Every disaster has winners and losers, but this pandemic has inflicted more loss than most — in terms of both lives and livelihoods.
COVID-19 has also produced winners who have benefited from the pandemic as a result of disaster capitalism, or just good timing. They include Amazon, Zoom, and Netflix. They also include Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charter schools which are, according to some reports, seeing skyrocketing interest and increased enrollment.
It’s too early for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to have official tallies of cyber enrollment for this school session, but many districts have seen increases in interest in cyber charters. The School District of Philadelphia says cyber enrollment could be up by 18%, which could mean 1,200 more students.
As districts struggle to find a clear path to providing public education, those schools that have already established online learning must seem like attractive and obvious options to parents. But that’s worrisome, for a number of reasons.
Last year, the state spent $463 million to educate 30,000 cyber students. Cyber charters get the same per-pupil allocation from districts as brick-and-mortar charters, even though their costs are far lower.
Charters get their per-pupil money from district budgets, whether or not students are coming from a private, parochial school or school in another district. With so much educational uncertainty, many parents paying tuition for private or parochial schools may very well decide to save tuition and enroll in cyber public schools. And that could be wreak havoc on public school budgets since they pay cybers no matter where students are coming from. In Philadelphia, 1,200 new cyber students could cost as much as $18 million.
That’s not just disaster capitalism; it’s simply disaster — especially given the overall poor performance of cyber charters. In a 2019 study, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) raised red flags about Pennsylvania’s cyber charters, which have shown overwhelmingly negative results in student academic growth — and “little to no progress” since 2013.
The entire charter sector has been allowed to mushroom with virtually no change to the original 1997 charter law. Many calls to reform funding and oversight of charters, especially cybers, have been ignored. Even troubling reports — like a recent one from Auditor General Eugene DePasquale that found one cyber charter operator to have a fund balance of $82 million — do not prompt action in Harrisburg. And neither the auditor general nor the Department of Education, which oversees cyber charters, has the authority to order full financial reviews of cybers. That should change immediately.
One recent proposal from State Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie) would eliminate cyber charters and require public school districts to establish their own full-time cyber education programs. Sonney should keep pushing for this. Virtual education offered by districts is a promising direction, especially in light of a new report by Research for Action, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFT Pennsylvania, and PCCY, which found that teachers around the state adapted quickly to online tools.