Gov. Tom Wolf has wasted little time staking out his vision for public education, and it doesn’t appear to have much room for school choice.
In a recent opinion piece for The Sentinel, I explain how Pennsylvania’s new governor is hostile to innovative schools and wedded to the educational status quo.
First, the Wolf administration catered to anti-reform interests in the troubled School District of Philadelphia. After the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) approved just a handful of new charter schools, Wolf stripped SRC Chairman Bill Green of his leadership position.
The governor’s message was unmistakable: even tepid support for charter schools will not be tolerated. It’s not as though charters secured a decisive victory in Philadelphia—34 of 39 charter applicants were rejected, leaving tens of thousands on waiting lists.
Still, this meager charter expansion was justification for Wolf to shuffle deck chairs at the SRC. Who was tapped to replace Green as chairman? Marjorie Neff, the only SRC member who voted against all 39 Philadelphia charter applicants.
The Wolf Doctrine on education is particularly detrimental to students who attend public cyber charter schools:
Wolf’s budget is even more punitive to cyber charter students, who disproportionately come from low-income families. For them, Wolf would slash current funding levels by one-third. While the state currently spends an average of $14,600 dollars per public school student, the governor would spend only $5,950 per cyber student.
In many respects, Pennsylvania is a pioneer of school choice. With 173 charter schools—14 of which are cyber charters—and two scholarship tax credit programs, the commonwealth is the envy of choice advocates across the country. But as we recognize and celebrate National School Choice Week, more can be done to ensure that each Pennsylvania child has the opportunity to reach her full potential.
As Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) weighs the application of 40 charter schools—many of which have an impressive track record of serving city students—House speaker Mike Turzai is optimistic that multiple new charters will be granted permission to open in Philadelphia:
We are very hopeful that when the final decisions get made that a significant number of the charter applicants are approved.
During the most recent school year, the average Philadelphia charter school outperformed traditional public schools on the Pennsylvania State Performance Profile. What makes this even more impressive is that charter schools spend and receive fewer dollars per student than their district counterparts. Given the academic success of the charter sector, as well as the sizeable demand for schools of choice, the SRC should approve the highest-performing applicants and allow more Philadelphia families to reap the benefits of choice.
In Pennsylvania, school districts are tasked with authorizing new charter applications. This arrangement makes it difficult for even the highest quality charter schools to open new buildings. School districts are fully aware that by approving a new charter school they are essentially approving a new competitor. In order to realign incentives to promote great schools, lawmakers should pursue statewide or university authorizers for charters.
The commonwealth is the first state in the country to enact an education scholarship tax credit aimed at corporations. Thanks to the passage of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program in 2001, more than 430,000 scholarships have been awarded to students from low- and middle-income families seeking better, safer schools.
Scholarship tax credit programs exist in a dozen states, and Pennsylvania is one of only three states to have multiple programs. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted its second tax credit program—the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). This program is reserved for low-income students residing in the geographic boundaries of the lowest-achieving public schools in Pennsylvania.
In 2013-14, the OSTC provided more than 7,000 scholarships. Legislation passed late last fall streamlined and simplified the application process for both tax credit programs, which should lead to even greater participation in coming years.
The EITC is capped at $100 million—with $60 million reserved specifically for K-12 scholarships—while the OSTC is capped at $50 million. Lawmakers should look to increase these caps and provide more scholarships—at a savings for taxpayers—to students in need.
Education savings accounts (ESA) are another innovative policy for Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider as a complement to the tax credit programs. ESAs, which have been implemented in Arizona and Florida, could allow parents to deposit their tax credit scholarship funds into a savings account that can be spent with more flexibility.
Instead of reserving the funds strictly for scholarships, ESAs allow parents to purchase textbooks, tutoring services, online courses, curriculum materials, standardized tests, educational therapies, and other approved items. Unspent ESA funds roll over from one year to the next and can be eventually used to pay for college tuition. Lawmakers supportive of the EITC and OSTC should look at ESAs as the logical next step for school choice in Pennsylvania.
How will more than 35,000 cyber school students be affected by legislation pending in the state Senate this week? There’s both good and bad news on the horizon and your voice is critical.
The good: Senate Bill 1085 fixes the “pension double dip” for cyber schools in an equitable manner—an improvement on the bill passed by the House that cut funding more severely. SB 1085 would also institute necessary accountability and oversight measures, which would give cyber and charter schools more fiscal transparency. The bill would also allow universities to authorize new charter schools, lessening school districts' ability to squelch their own competition.
The bad: SB 1085 threatens an arbitrary 5 percent funding reduction for cyber schools. This “ready, fire, aim” approach cuts funding for cybers before a commissioned study on charter school funding has time to make a reasoned report.
What would school districts “save” from this arbitrary cut? Not much, a 5 percent cut to cybers would fund a mere 57 minutes of school district class time statewide. For cybers, though, it amounts to about one-third of teacher salaries, and could effectively shut the door on many families’ educational choices.
Why should cyber school students have to do with even less, especially when they already account for just one percent of state and local education spending? Cyber and charter schools already receive only about 80 percent of the per-student funding that traditional public schools get.
