That's not good news for the 35,000 students enrolled in virtual schools around the state - or for the taxpayers who shelled out $366 million for such schools.
The history of cybers in the state is troubled. From the beginning, districts had a hard time recognizing their value; the state took over oversight and authorizing of cybers in 2002, at which time the state also started reimbursing school districts for 30 percent of the cost of charter students. This reimbursement was eliminated by Gov. Tom Corbett, in 2011.
More disturbing are the accounts of two ongoing trials concerning cyber operators: Nick Trombetta, who founded the largest cyber school, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, in western Pennsylvania, and who is currently on trial for siphoning at least $1 million from the schools; and Dorothy June Brown, founder of Agora Cyber Charter and other schools, who, along with her co-defendants, is accused of stealing $6.7 million from the schools.
Over the years, the state has tinkered with the charter law, but much has been procedural or bureaucratic changes; little of that tinkering is based on objective research like that from Research for Action, or from a 2010 study from Stanford University. Stanford found that all Pennsylvania cyber charters performed "significantly worse" than the average traditional public school and brick-and-mortar charter.
Reviewing these results, it's a fair question to ask why we have any cyber charters at all. Champions will say that parents like the option of having their children learn at a distance, especially those with special needs. But are we basing educational policy on parents' comfort or providing kids with academic excellence?
We agree about the moratorium, though are heartened by the fact that the state, while reviewing the last batch of eight applicants, rejected all of them.
The department of education doesn't have the authority to issue a moratorium, though; only the legislature can do that. That might be easier if campaign contributions from charter operators were outlawed; Trombetta is accused of directing a firm that he controlled to make $40,000 in campaign contributions, which he then reimbursed. This, on top of his own $40,000 contribution.
This is not the kind of math we should be basing our public education policy on.
Pennsylvania came fast and furious to the charter-school party. But our race to reform public education should not be a race to the bottom.