The majority of cyber charter schools in the state are operating with expired charters. This is the latest black mark in a history of “reform” in the state designed to expand educational choices but, despite some bright spots, has been marked by large-scale indifference and neglect from the state.
Five years after lawmakers passed a law authorizing charter schools; the law was amended to allow cyber charters – schools providing online education without brick and mortar buildings. According to an Inquirer report this month, 10 of the state’s 15 cyber charter schools are operating with expired charters.
Unlike brick-and-mortar charters which are authorized and overseen by school districts, cyber charters are authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Department officials have offered no good reason why they have failed to properly renew or remove the state’s cyber charters, which include three in Philadelphia that enroll 591 students. That would be bad in any circumstance – especially following a year where the head of one large cyber charter was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from a cyber school — but research consistently finds that cyber schools are less effective than traditional district schools. This costly entry into the educational landscape cost over $463 million in 2016-17 alone; $68 million was spent on Philadelphia cybers. The charter law grants cybers as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, a point that Auditor General Eugene Depasquale blasted in a scathing audit of the charter law in 2014.
Charter schools were created to be “laboratories” for innovative educational practices that could be adopted by traditional public schools. While some charters excel, research suggests for the most part charters are not significantly better in academic performance, and are sometimes worse, than traditional district schools.
Where the charter law has truly succeeded is in creating opposing sides in the education debate: those who support charters and those who believe they unfairly undermine traditional public education by stripping them of resources.
One thing both sides agree on is that improvements could and should be made to the original law. Aside from the addition of cybers, the law hasn’t changed since it was created in 1997.
And while charter operators, teachers and administrators toil to educate students; what does it tell them that every member of the state Charter Appeal Board which decides on appeals of charter applications, are operating with expired terms? They are all appointees of the Corbett administration; Governor Wolf hasn’t appointed new ones.
The governor should bring pressure on state lawmakers to start seriously reforming the original charter law, so this “experiment” has a chance of working for all students. To be fair, no governor has succeeded in breaking the stupor that settled over the general assembly once they finished creating the original charter law.
Nearly a billion dollars goes to charters in Philadelphia alone. While both sides bicker over which form of education is better, there’s a simpler way to gauge charters’ impact: Twenty-two years later, do we have a population of better educated, more successful students? Has the city’s poverty rate declined because we now have a generation or two of better educated children?