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 Tuffy, 20, is one of the first cyber school students to be accepted at the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The accomplished Scranton native credits her success to the flexible program she enjoyed at cyber school, which allowed her to excel academically while creating room for college classes, work and soccer. Her dream is to study biomechanical engineering and become an Apache pilot. Watch Hannah explain how cyber school prepared her for a successful military career.
Did you know that Pennsylvania’s cyber schools account for barely 1 percent of the state’s education budget? Despite this fact, legislation is in the works right now to slash what some call "excess funding" for cyber schools. Learn more at CyberSchoolsSave.org to find out how you can help us protect cyber school funding and keep kids like Hannah learning.
Stephen Frank was a cheerful young student with an enthusiasm for learning and an interest in football. Not long into his first year of middle school at his traditional public school, however, there was a change in his attitude. He became humorless, lethargic, and withdrawn.
After losing 40 pounds to an eating disorder, the problem became clear: bullying.
Stephen's mother, Monica, contacted the school's vice principal and guidance counselor but found no one willing or able to help protect her son. As Stephen's condition became more desperate, Monica decided to look beyond the traditional school setting to find a solution.
Luckily, Monica is a cyber school teacher and was confident in the academic rigor and supportive environment offered by these public schools. Stephen has now been attending 21st Century Cyber School for a year and the difference is stark. He is happy, full of life, and is on the distinguished honor roll every quarter. Most of all, he is safe.
Today is the seventh annual Day on the Hill for public charter and cyber charter schools sponsored by our friends at pacyberfamilies.org and pacharters.org. It's when families like the Franks—who now number in the thousands across Pennsylvania—come to Harrisburg to show how cyber schools have saved them.
In the end, Monica learned that parents have choices, even if traditional schools don't offer them. You can read the Franks' full story here. And if you couldn't make it to the state capitol today, visit CyberSchoolsSave.org. Sign up, send a letter to your legislators in support of cyber schools, and help maintain a safe alternative to traditional schools for kids like Stephen.
Recently, cyber schools have been attacked in the media and in the legislature as "too expensive" and "a drain on public education."
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our website CyberSchoolsSave.org is a new initiative that tells the true story of cyber schools' successes, the students that attend these schools of choice, and the fight against proposed abritrary funding cuts.
Cyber schools break the one-size-fits-all education model, offering education customized to meet the schedule of both fast-past learners and those with unique needs. And cyber schools consume just one percent of Pennsylvania’s education budget.
Who are the kids taking advantage of the opportunity for choice in public education? You probably know some. There are more than 32,000 cyber school students in Pennsylvania alone.
Take Alyssa for example. Suffering from a severe case of scoliosis, repeated surgeries and long recovery times shut her out of the traditional classroom and put her education in danger. But there was hope for Alyssa in the flexible class schedule and accelerated learning options of cyber school. This spring, Alyssa plans to graduate with a 4.0 GPA—at the age of 16!
And there’s Hannah, for whom a cyber school education led to graduating in the top 5 percent of her class and being admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Watch the rest of her story at CyberSchoolsSave.org
We can’t save these schools from devastating funding cuts by ourselves—we need your help. Sign up and join hundreds of other concerned Pennsylvanians in telling our politicians to preserve the promise of cyber schools for 32,000 kids like Alyssa and Hannah.
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.
With the House Education Committee set to consider new legislation on reducing cyber school funding, the discussion has turned again to how much cyber schools "actually" cost and whether they receive too much money.
Cyber schools are public charter schools in Pennsylvania, and their enrollment has grown rapidly over the last decade. There are 16 schools altogether, with four approved last year alone, and they now boast over 32,000 students. Still, in our $25 billion public education system, they account for only $319 million, or 1 percent of total spending. They also receive less per student than traditional public schools, about 81 percent on average.
But surely online, at-home learning costs less than a kid sitting in a regular classroom, right? Not necessarily.
Cyber schools must still pay for administration buildings and smaller classroom space in which teachers conduct lessons by video. Many also offer "blended learning" centers which allow students in-person class time within their online schedules, and extracurricular activities such as mobile science labs and performing arts centers. And all cyber schools have higher technology costs than regular public schools.
