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Pa. cyber charters given poor grades by researchers

While Pennsylvania's education secretary mulls applications for three new cyber charter schools, a Philadelphia research group has released a paper stating that none of the 14 existing cybers meets state academic standards.

While Pennsylvania's education secretary mulls applications for three new cyber charter schools, a Philadelphia research group has released a paper stating that none of the 14 existing cybers meets state academic standards.

The results of the state's school performance profiles, released this month, show that cybers "continue to lag far behind both traditional public and charter schools," according to a policy brief that Research for Action released Monday.

Kate Shaw, executive director of the independent research organization, said she hoped the analysis would be considered by Carolyn C. Dumaresq as the acting education secretary reviews proposals for the three new cybers.

Shaw said her organization, based in Center City, did not testify at the cyber hearings in Harrisburg that wrapped up Friday but had sent its report to Dumaresq's office.

The report found the average cyber scored 48.7 on the state's 100-point performance scale. None reached 70, the score that Dumaresq has said shows a school is moving toward progress.

The cyber scores ranged from 28.9 at ACT Academy, a high school based in West Oak Lane that opened two years ago, to 66 at 21st Century Cyber in Downingtown. 21st Century, which opened in 2001, was created by intermediate units and districts in Philadelphia's four suburban counties for students in grades 6-12.

Statewide, the average public school scored 76.9; the average regular charter, 65.1.

Education Department spokesman Timothy Eller said Wednesday that Dumaresq does not recall receiving RFA's report, so she could not comment.

Although school districts approve regular charters, the Education Department has authority over cybers.

The schools enroll students from across the state who receive online instruction in their homes. A total of 36,596 Pennsylvania students are registered in cybers.

Because the students' home districts pay tuition based on how much each spends to educate students, the cyber schools receive funding at 500 different rates.

Cybers had revenues of $418 million in 2012-13, according to the most recent data posted on the Education Department's website.

Research for Action's paper updated a study completed in November 2013 that found cybers were among the very lowest-performing schools in the state, year after year. Just five cybers had reported their annual enrollment and withdrawal rates, and those five cybers had higher student transfer rates than traditional charter schools.

The rates for those five cybers showed that at least 22 percent of its students transferred in and out per year. That is far above the transfer rates at regular charter schools.

This time around, researchers were dismayed that the Education Department no longer included data showing transfer rates in cybers' annual reports.

Research for Action also found that the number of special-education students at cybers jumped nearly 24 percent. A total of 6,200 cyber students received special education services in 2013-14, compared with 5,019 the prior year.

The surge occurred even though the total number of regular students enrolled at cybers had increased only 2.4 percent.

"We don't know why it happened," Shaw said. "It's also a population that has its own challenges. It was so striking to me how disproportionate the increase was coming from that population."

Shaw pointed out that the rising number of special education students at cybers increased school districts' costs.

The special-education rate is based partly on how much an individual district spends on special education services. The special education rate is about three times the rate for regular classes.

In Philadelphia, the district paid $8,417 for each student enrolled at a cyber in 2013-14 and $22,307 for each special education student. The amount does not reflect the cost of special education services the charter provided.

In the last two years, the education secretary has denied all new cyber applications.

The three applications that are under review are: Insight, a proposed K-12 cyber that would be based in Newtown Square; Synergy, which would eventually become a K-12 cyber, based in Abington; and William Bailey, which would start as K-4 and eventually grow to K-12, based in Delaware County.

Eller said Dumaresq would issue decisions no later than Jan. 29, 2015.

Both Insight and Synergy made proposals she turned down last year.