Pa.’s cyber-charter schools are flourishing, not failing — before, during, and after COVID-19 | Opinion

July 17, 2020 6:30 am

By Jim Hanak, John Chandler, and Richard Jensen

Driven to educate, inform and empower cyber charter schools to further evolve in our ability to serve communities and better futures, the Public Cyber Charter School Association takes responsibility to continue the dialogue started by Lawrence Feinberg in his June 16 Capital-Star op-Ed,“After 20 Years it’s past time for the Legislature to act on cyber-charter school funding reform.”

Although Feinberg clearly set out to make his case against the value of public cyber-charter schools, he only presents one side of the story.

Feinberg strategically structured his argument for cyber school funding reform on two assertions he knew would grab attention: First, that Pennsylvania cyber-charter schools cost taxpayers “twice what they reasonably should” pay, and second, that they are failing children.

We agree wholeheartedly taxpayers must be concerned about the value of the education they fund, but students and parents consistently share the depth of value they receive from their cyber-charter school experience — from improvements in learning to emotional and social growth of each student.

Any discussion comparing the value of traditional and cyber-charter schools can never be a straight apples-to-apples comparison, and Feinberg’s piece, although quoting reports, provided data out of context. It deliberately cast traditional school systems in a positive light, while eclipsing unique challenges overcome by cyber charter schools. We offer a few examples.

Performance comparison. 

Feinberg says, “A Stanford University CREDO Study in 2015 found that cyber students on average lost 72 days a year in reading and 180 days a year in math compared with students in traditional public schools.” Interestingly, he fails to mention that this is for “students in their first year of cyber school enrollment.”

The very next line in the report states, “Students in their second or third year of enrollment post similar growth to the (home school district) peers.” This report doesn’t attempt to compare district cyber programs to cyber-charter schools, and these reports often didn’t include the length of enrollment, enrollment date or time of year, or reason for school switch.

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In fact, most districts don’t share their ACT 82 Building Level scores separately and of the two that do, Pennsylvania’s cyber-charters score over seven points higher on average. Graduation and reenrollment rates reinforce the success of cyber-charters when compared with district cybers.

Stats also show that full-time cyber charter schools serve higher percentages of children in poverty and special-education children than traditional public schools (48 percent vs. 39 percent and 11 percent vs. 8 percent, respectively).

Our families come to us after traditional public schools fail to meet their student’s unique needs. Poor test scores can be the result of the environment in which they previously learned, so comparisons that only look at the first year of a student’s performance after switching to a cyber charter school are unfair.

Expense comparison.

While cyber-charter schools don’t have the “overhead” expenses of brick-and-mortar schools, we do have physical buildings.

We also have expenses traditional schools do not—ranging from IT to crisis program coordinators and family coaches. Moreover, we share the same costs like salaries for state-certified counselors, nurses and truancy prevention staff. It is astounding that cyber-charter schools are able to fully educate and support students at only 75 percent of what districts spend on the same child.

Poor school districts are funding the state’s cyber charter schools, research shows. That wasn’t always the case

We challenge Feinberg to share a full breakdown of his cited $5,000 cost to educate virtually, as there is no way to provide all services necessary to educate successfully at this number.

COVID-19 Comparison.

We applaud traditional schools for making extraordinary efforts to stay connected and attempt to continue traditional education in a distance-learning format, but unsurprisingly, they have struggled with this new form of education.

Cyber-charter schools made adjustments almost seamlessly, because we are wired to do so—which is why we immediately came together to be a resource for all school districts willing to accept our expertise and support.

For two decades, cyber-charter schools have been developing and evolving the virtual learning formula to maximize new technologies and meet changing needs. Brick-and-mortar schools pivoted admirably, but this is very different from what cyber charter schools were founded to do — educate virtually with consistent excellence, improvement and growing opportunities for students. 

Anyone interested in truly understanding the value of cyber-charter schools and making accurate comparisons should become more educated.

Explore our schools’ websites, read credible media stories, view independent review sites, or speak to our school administrators or cyber charter parents.

Remember, first and foremost, we are all educators. Our goal at PCCSA is not to create division between educational options but to make the best option accessible to every single family — realizing that cyber-charter education may not be the right fit for every child.

Our legislators are working diligently to keep education at the forefront, and if we all work toward this vision, our children and our future will be in excellent hands.

Jim Hanak is the executive director of the Public Cyber Charter School Association and CEO of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. John Chandler is a member of the  Public Cyber Charter School Association, and the CEO of the PA Virtual Charter School. Richard Jensen is a member of the Public Cyber Charter School Association, and CEO of the Agora Cyber Charter School.

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