Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School enrolled nearly 2,600 students last year, several hundred more than it did in 2012. That’s the year the cyber school’s charter expired.
Cyber charter schools here and nationally have faced controversy over their academic performance and management, but in Pennsylvania, most don’t even have current state charters that would officially sanction their operations. Of the state’s 15 cyber charters, 10 are operating with expired charters.
“That’s terrible,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University law professor who has researched Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools. Given that charter schools are independently operated but publicly funded, the state has a “fiduciary duty to all of us … to make sure these millions and millions of dollars are being used for the education of our children," she said.
Pennsylvania Leadership’s CEO, James Hanak, said it’s a “total puzzle” why the state Department of Education hadn’t acted on a renewal application the school submitted six years ago.
“For six years, they sent us money,” Hanak said of the state. “They obviously didn’t find something draconian they could have hammered us with.”
DeJarnatt and others said the delays in processing renewal requests raise questions about how adequately the state has been monitoring cyber charters. She noted that the founder of one of Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charters pleaded guilty in 2016 to tax conspiracy after prosecutors accused him of steering millions of dollars from the school to businesses he controlled. He was sentenced to a 20-month term in federal prison.
“Oversight shouldn’t be limited to criminality,” DeJarnatt said.
State school charters generally run for five years — meaning Hanak’s school has operated without a current one for longer than most charter terms last. While his school has been without an agreement the longest, three other charters expired in 2015, and three more in 2016.
Leaders at several of those schools also didn’t know why the state hadn’t taken action to renew or deny their charters.
Asked why the renewal decisions had taken this long, Department of Education (PDE) spokesperson Rick Levis said that state law does not include a timeline for action on renewal applications.
“Over the last 2½ years, PDE staff have made important progress in conducting intensive fiscal, governance, and programmatic reviews for cyber charter schools pending renewal, including on-site visits,” Levis said in a statement.
Levis also said the department was ensuring that charter renewal decisions aligned with a new state accountability plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education a year ago.
At the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which advocates for “smart charter school growth” and has called for greater oversight of cyber charters, policy director Veronica Brooks-Uy said the organization “would view that as somewhat of a red flag.”
“When you have charters that are operating on expired contracts, the question becomes, are they being held accountable for meeting the needs of students?" Brooks-Uy said.
Pennsylvania’s charter school law was amended in 2002 to allow cyber charter schools, which last year enrolled nearly 35,000 students across the state. With Ohio and California, Pennsylvania was in the “big three” cyber-charter states in 2016, accounting for half of cyber charter enrollment nationally, according to the authorizers' association. While 35 states and the District of Columbia allowed full-time cyber charter schools, eight did not, including New Jersey,
Unlike Pennsylvania’s brick-and-mortar charter schools, which are authorized and overseen by local school districts, cyber charters are the state’s responsibility.
The law requires the state Department of Education to “annually assess whether each cyber charter school is meeting the goals of its charter and is in compliance with the provisions of the charter, and conduct a comprehensive review prior to granting a five-year renewal of the charter.”
It’s unclear how the department is annually assessing cyber charter schools. Four cyber charter CEOs interviewed by the Inquirer and Daily News said that although they submit reports each year to the department, they did not receive annual evaluations. Asked last week whether the state was performing annual evaluations, Levis did not provide an answer or any reports produced by the department.
The department does publicly report test scores for cyber charter schools. In 2017, all but one cyber charter ranked in the bottom quarter of schools statewide on Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile, which graded schools on standardized test scores, as well as attendance and graduation rates. The one school, 21st Century Cyber, was just above the bottom quarter. Ten cyber charter schools were in the bottom 10 percent.
Cyber charter leaders gave similar reasons for the lagging scores, including that they serve students who have struggled in traditional schools.
“Families pick a cyber charter school because something’s not working,” said Maurice Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy. “Very, very few parents look at their 4-year-old" and say, “I can’t wait to send you” to a cyber school, Flurie said.
Hanak said some students who have come to Pennsylvania Leadership Charter “signed up to remain one step ahead of the truancy officer."
“I’m OK with that. I used to not be OK with that; I thought I was taking money I didn’t really deserve," Hanak said. "I’m OK with it now, because if those students did go back to the regular public school, would they do any better? Probably not,” he said, because it’s “why they came to us in the first place.” His school’s website states that “once a student logs on, attendance is recorded for the day.”
Some cyber charters have different attendance rules: At Agora Cyber Charter, most students take live classes with a teacher, and “you have to be in two-thirds of your classes for the day to be considered present,” said CEO Michael Conti. He said the policy, which the school had tightened, may be a reason enrollment has dipped in recent years.
School districts must send money to cyber charter schools based on the number of students in a given district the cyber school enrolls. The payments are based on what the districts spend on their own pupils — which can vary widely among districts — and equal to what the districts pass through to brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Although critics have called for funding changes, cyber charter leaders say their costs aren’t necessarily lower than those of brick-and-mortar charters. They say they must provide computers and internet access to students and rent space to administer state assessments, which can also require hotel stays for teachers.
Like a traditional school district, “we all find ways to spend virtually every penny that comes in on our students,” Hanak said. “You can’t say to me, ‘Your [School Performance Profile] scores are really low, you’re not doing a very good job, but you don’t need all the money you’re getting.’”
DeJarnatt, of Temple, said there were “lots of reasons” for low cyber school scores “that are understandable.” But that makes it important for the state to evaluate whether they are meeting the terms of their charters, she said.
“It should not just be because you’re able through advertising or whatever to convince enough parents to take a chance," she said.