Elmer Smith: Why keep spending on these school cyberfailures?

Posted: June 21, 2011

IT'S YEAR NINE of the great Philadelphia public-school reform.

Do you know where your children are?

They may not be where you think. If they are among the 40,000 students enrolled in one of the city's 71 charter schools, chances are they are in no better place today than they were when you transferred them.

If they are one of the 3,460 Philadelphia kids who are enrolled in cybercharters, they are at best in limbo and probably lost in cyberspace.

That may be the most sobering finding in the data released last week in a Stanford University study of charter schools across the country. The report by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes asserts that students in cybercharters are performing far below students in traditional district schools.

In reading and math, cybercharters performed below average in comparison with district schools at every grade level tested. That was without exception.

All of which would be just an interesting data bit except that the School District of Philadelphia is paying almost $9,000 per student for cybercharters that have been certifiable failures.

Even that wouldn't be so hard to accept if you didn't take into account how much less each school dollar buys in a cybercharter. Officials in western Pennsylvania's North Hills School District estimated that cybercharters spend less than $1,000 per year on each of their students.

That may be the best business model in all of education. But at a time when the state is claiming that it can't afford to provide for basic education subsidies, paying the same rate for cyberschools as for brick-and-mortar schools is an unconscionable waste.

"We're in a window right now of looking into the whole charter-school law," state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Phila., said yesterday. "The way the law is written, we are to examine the outcomes and funding.

"Charter schools in general are performing on par with traditional schools, at least in the aggregate. But we're due to have conversations about funding them, especially the cybercharters.

"They get paid the regular per-pupil rate, the same as brick-and-mortar schools, even though they have no gyms or cafeterias or labs. If you were enrolled at a cybercharter and wanted to play football, you could make your neighborhood high-school team and that school would get no additional funding. We have to look at that whole funding equation."

The Corbett administration has pledged to do just that. But the pledge has a hollow ring.

The governor has been a consistent proponent of Senate Bill 1, the latest voucher bill to be considered in Harrisburg. That bill imposes no achievement-testing requirements and sets no educational standards for the private schools that would receive up to $9,000 per pupil from the state.

There is nothing in that law to prevent the charters that are underperforming by state standards from converting to private schools, thus freeing themselves from the standards that they failed to meet.

"There's an inconsistency there that has to be addressed," Hughes said. "That's why I'm glad we have slowed down on [the voucher bill] enough to allow us a thoughtful review.

"To be dealing with funding vouchers at the same time we're dealing with laying off between 11,000 and 12,000 teachers statewide would be a huge mistake.

"In this current environment, 80 percent of local districts are raising taxes to pay for schools while the state is sitting on a $600 million surplus. That's what these senators and legislators have to go home to. It's appropriate for us to slow down."

It's also appropriate for them to take a close look at what we're paying for. The promise of charter schools was that we would replicate what worked and eliminate what didn't. The School District of Philadelphia has had to shut down some failing public schools in favor of charters and corporate managers.

The district and the state are forced to make some tough decisions about what schools they can continue to fund. We already know that cybercharters aren't worth what we're paying for them.

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith

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