By Kate Shaw

and Adam Schott

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has just concluded hearings on three proposed cyber-charter schools. If approved, these schools have the potential to divert millions from Pennsylvania's traditional schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools at a time of unprecedented financial and structural challenges.

Even without these new cyber charters, the sector continues to expand. While the number of cyber schools is down slightly to 14 (from a high of 16 in 2013), enrollment is up - reaching nearly 36,000 students according to the most recent data from Education Department. The combined enrollments of cyber schools would make it the second-largest district in Pennsylvania.

This growth - and now the prospect of even more cyber charters - is alarming considering any basic assessment of the sector's performance.

Take academic performance.

The state's School Performance Profiles (SPPs), released earlier this month, show that cyber charters remain among the very lowest-scoring public schools in the commonwealth. Based on analysis by Research for Action (RFA), all 14 cyber charters had scores that fell in the lowest 21 percent of nearly 3,000 Pennsylvania public schools. In fact, more than half of the state's cyber charters fell in the bottom three percent of all schools statewide. Not one had an SPP score of 70 or above - the state's basic threshold for satisfactory school performance.

SPP scores are heavily dependent on standardized test scores - which are certainly not a definitive measure of school performance. Unfortunately, efforts to assess cyber charters against other metrics are constrained by weak, inconsistent reporting by both the sector and the state.

For example, last year, RFA attempted to analyze cyber charters' student transfer rates, considering the significant link between student transience and academic outcomes. However, our analysis was hampered because basic information on transfers was available for just five of 13 cyber charters operating that school year. More recent efforts to update this limited analysis hit a dead end because no similar publicly available data exists for any cyber charter for the 2013-14 school year.

This is just one case of the general lack of transparency surrounding cyber charters. In a report released earlier this year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale critiqued the availability and quality of charter-school reporting; the state's failure to verify the limited reporting that does occur; and repeated cases of reports cobbled together through "copy and paste" from earlier documents.

In spite of these red flags, cyber charters continue to benefit handsomely from the state's funding structure. The current funding scheme doesn't distinguish between brick-and-mortar and cyber schools, and cyber funding far exceeds instructional costs. During 2013, public funding for cyber charters topped $360 million - at least $105 million of which could have been recovered under a more rational funding system, according to the state's former Auditor General Jack Wagner.

From every standpoint - academic, financial, and quality of oversight - there is ample evidence that Pennsylvania's cyber charters are falling far short of expectations. Meanwhile, state policymakers have failed to pass meaningful reforms: a report earlier this year by the National Education Policy Center found that 33 separate reform proposals have either failed or stalled out.

The legislature has a long to-do list when it reconvenes in early 2015. Cyber-charter reform should be right at the top. In the meantime, the state ought to exercise caution concerning any further expansion of the sector.