Nonprofit calls for moratorium on cyber charters

Posted: November 23, 2013

The Education Law Center on Thursday urged the Pennsylvania Department of Education to deny applications for six new cyber charter schools, saying the cyber charter model doesn't work.

Citing poor academic performance, high student turnover, fraud charges involving former officials at two cybers, and the $366.6 million cost of the 15 cyber charters already operating in the state, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit called for a one-year moratorium on new ones. Cyber charters enroll 35,000 students statewide.

"We have no idea as to whether [the six applicants] are going to be approved," David Lapp, a staff attorney, told reporters Thursday in a joint phone briefing with representatives from Research for Action, an independent education-research organization based in Philadelphia.

But based on the track record of the current cybers, Lapp said, it was difficult to imagine how any of the new applicants could perform any better.

Education Department spokesman Timothy Eller ruled out a moratorium.

"The department does not have the statutory authority to impose a moratorium," he wrote in an e-mail Thursday. "During the application review process, the department reviews in detail each application to ensure that the proposal would provide a high-quality educational program for Pennsylvania's students."

Last year the department denied all eight cyber applications.

Although districts approve regular charter schools, the Education Department has authority over cybers, which enroll students from across the state who receive online instruction in their homes.

During Thursday's briefing, Adam Schott said Research for Action analyzed the state's new School Performance Profile scores completed for 11 state cybers. They were among the lowest-performing schools in the state.

None met the statewide average for all publicly funded schools. The average cyber scored 44.7, compared with 67.3 for regular charters and 77.8 for public schools.

Researchers also found that the average cyber had an alarming rate of annual student turnover: 27 percent withdrew in 2011-12.

And the spiraling costs of cybers have cut into the money of cash-strapped districts, Lapp said.

Philadelphia, for example, which is grappling with a deficit and is anticipating a $300 million shortfall next year, spent $49.2 million on 5,151 students who enrolled at cybers last year.

Charter schools receive funds from a student's home district. The amount is based on how much the district spends to educate its own students. Because there are 500 districts, there are 500 different charter rates.

And citing the $6.7 million fraud trial of Dorothy June Brown in Philadelphia and a criminal case involving another former cyber operator in Beaver County, Lapp said the department needs to improve cyber oversight before it authorizes more.


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