filed in and out. "Success coaches" guided students on their lesson plans. A math teacher tutored two students on polynomials, while others gathered round laptops as an English teacher led class. Cyber school students do most of their learning online, but blended learning centers allow for more face time and coaching—and a place to hang out.
"I wish this had been here when I was a student," Rachel said. Her older brother, also a CCA student, now spends much of his time at the blended learning center. Now reconciled to her extraordinary gifts, Rachel is thriving at college and wants to earn a doctorate in child psychology. For her, cyber school made the difference.
For more on how cyber schools help students like Rachel, see Cyber Schools Save.
A new national school standard known as "Common Core" is fast becoming known for superseding state and local authority over public education curricula. Using cutting edge data collection and analysis techniques, the program is designed to streamline K-12 education and raise our world standing in education.
But a comprehensive study by the American Principles Project warns of increased costs and privacy concerns as the main reasons Common Core may do more harm than good. Why did 45 states sign up for a program that requires them to, "relinquish their autonomy over public education?" Money, of course.
The federal government offered a $4 billion incentive in the form of "Race to the Top" education grants contingent on accepting Common Core standards. All but four states complied, ignoring unanswered questions of cost and quality in favor of a quick money grab.
A growing number of states have begun rethinking their commitment to the curriculum as full implementation approaches later this year, while a coalition of grassroots activists are pushing back here in Pennsylvania.
When it comes to improving public education, there's one proven solution: school choice. Giving parents the freedom to choose the best education for their child is fundamental to boosting student achievement.
That's why the worst feature of Common Core is its one-size-fits-all approach to standards—transferring authority over to bureaucrats and test design consultants rather than families.
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and a trio of legislators today unveiled a package of bills aimed at reducing cyber school growth and limiting the popular schools' funding. Cyber schools, which opened just 10 years ago, have seen skyrocketing growth as families flock to them, and now boast more than 32,000 students and 16 schools across Pennsylvania.
Take Caela Collins of Lake Ariel, who was born premature with underdeveloped lungs. She was so ill between kindergarten and 6th grade, she could no longer risk being exposed to germs at a regular school. Arbitrarily limiting cyber school growth when parental demand is so high will only hurt Pennsylvania families like the Collins'.
Because the proposed changes are aimed almost completely at reducing cyber school funding, they neither preserve the educational choice parents want nor create accountability measures. Instead, they will squeeze cyber schools' ability to grow and function and treat students who choose public cyber schools as less deserving of support as those in district-run schools.
The legislation will appease certain special interest groups and public school union bosses who have falsely complained that cyber schools "drain" funding from traditional public schools.
The most damaging provision is one that would allowing school districts with in-house cyber programs to deduct 50 percent of that cost from the reimbursement they owe cyber schools. This measure seems solely directed at shrinking cyber school resources so they're unable to compete with school districts.
The ultimate result will be fewer options for parents. To paraphrase Henry Ford, it essentially says, "You can have any cyber school option you want, as long as it's the school district's."
Rather than punitive legislation targetting cyber schools, lawmakers should embrace charter school reform that provides fairness (meaning all students receive equal funding), increases accountability, and expands the choices parents are demanding. For more on cyber schools, check out The Learning Revolution.
The win didn't come easy, but parents at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif. finally prevailed this week in putting the failing school under new charter school management, becoming the first group of parents in America to successfully use a state parent trigger law.
Parent trigger laws exist in seven states. The laws allow a majority of parents, usually by petition, to effectively take over a failing school by changing management or teachers, converting to a charter school, allowing kids to attend a different school with opportunity scholarships, or enacting some other reform.
The Desert Trails parents' pioneering victory came after 18 months of work, a long slog through California's court system, a belligerent teachers' union, and even a school board member who demanded to be marched out of court in his own handcuffs rather than allow the charter school conversion. The parents' dramatic story served as inspiration for Won't Back Down, a movie released last year about a mother struggling to turn around her daughter's failing school.
At the time of Won't Back Down's release, critics scoffed that nowhere in America had a parent trigger law been successfully used. Now Adelanto parents finally have their Hollywood ending. Pennsylvania parents desperate to help their kids stuck in failing schools—often where a majority of students cannot read or do math at grade level—would also benefit from a state parent trigger law. For more, see 5 Facts on the Parent Trigger in Pennsylvania.