Tell the state Senate how you feel about keeping educational choice alive for tens of thousands of families across the state!
Cyber schools have been falsely maligned as impersonal and anti-social environments for learning, but the truth is far different. Case in point: Achievement House Cyber Charter School is bringing blended learning options to kids across the state—most recently in York.
Nikelle Snader at The York Dispatch highlighted a new Resource Center where local Achievement House students can drop in whenever they need a little extra help. The center is primarily designed to complement online classes and extend hands-on help and support to struggling students. But it will be used for even more.
The centers host parent meetings, medical screenings, face-to-face instruction, study sessions, and standardized testing. Special education and bilingual instructors also regularly visit to provide more specialized learning options for those who need it. Achievement House now offers 11 such centers across the state, including three in Philadelphia alone.
William Rodriquez, a senior at Achievement House, feels drawn to the familial environment of the Resource Center. “I don’t feel like something’s about to happen,” he said—a welcome change from his previous two schools.
Safety also motivated Stephen Frank to attend 21st Century Cyber School, where he flourished without the threat of physical bullying. This Saturday, as part of its “Kindness Matters” program, Agora Cyber Charter School is hosting an anti-bullying event in York, as well as similar events elsewhere in the state during the month of October.
Cyber schools have become a very real presence in the lives of more than 35,000 students and in their communities.
But Resource Centers require funds to operate, and major cuts recently passed by the House put Achievement House’s efforts in peril. Slashing funding for schools that already receive 20 percent less per student ignores the success stories of students like Jake Swink, who has spoken out against treating cyber school students as second-class citizens.
Click here to let the State Senate know that you oppose arbitrary cuts to cyber school funding.
A recent poll found that 87 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania think parents should have the option to choose the type of public school that’s best for their children—do you?
Pennsylvania parents and voters want education reform.
A new poll from StudentsFirst shows that Pennsylvania families strongly support educational reforms, including incentives for high performing teachers (74 percent support), seniority reform that would tie teacher tenure to effectiveness (70 percent support), charter school reform that would combine accountability reforms with allowing independent authorizers (67 percent), and greater school spending transparency via an online database linking spending and outcomes (84 percent).
Some of these proposals have legislative legs:
HB 1722, sponsored by Rep. Tim Krieger, would base teacher retention on their classroom performance, rather than just seniority, helping both teachers and students. Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-Philadelphia) is a cosponsor of this bill and highlights her reasons for supporting seniority reform in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
SB 1085, sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, offers charter school accountability measures while also proposing to let colleges and universities authorize new charter schools. Currently, only school districts can authorize charter schools—which is akin to McDonald's approving any new Wendy's, and has resulted in many legal fights. This bill also addresses the "pension double dip" in charter school payments, but unfortunately includes an arbitrary 5 percent reduction in funding for each cyber school student.
Finally, HB 1411 would create a new website, SchoolWatch, that would allow users to track how their tax dollars are spent. This website follows PennWatch, which includes information about state spending, grants, contracts, and salaries. The Commonwealth Foundation created a similiar website, OpenPAGov—which provides school spending, tax, performance, and salary info—giving us a great deal of experience in bringing transparency to government. Check back at PolicyBlog in the coming days to read more from our experts on this effort.
Editor’s Note: Jake Swink is a summer intern at Commonwealth Foundation and, starting in September, will be an active duty 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force specializing in cyber operations.
As a 2009 graduate of Commonwealth Connections Academy—one of 16 cyber schools in Pennsylvania—I’m very worried about some recent news articles that seem to treat the more than 35,000 students who choose cyber education as second-class citizens.
Stories published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Scranton Times-Tribune, and the Bucks Courier Times all fault cyber schools for siphoning too much money from public school districts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is school districts actually keep 20 percent of each cyber student’s public funding without having to provide them any education.
These stories cite lax oversight and recent scandals as reasons to question the legitimacy of cyber and other charter schools. Their solution? Arbitrary funding cuts.
While Commonwealth Foundation supports reforms to strengthen charter school accountability, simply reducing the funding for cyber schools that already receive one-fifth less won’t provide greater accountability or prevent scandal—it will simply harm students, like me, seeking the best education they can get.
There are wide disparities in funding and quality levels among school districts across the state, and not just because of local decisions. The state funding formula just doesn’t make sense. This can be seen within Bucks County: While Bristol Borough received more than $6,200 in state funding per student in 2012, Central Bucks got only $2,300. Disparities in the state as whole are even more stark: Duquesne School District (near Pittsburgh) receives more than $15,000, while Derry Township (near Harrisburg) receives less than $2,000.
While this broken system shows up in cyber school funding, it’s a systemic problem and should be addressed in that broader context.
I chose cyber school for the self-pacing and flexibility it offers, which allowed me to work ahead and learn more in less time than at a traditional school. But there are other, more urgent reasons parents and students are rushing, and often waiting in line, to enroll in charter schools.
Kids in violent and failing school districts, like some in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, use cyber schools as an escape from circumstances they inherited simply by being born.
