I am a parent and a taxpayer. Unfortunately, my elected officials don’t always believe that makes me qualified to choose the best school for my children.
For parents like me, who choose to send our children to cyber charter schools instead of the traditional public schools that were failing them, we’re always wondering just how much longer we’ll have the freedom to keep making this choice. Every few years, Pennsylvania politicians seem to rediscover the topic of cyber charter schools and raise new concerns about whether the students who attend them are really getting the taxpayers’ money’s worth.
The newest legislation that has cyber charter parents worried comes from State Representative Curt Sonney, the new chairman of the House Education Committee. His proposed House Bill 1897 would require all 500 Pennsylvania school districts to create and manage their own cyber schools. It overlaps with Senate Bill 34, proposed in January by State Senator Judy Schwank, which would require families to pay out-of-pocket tuition if they want to send their children to any cyber charter school other than the one operated by their local district.
When combined, the purpose of these bills is clear: They seek to force parents to send their children to schools within their existing district, rather than granting them the freedom to know what’s best for their own child.
This is alarming, especially for parents like me.
My district, the School District of Philadelphia, is a disaster in my opinion. Their programs are underfunded, their faculty is understaffed, and they can’t provide adequate support for special needs students. They can also be unsafe. When my oldest daughter was bullied so badly that she suffered a head injury that impeded her ability to learn, I decided to remove my children from Philadelphia’s failing school system altogether and find an online alternative.
My daughter, who is on a 504 plan for children with diagnosed disabilities, now receives the special assistance that she was unable to obtain from Philadelphia’s public schools. When her online instructors realized that she had fallen behind academically as a result of her trauma and the lack of support from her previous school, they strove to get her back on track and caught up to where she needed to be. Their efforts included regular phone calls with me.
My daughter is now excelling in her online classes, as her grades have once again returned to their pre-injury heights. Three years after they first enrolled at the PA Distance Learning Charter School, my two teen daughters are regulars on the honor roll, while my son — who has only ever known cyber education, beginning with kindergarten — is a thriving digital learning native.
After three years of success at their cyber charter, I cannot imagine sending my children back to a traditional public school, or the look on my daughter’s face if I had to tell her she could no longer attend the school that rekindled her love of learning and helped her feel safe, seen, and appreciated.
I don’t think Rep. Sonney or Sen. Schwank would ever tell my daughter to her face that she doesn’t deserve to attend the school of her choice, but that’s exactly what these bills would imply: That politicians, not parents, know what’s best for kids and families.
I don’t think our elected officials always understand the human aspect of the bills they propose, or the real effects they would have on the lives of their constituents. I invite the sponsors of these bills to visit failing school districts like Philadelphia and see firsthand why more than 37,000 Pennsylvania parents like me are choosing to send our children to charter schools. If they still believe that taking this choice away from us would be better for our children, I would disagree. But if it came down to it, and we were forced to pay out-of-pocket to keep attending our current cyber charter, I would rather struggle financially to continue sending my children to the school that’s actually working for them than to feel trapped within the hopeless failure of a district that isn’t working at all.
Annette Mercado is a Philadelphia resident and the parent of three cyber charter students.