Cyber Schools

School Choice: Helping One Student at a Time

As a recent graduate from PA Leadership Charter School (PALCS), I’m familiar with school choice. In fact, for the past five years, I have joined my Student Government on an annual trip to the capitol in an effort to preserve and strengthen cyber charter schools. I have been homeschooled and cyber charter schooled all of my life, and I know these schools are worth fighting for because traditional schools don’t work for everyone. I've heard countless stories from students who found success when given the choice for an alternative education. 

Benjamin and Cherise BylerMy sister, Cherise, is one of those students.

Upon Cherise’s adoption from Haiti at the age of six, my parents discovered she had lead poisoning, a condition bearing symptoms of developmental delays and learning disabilities. As a result, she processed information more slowly than most and struggled to remember what she learned.

My parents homeschooled her and the rest of my siblings until we reached middle and high school. In the fall of 2009, she began PALCS for about a month. Without an IEP, she struggled in her classes. Thankfully, the principal of our school district’s elementary school recommended we test her for an IEP at Paxtonia Elementary School. At 12 years old, Cherise enrolled at Paxtonia. After completing her IEP tests, she was placed in a 4th grade classroom with 1st grade work.

She loved it. Every day, she met with a Special Ed teacher, thrived in her studies, and enjoyed the public school experience.

One might conclude that because traditional public school helped her succeed once, it would always be the best choice for her. This was not the case. Before Cherise turned 13 in August of 2010, the school district moved her to Central Dauphin Middle School so she could stay closer to her age group. Skipping 5th grade, Cherise found herself in a Special Ed 6th grade classroom.

On the spectrum of severely mentally disabled to normal, Cherise fell just short of normal. Many of her classmates, though, struggled with more complex or severe disabilities. As a result, the classroom proved difficult for her on account of many distractions, interruptions, and behavioral challenges from classmates. Added to that, she faced racist remarks on the school bus and witnessed other students face bullying and discrimination outside the classroom.

Do all public school students experience these circumstances? Absolutely not. However, for Cherise, it was the furthest thing from the thriving learning environment she deserved.

That’s when PALCS came back into the picture. At that time in her life, and for the right reasons, PALCS worked for Cherise. After finishing 6th grade, she transferred back to PALCS with her IEP and thrived in 7th grade. Ever since, Cherise has had the opportunity to job shadow with various local businesses, complete speech therapy, receive one-on-one help from teachers, meet consistently with a life skills teacher, increase her reading skills, and even take classes to earn an arts certificate when she graduates next spring.

I could not be more proud of Cherise and the hard work she’s done to learn and stretch herself. Were it not for school choice and the wonderful teachers and faculty who support it, she would not be where she is today. Her story makes clear that both traditional and cyber charter schools have something to offer students. Both systems exist for the student, and every student is unique. Therefore, whether students thrive in a traditional public school or in cyber charter school, school choice matters. Cherise can attest to that.

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posted by Ben Byler | 09:21 AM

Will the Education Code Protect School Choice?

In addition to general appropriations (SB 1073) and the fiscal code (SB 1320), lawmakers are finalizing language in the education code, HB 530. This legislation promises significant reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law.

Here’s the bottom line on HB 530: It is a sweeping bill that includes a number of positive provisions, but also imposes steep funding cuts on cyber charter schools.

Critically, an amendment by Speaker Mike Turzai increases the available tax credits for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program by $25 million. The EITC, which provides tens of thousands of private school scholarships to students in need, is a pillar of school choice in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Turzai amendment, $75 million in tax credits would be available for K-12 scholarships, $37.5 million for educational improvement organizations, and $12.5 million for pre-K scholarships.

A large EITC increase would be welcome news, and it is one of the best aspects of HB 530.

On the other hand, the bill increases payment deductions that districts may claim when sending funds to cyber charters. The exact magnitude of this funding cut is unclear, but some cyber school administrators suggest it could reach as high as $27 million per year. These cuts, while less severe than earlier versions of HB 530, are particularly punitive given that spending for traditional public school continues to grow on autopilot.

