As the school year approached, Jaime Bassman wasn’t ready to send her children back into classrooms. But she also wasn’t comfortable with the virtual program offered by her school district, which she felt would deprive her children of valuable live instruction.
“We all needed some real consistency this year,” said Bassman, a Lower Merion parent whose children are 15 and 12 and have special education plans. She enrolled them instead in a cyber charter — an option she previously never considered.
Virtual schools that draw students from across Pennsylvania, cyber charters have seen interest spike amid the pandemic. The state’s 14 schools reported 62,000 students — or 3.5% of total public school enrollment — as of Oct. 1, up from 38,000 the year prior, according to state education officials. Some charter leaders say they’ve been turning families away because they can’t accommodate more students.
The growth casts new light on what has long rankled traditional public school backers: School districts pay charters, which are independently run, to fund the education of each student enrolled. In Pennsylvania, cyber charters receive the same amount of taxpayer money per child as brick-and-mortar charters, which districts say is unnecessary.
And cyber charters have posted consistently poor academic results, further frustrating district leaders who see cybers as failing students while draining public school resources.
Earlier this month, a Moody’s Investor Service report warned the enrollment swells at cyber charters may pose a credit risk to Pennsylvania school districts, “because the resulting tuition outflows reduce their ability to maintain balanced financial operations.” The report noted that while districts lose funding when students leave for charters, that doesn’t always correlate to needing fewer teachers or having lower facilities costs.
Cyber charter leaders say they incur some costs districts don’t and defend their track record, saying they enroll students who have struggled in traditional public schools. After pushing back on past efforts to limit their funding, they say the pandemic is proving their value.
Lawmakers “have seen in their own lives just how hard it is for a school district to run a cyber program," said Jim Hanak, CEO of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School and executive director of the Public Cyber Charter School Association. Criticisms of cyber charter schools, he said, “ring more hollow."
In Philadelphia, cyber charter enrollment has grown by 22%. The district, which had projected a 13% increase, now has to pay for an additional 1,225 cyber charter students — at a cost of $15 million, said chief financial officer Uri Monson. The district’s budget is $3.5 billion.
In the Souderton Area School District, 80 students are enrolled in cyber charters, up 32 since the pandemic began, said Superintendent Frank Gallagher. The district, which has a $130 million budget, owes charters an additional $600,000 — “a lot of money for us,” Gallagher said. Along with other superintendents, he has tried to spotlight the academic performance of cyber charters and is opposing two new cyber applications pending before the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Rick Levis, spokesperson for the state education department, said increased cyber charter enrollment has “only heightened the need for charter school reform."
Among other measures, Gov. Tom Wolf has called for setting a statewide rate to standardize the cost per pupil at cyber charters. Currently, payments are based on what each district spends on its students, which varies widely.
“Our concern is they’re needlessly taking more money out of local school districts, with very little accountability to the local taxpayers," said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
It’s unclear which school districts are losing the most students to cyber charters because the state has not yet released enrollment data for the current year.
Philadelphia, the state’s largest district, has said its overall enrollment is down by 5,000 students, to 120,000 — primarily because fewer kindergartners have enrolled.
Nationally, other school districts have reported declines in enrollment too. “It’s sort of an explosion of people looking for something different and better” to ride out the pandemic, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group in Seattle.
Cyber charter leaders say their experience running virtual schools has been a selling point for parents frustrated with how traditional schools handled the abrupt transition to online instruction in the spring.
At Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, enrollment has reached 11,000, an increase of 1,100 from last year. CEO Brian Hayden said the school received more inquiries, but agreed with the state Education Department to limit enrollment because of its low test scores.
Public school parents “didn’t want what they got from schools — 10 minutes of a teacher talking to you on Zoom, then go do this work,” Hayden said.
Cyber charters have already worked through technical challenges, and their teachers are experienced in keeping students engaged online, said Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter, which has 7,600 students this fall, up from 5,100 last year.
School district leaders said many districts had experience offering some form of online instruction before the pandemic.
Like other booming charters, Jensen’s school has been hiring teachers. But while enrollment has soared, charters aren’t necessarily growing the ranks of teachers at the same rate.
“We don’t want to be overstaffed,” said Hanak, whose Pennsylvania Leadership Charter is enrolling 5,120 students, up from 3,100 a year ago. “What we don’t know is: Are we going to lose those 2,000 (students) as fast as we gained them?”
Not all new cyber charter students are coming from district schools. After JT Anderson’s 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, had a rocky experience in the spring with virtual instruction at Collegium, a brick-and-mortar charter school in Exton, the Downingtown father began investigating cyber charters.
He landed on the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter website, which describes the school as the “#1 Best Online School in PA & Top 30 Nationwide” — rankings from Niche.com, a website that uses public data and user reviews. (Pennsylvania has designated the charter as requiring state support, based on academic performance and other measures.)
“This is not a practice session for them, like all the other schools,” Anderson said. He said the school’s orientation for new families was “excellent” and that his daughter has been happy so far.
Anderson said he was aware of criticisms of cyber charters. He had debated with a relative who told him charters were “a complete ripoff," depriving traditional public schools of resources.
“What else are you going to do?” he said. He felt his daughter would be “getting a bad education" if she was in the public school she originally attended in Coatesville.
Bassman, the Lower Merion parent, said she is a public-school advocate. “It weighs on me, the idea that it is taxpayer money that has gotten redirected away from our district," she said. But she wasn’t satisfied with the district’s plans, and over the summer transferred her children to Agora.
While Lower Merion later announced it would provide live virtual instruction, Bassman decided she would stick with the cyber charter for the fall. So far, she has been satisfied with how the school has addressed her children’s needs.
As for whether she will return to the district once the pandemic subsides, Bassman said she would “have to wait and see.”
“My eyes have been opened to other possibilities,” she said.