Arbitrarily reducing funding will prevent economically disadvantaged kids like these from taking advantage of the opportunities I had in cyber school—and that just isn’t right.
posted by JAKE SWINK | 01:41 PM | Comments
Meet Jake Swink.
Jake is a 2013 graduate of Bloomsburg University with a degree in Computer Science. In a few weeks, he will be utilizing these skills as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force specializing in cyber operations.
Jake is also a member of the first graduating class (’09) of Commonwealth Connections Academy—one of 16 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania that together serve more than 35,000 students.
These students and their parents are continuing to choose cyber school because it best fits their unique education needs. Amidst continuing calls for arbitrary cuts to cyber school funding, we should keep in mind the thousands of real students, like Jake, whose education hangs in the balance.
Listen to Jake tell the story of how cyber school helped propel him to academic success and to a career in military service in our latest podcast.
To voice your support for cyber schools, visit CyberSchoolsSave.org.
Here is a letter to the editor I submitted to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Pennsylvania cyber school performance:
Mary Niederberger reports on a new, largely positive charter school study by Stanford University by taking an odd swipe at Pennsylvania cyber schools, blaming them for the state's poor charter school performance.
Cyber charter schools have proven immensely popular with Pennsylvania families, who appreciate the flexibility and individualized learning these public schools offer. Some 35,000 students now attend the schools, which begs the question: If cyber schools perform so poorly, why are parents choosing them?
Cyber schools frequently function as "last-chance" institutions for students who have fallen behind or failed in traditional public schools. One-third of cyber school students are from school districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and half of all cyber students are economically disadvantaged.
Given a few years at cyber school, many of these students improve in reading and math, and students do even better if they start at cyber school. At the Midland-based Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, for example--the state's largest--long-time students scored 17 percent higher in math and 14 percent higher in reading compared to newly enrolled students.
Certainly, Pennsylvania’s poorly performing charter or cyber charter schools should be forced to improve or be closed. But the same fate should befall persistently failing school districts that continue to flounder despite ever-increasing funding.
A healthy public school system that genuinely serves Pennsylvania students will have choices to serve different needs, while closing failing schools so our kids get a second chance before it's too late. Let's not forget that many cyber and other charter schools serve as lifelines to desperate families.
For more on cyber school funding, performance and popularity, please see our latest Policy Memo.
Mechanicsburg student Colin Knott is a National Merit Scholar—putting him in the top one percent of students nationwide—and already has 25 college credits under his belt prior to his first semester. Even more impressive, he has accomplished this despite the unique challenges of Asperger Syndrome—a disorder on the autism spectrum that affects just one in one thousand children.
Colin is a fantastic success story and has a bright future as an accounting major at Messiah College. Yet just four years ago, Colin’s mother wondered whether he would ever graduate high school. Back then, he saw school as a prison and had decided to drop out.
The obstacles associated with Asperger Syndrome were too much to overcome despite the accommodations his school district made—including a full time therapeutic support staff aide. Even with medicine to sharpen his mental focus, his learning style just didn’t fit their teaching style.
Then cyber school changed everything.
Colin is one of 1,500 graduates in the class of 2013 from a single cyber school, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Cyber education’s key difference for Colin was the ability to work at his own pace, not one dictated by a class of 20 other students whose minds did not work like his. While at PA Cyber, Colin went off his medication—he didn’t need it anymore.
More than 32,000 other students took advantage of public education via cyber charter schools this year. Without the opportunity provided by cyber school, Colin admits that, “I’d probably be flipping burgers now.” But funding for these schools is coming under attack and legislators need to hear your voice if kids like Colin’s younger brother and sister, Kevin and Caryn, are to have the save chance at success that he did.
You can support their right to choice in public education by visiting CyberSchoolsSave.org and sending a quick message in support of cyber schools.
A common complaint we hear about public cyber and charter schools is that they cost school districts too much money. Indeed, along with pension payments and lack of public support for tax increases, the “cost” of charter school students is one of the main budget problems cited by some school districts. Of course this ignores the fact that public cyber schools receive less funding than traditional schools—only 80 percent funding per student. The school districts keep the extra 20 percent without having to educate a child.
But did you know that Pennsylvania’s school districts also maintain generous reserve funds? These “rainy day” funds are supposed to fill budget gaps and compensate for tax revenue shortfalls. Given recent complaints of education funding cuts, these funds must surely be running dry, right? Not quite.
Updated Department of Education data shows that districts across the state hold more than $3.8 billion in reserve fund balances. That’s nearly a $300 million increase from last year.
That number sounds familiar, doesn’t it? $300 million is just about the yearly cost of public cyber schools for the entire state of Pennsylvania, and schools districts sock that amount away in just one year.
For even more perspective, the current $3.8 billion in school district reserves by themselves would pay for all the state’s cyber schools for more than a decade.
The next time you hear complaints about cyber schools taking funds from school districts, remember that districts are saving every year what cyber schools spend.
Help us defend cyber schools from funding cuts at www.CyberSchoolsSave.org and protect choice in public education for more than 32,000 Pennsylvania students.
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