Running a cyber program isn't easy. Pittsburgh-based STREAM Academy, a program run by an intermediate unit, recently encountered higher-than-anticipated costs of running a cyber school, and opted to close the academy after failing to attract enough students.
Instructional, administrative, technology and extracurricular costs vary for cyber schools just as they do for their traditional counterparts. In Pennsylvania, cyber schools already effectively educate students for less, and both parents and students love them. Shaving off supposed excess funding in cyber schools would damage their ability to compete and offer families a quality educational alternative—and it's just such competition that keeps costs down and spending effective.
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.
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.
Session days in the Pennsylvania legislature are dwindling, but the assembly still has time to pass essential reforms to how charter schools are run. The valuable reforms contained in SB 1115, however, have stirred up some evergreen myths about charter schools. Below are five of the most common ones, and why they are wrong:
1. Charter schools aren't accountable. It's true that charter schools don't have to follow every single regulation that regular public schools do—but that's the point. Charter schools are public schools, but they are independent schools that a group of parents, teachers or other community organizations form. They are designed to meet urgent educational needs without the encumbrance of needless regulation.
Charter schools still have many major regulations to follow, such as submitting to annual state, federal and financial audits, and are accountable to taxpayers and voters through regular review of their charters. Furthermore, charter school administrators are public officials subject to the state's Ethics Act. SB 1115 would add further ethics safeguards and prevent conflicts of interest.
In many ways, charter schools are actually more accountable than public schools. They are accountable first to parents. They don't get a single dime in funding unless parents choose a charter school for their child rather than the assigned local school.
Ultimately, bad charter schools can have their charters revoked and be shut down—something that never happens, but should, with district schools.
2. Charter schools exist simply to line the pockets of for-profit corporations. This is a particularly curious accusation, given that charter school law states that "a charter school must be organized as a public, non-profit corporation. Charters may not be granted to any for-profit entity." If the accusation stems from schools seeking certain services from outside vendors—for food, transportation or textbooks—then school districts are guilty of profiteering, too.
3. Charter schools don't have to accept all students. To quote Vice President Joe Biden, this is a bunch of malarkey. Existing charter school law states that charter schools "shall not unlawfully discriminate in admissions, hiring or operation," and must be non-sectarian. Charter schools may focus on math, science or art according to the provisions of their charter, but otherwise must accept all students—including those in special education. For the most part, they serve low-income, poorly performing students from failing public schools, which is why they are a popular alternative for parents.
4. Students in charter schools don't take state achievement tests like those in regular public schools. Charter schools are required to participate in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), administered in Grades 3-8 and 11. Their scores are posted online with every other publicly funded school. In fact, until the latest round of testing, charter schools were held to a higher standard than school districts, though they frequently have the multiple age groups and high enrollments of school districts.
5. Charter schools get too much money, and don't have the same limits on fund balances that public schools do. We've addressed the "too much money" trope before—charter schools are reimbursed with the same formula statewide, at a fraction of what a student in a particular school district receives. But what charter schools get is simply a function of what school districts spend: Each school district is different, so it means charter schools get varied reimbursements per student as well.
School districts also claim charter schools don't have fund balance limits, which are caps on how much funding they can keep in reserve. The 12 percent cap on total expenditures for school district applies only when the school districts raise taxes. As of June 2011, 117 school districts had fund balances exceeding the cap, and Pennsylvania's 500 school districts had amassed $3.2 billion in total reserves. Moreover, charter schools have found that school districts often delay paying charter schools for the resident students who left their schools, making fund balances essential to keep charter schools running.
SB 1115 would not only create a funding commission to assess how charter schools are funded, but would allow charter schools to receive the payment they're owed directly from the state if they so choose.
Some 100,000 students now attend charter and cyber schools in Pennsylvania, proving they are a popular form of public school for families. Updates to charter school law are due, and SB 1115 provides them, but we shouldn't accept punitive restrictions on charter schools designed only to protect special interest groups.
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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.