We were told that school districts and Intermediate Units were the experts on cyber education. We were told they were so great that alternatives, like cyber charter schools, should be eliminated. Then the pandemic hit, and reality didn’t match the rhetoric.
Back in January, Dr. Eric Eshbach of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) testified before the House Education Committee in favor of a bill that would eliminate all cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania and require each school district to offer its own cyber programs. In his testimony, Eshbach said that many school districts were already providing effective online education to local students.
“Today, in keeping with the concept of local control upon which our Commonwealth effectively operates, many school districts across the state operate a full-time cyber learning option for their students…”
Jennifer Beagan, Senior Program Director at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, offered a similar testimony. Beagan highlighted the breadth and quality of IU cyber education:
“The three intermediate units represented today offer over 17 years of online education experience. IU cyber education programs deliver a complete online learning solution for school districts providing high-quality, cost-effective, cutting-edge cyber education.”
The table below was created by PAIU and offered as testimony in January of their capacity to deliver cyber education at a fraction of the cyber charters’ cost. But their own publications show it’s completely misleading to claim IU tuition gets students the same support as cyber charter tuition does—students remain in the local district and utilize district resources for guidance counselors, academic remediation, and more. Cyber charters provide all of those services for their students. The claim about special education tuition is particularly ludicrous. At cyber charters, students have access to the special education services they need. The IU tuition listed in the table is for online classes only, which are clearly not going to be sufficient for students with special needs. PAIU submitted this chart in its official testimony despite knowing full well the comparison was wildly inaccurate. Now that districts have struggled to get fully remote learning up and running, does PAIU still hold to this claim of actual cost of cyber delivery?
Source: Testimony of the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units
Given such confident claims of experience and quality, one would assume that district schools were well situated to move to online learning when the pandemic struck.
But they weren’t.
In June, Dr. Eshbach sang a much different tune when he testified again before the House Education Committee. After insisting in January that district-run cyber programs were more effective than cyber charters—and for just half the cost— he now bemoaned how difficult the transition had been, calling it a “monumental task.”
“The challenges of the final 12 weeks of the school year were overwhelming, time-consuming, expensive, and frustrating. One of the most frustrating features of this environment was the fact that there is no ‘play book’ for such a crisis.”
After schools closed in March, it took Eshbach’s district four weeks to begin formal, planned instruction online for middle and high school students. Elementary students continued with only enrichment and review activities for the rest of the semester. Meanwhile, the cyber charter schools that Eshbach and the PASA wanted to eliminate have provided uninterrupted, high-quality education to over 36,000 Pennsylvania students throughout the pandemic.
They’ve done this even as the state froze funding for new cyber charter enrollees during the shutdown. That means that cyber charters were not provided with any funding to help them educate their 1,600 new enrollees in March and mid-April. Nonetheless, they persisted.
In June, the Pa. Public Cyber Charter School Association testified that their students did not miss a day of learning.
“Nearly every school in the Commonwealth was effected by the educational upheaval that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent school closure notification. Yet, PCCSA’s member schools and their students did not miss a day.”
Derek and Maddie, Chester County students who attend PA Virtual Charter School, are among those fortunate kids who did not miss a day of school during the pandemic. Their mom Beryl, whose four older kids attended district schools, is grateful for the continuity they’ve experienced in these turbulent times. “We didn't have any interruption in the curriculum,” she said. “We just were able to continue with the courses.”
Having experience at both the district and cyber school, Beryl is convinced the quality of PA Virtual is top notch. In addition to being above grade level academically, Derek and Maddie have the time and flexibility to participate in numerous extracurricular activities.
The ability to choose cyber charter schools was an educational lifeline for Derek, Maddie, and thousands of Pennsylvania students. They and their families were able to avoid the overwhelming and frustrating crisis that district schools didn’t have a “play book” for.
We shouldn’t be surprised that cyber charter schools adapted easier to COVID-19 than their brick and mortar peers. Their educators, administrators, parents, and students are experienced with virtual instruction. But rather than seizing upon their experience, learning from their success, and cooperating with their professionals, school district bureaucrats have done nothing but attack cyber charter schools or pretend that they don’t exist.
At the start of the pandemic, cyber charter schools sent a letter to the Pa. Department of Education (PDE) offering to help district schools develop online education programs. Their offers were ignored. State educators even continue to criticize the very programs that have proven essential throughout the shutdown.
As superintendents announce that cyber education will play an important role in the coming school year, we hope they will embrace the expertise of cyber charters. Rather than continuing to condemn these schools, it would be prudent for district leaders to partner with cyber charter schools in this new and challenging era of education.