In light of stagnating achievement among K-12 students, the last thing Pennsylvania should do is crack down on alternative educational options. Yet a growing chorus says 35,000 students enrolled in Pennsylvania's innovative cyber charter schools should be denied the educational experience that best suits their needs.
I recently submitted a letter to the editor to the Easton Express-Times on this subject:
A Stanford University study is the most recent catalyst for cyber school criticism, but the online education frontier is perpetually under fire in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, proposed massive cuts to online schools in his March budget address.
Remembering a few key points is critical when analyzing cyber school performance. First, there is no typical cyber charter student. Many children enroll in cyber schools after enduring bullying or unsafe conditions in a traditional school. Online education is often the only feasible alternative for students in a persistently failing district. What's more, cyber students typically enroll with substantial learning gaps that cannot be rectified in a single school year.
Just as traditional public schools vary, the online education network is diverse in course offerings and academic achievement. It would be a mistake to paint the entire sector with a broad brush.
A charter reform bill, HB 530, currently awaits action in the state Senate. Notably, many cyber charter leaders are supportive of the legislation. Increased accountability for public schools—all public schools, not merely cyber—is a reasonable policy goal with bipartisan support.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the crucial void filled by Pennsylvania’s cyber schools. Singling out cyber schools with Wolf's punitive cuts—and treating these students as second-class citizens—does not serve the best interests of Pennsylvania families desperate for choice and opportunity.
Families in Chester Upland breathed a sigh of relief this week after a Delaware County Judge rejected Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to arbitrarily slash payments for the district’s cyber and special needs charter students.
From The Inquirer:
After a hearing that stretched over two days, Judge Chad Kenney said the commonwealth's plan was "wholly inadequate" to restore the district to financial stability. He also faulted the state's and district's lawyers as failing to provide "meaningful specifics or details" as to how they arrived at the plan.
The ruling is a victory for Chester families pursuing high quality education—and an embarrassing setback for an administration fixated on limiting school choice in Pennsylvania.
In less than a year, Gov. Wolf has established an ugly record on education policy. Here's a recap:
- In March, Wolf removed Bill Green as chairman of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) after the SRC approved merely 5 of 39 applicants from new charter schools. This was a clear message that even tepid support for charters will not be tolerated.
- Wolf’s proposed state budget includes massive cuts to cyber schools—reducing their revenue by one-third—and denies all charters the right to maintain rainy day reserve funds. Recent events in Salisbury and Bethlehem underscore why charters deserve to hold reasonable fund balances.
- Wolf undermined the recovery plan in York City School District, effectively forcing out the district’s chief recovery officer as retribution for his support of charter schools.
- Wolf personally lobbied three Democratic state representatives who bucked party leadership in support of legislation that would protect excellent public school teachers from furloughs. After the governor met personally with Reps. Davidson, Harris, and Wheatley, the trio of Democrats were no-shows for a vote on a key amendment to the bill.
- Wolf attempted to balance Chester Upland’s budget on the backs of special education charter students. Chester students are otherwise relegated to a school system Wolf admits “failed its students” and has been “mismanaged for over 25 years.”
- Wolf’s Department of Education issued a “kill order” to Education Plus Academy, a cyber charter school that primarily serves special needs students, one week before the start of the school year. Why is the administration threatening to shut down Ed Plus? For spending too much time educating students in person, and not enough time engaging in strictly online instruction.
Given that educational choice continues to deliver positive results for students and families, one can only wonder why Gov. Wolf is so vehemently opposed to it.
Chester Upland School District is ground zero for the most recent example of this hyper-partisan, antiquated philosophy.
Yesterday, the Wolf administration went to court in Delaware County, filing an amended recovery plan for Chester Upland that would slash district payments to charter schools. Officials project $25 million in savings entirely through reduced payments for special education charter students and flat-funding cyber charter students at $5,950 per pupil.
Although Wolf admits that district finances have been “mismanaged for over 25 years,” his solution is to effectively block families from a escaping a school system that has, in the words of Wolf, “failed its students.”
What does failure look in Chester Upland? Two percent of students are proficient in math at Chester High School. Sixteen percent are proficient in reading. The average SAT score for Chester High students is 725 (out of 1600), and the School Performance Profile (SPP) score is 33.5.
In contrast, the three brick and mortar charter schools that receive Chester Upland students have SPP scores of 71.7, 61.5, and 51.3. Parents and students have been fleeing to better-performing schools.
Persistently low academic performance spurred almost 54 percent of Chester students to enroll in charters. Naturally, charter payments assume a significant chunk of the district budget—46 percent in 2014-15.
Although charter students account for more than half of the district’s enrollment, they comprise less than half of the district’s cost.
Chester Upland certainly faces financial challenges, but charters are not the culprit. Amazingly, the revised recovery plan includes no other cost saving measures aside from the punitive action taken against charters.
The illogical Wolf Doctrine on public education is perfectly encapsulated, here, by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera:
“For too long the quality of education a student receives has been dictated by their zip code, and in some cases a child’s education has suffered due to the missteps of adults. Reducing the structural deficit is essential in order to secure financial stability for the district and make the improvements needed to provide Chester Upland students with the opportunities they deserve.”
These remarks are detached from reality, as it is the Wolf administration perpetuating the “education-by-zip code” travesty that has dominated public education for decades. Trapping families in a failed district and arbitrarily punishing students seeking alternative educational options will not produce “Schools that Teach.”
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.
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