Americans are overwhelmed by choices, not all of them good. In response to struggling public schools, Philadelphia parents have a staggering menu of public and charter options, many offering no improvement in educating children.

Almost a quarter of the city's 84 charter schools have been under federal or state investigation, after some operators viewed their operations as an educational gold rush.

That gold, by the way, would be your tax dollars.

It remains a mystery why we need schools for multicultural learning, architecture and design, or folk-arts cultural treasures in a city where more than a third of all students fail to graduate.

What we need are strong, nonspecialized schools for reading, writing, and math, the mission of the city's most successful charters.

"Competition among schools is good, but choice is bogus," said Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. "The underlying theory is that we don't know how to motivate kids, so let's sneak medicine into the milk shake. But you can't teach children who don't want to learn."

Among the worst of these milk-shake proposals are cyber charters, which allow students to fail in the comfort of their homes.

"We're doing a disservice to students suggesting they're offering an education when they don't produce," said State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), author of a charter-reform bill. "We're creating an illusion of education."

An astonishing 6,000 city students are enrolled in cyber charters at a cost to the beleaguered public schools of $60 million, precisely the amount the district requested from the city in additional funding.

I'm sorry to report that when it comes to poor practices, Pennsylvania is a national leader in virtual education. Nearly 35,000 students are enrolled in "schools" administered by private, for-profit operators that seized on a great opportunity to make nice money for little effort.

In the charter gold rush, cyber schools are veritable diamond mines with, as Roebuck noted, "very little accountability."

While virtual learning is wildly popular among adults seeking continuing education, there's no evidence of sustained success among children for required studies. Two years ago, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students at Pennsylvania's then-eight cyber schools performed "significantly worse" on reading and math than peers at traditional public schools. Last year, not one state cyber charter, then totaling a dozen, met federal academic standards. Not one.

Today, Pennsylvania has 16 cyber schools. In the strange math of charter schools, it is possible to be fruitless and multiply.

Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has now decided to finance up to $15 million on a cyber public school from what he deemed a "catastrophic" budget. "We want to begin to compete for students," he said, to develop "innovative school models that will provide options for many of our students who are not as successful as we want them to be in traditional comprehensive high schools."

If those students are failing in real school, wait until they "attend" a cyber one. Last fall, Pittsburgh Online Academy launched with an enrollment of 144. Today, it has only 47, after fewer than one in 10 students met first-semester attendance and academic requirements.

In Philadelphia, traditional classrooms are limited to 33 students per teacher. The virtual public school will have 125 students with a planned initial enrollment in the coming academic year of 1,000 children.

This is a race to the cyber bottom, chasing millions that should not be spent. The Pennsylvania Department of Education should do something, and soon, to shut these schools down. Roebuck has a bill pending that would produce tougher oversight of all charter schools.

Just when you thought the school district could not have more problems, it adopts the worst charter model imaginable, offering students a choice they should never have.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.