StudentsFirst, a bipartisan education reform group, released report cards for all 50 states evaluating individual state education laws and policies—and the news wasn't good for Pennsylvania, which received a "D+" overall. Although 31 states did worse, and the state scored higher on some measures—such as a "B" in comprehensive evaluation of teachers—Pennsylvania is still lagging on important fronts.
On empowering parents with information, for example, Pennsylvania scored an "F." If parents don't have a simple way to assess the performance of local schools, which Pennsylvania currently lacks, how will they know if they need to seek alternative education options for their children? One reform would be to require that each school receive an annual report, which would provide a letter grade (A-F) based on student achievement.
StudentsFirst further recommends that the state be required to notify parents on teacher effectiveness. Another policy factoring into weak parental empowerment: Pennsylvania lacks a parent trigger law that would allow a majority of parents to turn around failing and poorly managed schools.
Pennsylvania also received a "D" on school choice. Although the state has made progress in this area, there is no comprehensive opportunity scholarship program available to all students to escape failing public schools.
Another problem in providing school choice is how we treat charter schools. Only school districts are permitted to authorize charter schools (which, as we've mentioned, is like asking McDonald's to authorize the opening of a new Wendy's next door). This limits charter school growth because districts are reluctant to give up funds to the newly authorized schools. The state should also establish clearer rules for closing down failing charter schools and rewarding good ones, and make funding more equitable across all types of public school options.
To grade states, StudentsFirst used three policy pillars—elevating teaching, empowering parents and using resources wisely—with multiple categories under each pillar. As such, the states ranked 1 and 2 respectively, Florida and Louisiana, have done much to reform public education. Explaining the dismal results for most states, StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee wrote:
Our schools are supposed to be America's great equalizers, ensuring every kid a shot at success. We know, given the right tools, that every student can achieve at high levels. Maybe sending our state education systems home with an "F" or a "D" is the strong jolt lawmakers need to remember that student-centered education policies are the foundations on which strong schools are built.
Charter schools are under fire again this month, following renewed criticism from Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner on how the schools spend and save their funding. Here's a letter I wrote to the News Item rebutting damaging misconceptions about charter schools:
Your Dec. 12 editorial calling for greater charter school accountability repeats common myths about charter school funding that not only hurts the truth, but the children behind them.
The first myth is that charter schools receive more than their "actual cost" to educate students. When a child chooses a public charter school—which includes cyber schools—the education dollars earmarked for the child rightly follow him or her to the charter school.
How much follows the child is based on the average per-student spending of his resident school district. By law, charter schools cannot be reimbursed for spending categories such as construction and improvement services, community/junior college programs and debt servicing. On average, charter schools' cost per student is about 80 percent of what traditional public schools spend.
Charter schools spend less because they receive less. Auditor General Jack Wagner's flawed report showing that four other states spend less on cyber schools neglected to note that Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Arizona all spend less than Pennsylvania on their traditional public schools, too.
Second, you claim that charter schools have an unfair advantage in "amassing surpluses" because school districts have a cap. However, that cap—which is 12 percent of a district's budgeted expenditures—only applies when a school district raises taxes. School districts had more than $3 billion in reserves as of 2011. What's more, charter schools must save funds because school districts frequently delay reimbursing charters.
The editorial missed the most important point about charter schools: Pennsylvania families flock to them and children thrive in them. Enrollment is now well over 100,000. Schools of choice, including charters, save taxpayers $4.3 billion each year. Let's not hamstring charter schools when parents clearly want a choice in educating their children.
Yesterday, I noted that despite watering down a proposed charter school reform bill, legislators were still hearing from government union bosses and other special interest groups that oppose parental choice were still barraging legislators with myths about charter schools.
To the surprise of many, including me, the state House adjourned last night without even voting on the measure, which had already passed the Senate and been largely agreed to by legislative negotiators. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi explained to Capitolwire (paywall):
Pileggi said, "We negotiated starting back in June through the summer into the fall, had an agreement with the governor and the House Republican leadership. "But PSEA," the state's largest teachers union, "put on a strong push and it never came up for a vote. The PSEA and the PSBA were against the provisions that would allow charters to operate more efficiently and expand in their operations, other than that general philosophical objection, I don't know what line or section or sub-paragraph caused the problem."
This failure to get meaningful charter school reform that empowers parents is but the latest example of what we've been saying: It is not the Republican Party that controls Pennsylvania politics, but the Union Party, and it will continue to thwart much good public policy until the Taxpayer Party takes back control of our government.
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