Additionally, previous iterations of HB 530 included direct pay language for cyber charters, which would ensure cybers receive funding from the state—rather than being stuck in limbo waiting for overdue funds from districts. The direct pay provision was amended out of the bill. (Update: A reader informs us this was removed at the request of cyber schools, who may have changed their view on the subject after last year's budget impasse.) 

What else is included in HB 530? Here are some of the notable provisions and regulations: 

  • A statewide funding commission, composed of lawmakers and school administrators, tasked with making recommendations about how charter schools are funded.
  • Clarification that cyber schools may utilize in-person instruction for students with special needs.
  • Increased financial disclosure regulations for charter school administrators.
  • Increased regulations on charter school debt payment.
  • A standardized application will be created by the Department of Education for charter applicants and charters requesting renewal.
  • Expanded initial charter terms from three to five years, and renewal terms from five to ten years.
  • School districts, intermediate units, and public universities must provide cyber charters with reasonable access to facilities for the purpose of administering standardized tests.
  • Clarifies that charter schools are not subject to caps on enrollment.
  • Charter schools are granted the right of first refusal to purchase or lease unused public school buildings.
  • Allows two or more charter schools to consolidate into a “multiple charter school organization.”
  • Expands the size of the Charter School Appeal Board.
  • Limits the amount of funding charter schools may hold in unassigned reserve funds, and requires that funds in excess of these limits be refunded to school districts. This provision is notable, given the massive reserve funds that many school districts have accumulated.

Although aspects of the law will be welcome news for charter schools, such sweeping reforms may have been better considered in smaller pieces of legislation, rather than one comprehensive bill. The EITC increase, however, is unquestionably a terrific development.

HB 530 is expected to be voted in the House later today, at which point it will still need to pass the Senate. 

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posted by James Paul | 10:22 AM

Wolf’s School Funding Cuts

In a nutshell, Gov. Tom Wolf’s guiding philosophy on education reform is to spend more money on public schools.

Embracing the repeatedly-debunked myth of education cuts under the previous administration—and undeterred by the weak relationship between spending and academic outcomes—Wolf leans heavily on this slogan in speaking engagements and social media:

However, no one is proposing to “make Pennsylvania schools weaker.” Even if you accept the governor’s shaky premise that a school’s strength is solely measured by dollars spent, you’d be hard pressed to find lawmakers—Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal—arguing for less education spending.

Except, of course, when it comes to cyber charter students.

Since the governor’s March budget address, Pennsylvania’s cyber students have been under attack. Wolf initially proposed to slash cyber revenues to $5,950 per student—an arbitrary sum that would reduce per-student spending by one-third. (For the sake of comparison, traditional school districts spend over $15,000 per-student in Pennsylvania).

This radical proposal never gained traction, but late last week Wolf demanded the “budget framework” include a provision cutting cyber funding by an estimated $65 million over the next two years. At a time when the state is increasing aid to school districts by more than $350 million, cyber schools—which enroll a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than do district schools—are threatened with devastating cuts.

In June, many cyber leaders actually agreed to provisions in a House-passed charter reform bill that included, among other things, a significant reduction in per-student revenue. But the Wolf-approved Senate plan cuts cyber funding three times more than the original agreement.

Can Pennsylvania grow stronger if cyber schools are made weaker? Or is Wolf content to treat 36,000 cyber students like second-class citizens?

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posted by James Paul | 03:54 PM

Cyber Schools: Serving an Important Need

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:

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.

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posted by James Paul | 09:33 AM

Wolf’s Ugly Record on Education

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. 

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posted by James Paul | 11:00 AM

Wolf to Chester Families: ‘There is No Escape’

Tom Wolf’s record on public education is well documented. The governor is hostile to schools of choice, cozy to union interests, and wedded to the educational status quo.

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.”  

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posted by James Paul | 10:27 AM

Wolf's Education Agenda Discourages Choice

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.

To better understand how Wolf’s cyber charter cuts would harm families across Pennsylvania, take a look at this video from Commonwealth Connections Academy.

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posted by James Paul | 10:10 AM

The State of School Choice in Pennsylvania

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.

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posted by James Paul | 05:00 PM

Reform Cybers Without Arbitrary Cuts

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!

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posted by John Bouder | 03:07 PM

Cyber School Centers Embrace Community Values

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?

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posted by John Bouder, Jessica Barnett | 05:00 PM

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