There's an interesting and worthwhile debate over whether we should be expanding alternative, public-funded charter schools; some, like the Kipp Academiies, are clearly successful, although we can argue about the extent of that success. Others have been flat-out scams. Then we have the case of cyber charter schools, which receive public tax dollars to educate children over the Internet, and which seem to be especially popular in Pennsylvania.
What could possibly go wrong with poorly supervised, taxpayer-funded online learning, right? Especially in such an on-the-ball state as this one.
Well, just like with some bricks-and-mortar charter schools, some cyber charters are deeply flawed. My Daily News colleague, David Gambacorta, has reported extensively this year on problems at a Philadelphia based cyber-school called the Frontier Virtual Charter High School. It was just forced to surrender its charter, actually. Why?
Frontier didn't supply students with promised laptops, printers and Internet reimbursements, the state said. The school's administrators didn't properly monitor attendance, truancy and grades, according to investigators. A "significant" amount of money was spent on nonschool expenses, the state said, including trips to restaurants and cash purchases that weren't backed with the receipts. The school failed to provide many of the classes it had offered students.
An extreme case? For sure. But what if I told you that, generally, a wide swatch of students at these cyber charters are underperforming their peers at other traditional public or charter schools? That seems to be exactly what has been happening here in the Keystone State (PDF):
"In an April 2011 study (PDF), the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University reviewed the academic performance in Pennsylvania's charter schools. Virtual-school operators have been aggressively expanding in the state for more than a decade, making it a good place for a study; around 18,700 of the state's 61,770 charter school students were enrolled in online schools. The results weren't promising.
The virtual-school students started out with higher test scores than their counterparts in regular charters. But according to the study, they ended up with learning gains that were "significantly worse" than kids in traditional charters and public schools. Says CREDO research manager Devora Davis, "What we can say right now is that whatever they're doing in Pennsylvania is definitely not working and should not be replicated."
So, given this body of research from one of America's top universities, guess what the state of Pennsylvania is doing?
It's replicating them!
Specifically, the state has greenlighted four new cyber-charter schools -- all of them run out of Philadelphia. Education guru Diane Ravitch wrote yesterday: "This is unbelievable," and it's hard not to agree. At a very cursory glance, the folks running these new ventures seem to be qualified and well-meaning. But that's not the issue. The issue is the growing evidence that cyber charters are not helping -- and possibly harming -- the kids who are educated there. Until these issues are resolved, Pennsylvania should not be approving new cyber charters.