Why see cyber school as threat? Pa. enrollment rose to almost 16,000 students by 2006.

Posted: July 25, 2007

Pennsylvania's cyber schools serve students from struggling and poor districts, and a disproportionate number of cyber students are low-income. Yet cyber schools meet 46 of the state's 50 academic criteria for Adequate Yearly Progress.

This success with the hardest-to-educate students comes despite receiving only 73 percent of what school districts spend, on average, per pupil. So why are lawmakers trying to cut off funding for cyber schools instead of increasing funding?

Cyber schools provide Internet access, computers and instructional materials for students, allowing children to remain at home under parental supervision. A growing number of parents are turning to cyber schools as an alternative; enrollment grew from 1,848 in 2001 to almost 16,000 last year.

Despite popularity among parents, cyber schools have come under increasing attack from school boards and some lawmakers. Legislation introduced by State Rep. Karen Beyer (R., Lehigh), House Bill 446, and Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), H.B. 1655, would limit cyber schools' independence and drastically reduce funding for students. This legislation is in response to critics contending that cyber schools are not accountable and take too much money from school districts.

Cyber schools use their resources more efficiently than traditional public schools, which spend an average of $11,485 per pupil. Cyber schools receive an average of $8,371 per pupil. Even ignoring construction and debt, cyber schools receive far less funding, spending only 80 percent of what school districts do on instruction and student services.

School districts clamoring about the losses of funding fail to mention that districts receive reimbursements from the state equal to 25 to 30 percent of what they spend for cyber students. Thus, school districts keep almost 50 percent of their per-pupil funding for a child they no longer have to educate. This helps school districts reduce class sizes and mitigate the need for new construction while resulting in an increase in per-pupil spending.

Furthermore, despite fallacious claims to the contrary, cyber schools complete every accountability and performance measure that district schools do, and more. Cyber schools also must renew their charters periodically, and underperforming schools can lose their charter to operate.

Cyber students are evaluated by Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests and the statewide Adequate Yearly Progress targets - just like all other public school students. In the 2005-06 school year, Pennsylvania's cyber schools collectively met 46 of 50 academic AYP targets. This underscores the academic successes that students at these schools are enjoying.

About 43 percent of all cyber students are low-income, compared with 34 percent in public schools statewide. Consider, for instance, how cyber schools assist students from Philadelphia, one of the state's largest and worst performing districts.

Cyber schools serve about 1,500 of the 180,000 students from Philadelphia. This is not surprising, considering that 169 of the district's 270 schools failed to meet AYP in the 2005-06 school year.

The ultimate test for cyber schools is choice. If parents are not pleased with results, they can switch to another school. If public school officials are so concerned about providing a top-notch education for all students, they should levy their demands on themselves.

To better focus on instruction, better handle individual students' needs, and rely on greater parental involvement, comprehensive education reform should include three steps.

First, public schools should receive funding based on parents' choices. This system would allow funding to follow the child so that students, not school buildings, benefited. Second, public schools should lose their charters when they continue to underperform. This accountability would encourage top performance from teachers and administrators. Finally, public schools should have to compete for students. Competition creates efficiency and forces schools to meet the needs and demands of students and parents.

Cyber schools provide educational offerings that best meet the needs of thousands of Pennsylvania students. That school districts view this competition as a threat is troubling. When schools face competition, students receive a better education.

Jessica Runk is a research intern and Nathan Benefield is director of policy research with the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg (www.Commonwealth

Foundation.org).

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