OPINION: Pennsylvanians Need Another Cyber Charter School Like A Hole In The Head

Yet the Shapiro administration approves one anyway.
money in drain

This was just dumb.

Pennsylvania has a massive cyber charter sector, massive at least in part because the state’s cyber charter funding system is like a opium dispenser in an unguarded gerbil cage.

Pennsylvania taxpayers pay a ton of money to cybers in ways that make little sense, and in return, they get largely terrible results (particularly in the poorest districts). Cyber charters have generally been found to have terrible results. Even in Florida. Even when being examined by people who love charter schools. And especially in Pennsylvania, where the results from our existing cyber charters has been consistently terrible. We’re talking “5% of students achieved proficient or advanced on Big Standardized Test” terrible. Not that I like using BS Tests as a measure, but if you’ve picked a particularly flawed measure for success and then you can’t even win at your own game, that tells us something.

As always, I will stipulate that there are some students for whom cyber schooling is a useful and appropriate choice. But that is not the majority among the thousands and thousands of cyber-students in PA.

PA cybers have ongoing problems not just with doing their jobs, but with fraud and misbehavior. But they are mega-profitable, because Pennsylvania insists on funding based on sending district  and not the actual cost of educating students. A huge amount of that money funds lobbying, and another bunch funds marketing, and some just make people rich and funds a real estate empire. In the meantime, there is virtually no oversight or accountability for the cybers.

Various policy leaders have tried and tried and tried to reform Pennsylvania’s charter funding and accountability system so that maybe cyber charters might occasionally be audited and that we might give up the leading spot for “worst charter laws in the nation.”

Previous Governor Tom Wolf pushed hard for some simple reforms – pay cybers based on common sense amounts, actually hold them accountable for how the money is spent – and cyber supporters squealed loudly until his term was up and it didn’t get done again. 468 school districts (that’s almost all of them) have signed resolutions asking Harrisburg to fix this. 

READ: The Role of Real Estate in the For-Profit Charter School Grift

Meanwhile, the state’s top court declared that the state’s whole education funding system was unconstitutional so rotten that it had to be repaired immediately. Plug the hole where cybers are being grossly overpaid seems like a common sense choice, but no, we’re still dithering.

The current ditherer-in-chief is Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro, who rather likes school choice and is still shopping for a voucher bill that he can sign. Shapiro also appointed new members to the charter appeals board, the group that decides if local elected school boards don’t get a say in hosting charter schools.

Cyber charters can also get approval from the Department of Education, and that’s who gave the go-ahead to this newest cyber-operation. The application had been denied previously, twice. 

In May, the department said that 1) Pennwood Cyber Charter School lacked the capability, both support and planning, to provide comprehensive learning experiences to students. The proposal was that Pearson would give the school $350K as a start-up grant, and then the school would hire Pearson to provide services. So the state had questions about Pennwood’s independence. Also, 2) Pennwood couldn’t explain how it would serve as a “model” for other public schools. Particularly since, as one witness testified, Pearson’s previous two attempts to cyberschool in PA failed.

So yes – it’s a Pearson school. And it’s not clear how either of those problems that sunk Pennwood in May are now fixed, even a little. But the application itself is huge, so maybe it’s hiding in the thousands of pages, somehow.

This is the first new approval in eight years and will be based in York. Pennwood will be Pearson’s only school in PA, though they have had partnerships in the state before, with somewhat checkered results. But Donna Hutchison, vice president of educational partnerships at Pearson, says it will be awesome. “Pearson-supported online schools are solutions for a very mobile student population with a significant percentage of students being new each year.” No kidding. Cyber students generally stay about two years.

READ: Pennsylvania Is the Cyber Charter Capital of the Country. It’s Not Something to Celebrate

Pennwood’s webpage is actually a sub-page of the Connections Academy (Pearson’s nom de cyberschool). And Pearson is predicting a graduation rate of 85% to 25% higher than the statewide cyber charter grad rate. They are also predicting enrollment of 1,800 in Year One and 8,200 in Year Five, fueled, I guess, by Pearson’s marketing chops.

The charter’s board will be headed up by Marc LeBlond, who’s also the director of policy in Indiana for the privatization advocacy group EdChoice. He’s also been a senior policy analyst for the right-wing Commonwealth Foundation, after a career in the financial sector. So, zero actual education experience, but lots of profiteering and privatization practice. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Pennwood is a necessary cyber school option because of its “unique offerings that are unlike any other cyber charter schools” in Pennsylvania, LeBlond, the charter board chair, said in a statement, noting its Drexel partnership. He also said there was “unmet demand” for cyber charters, citing 40% growth in the sector over the past decade.

Unmet demand?

I suspect this translates roughly into “there are still plenty of taxpayer dollars to be harvested in this sector.” Are the 14 other cybers at capacity? The application promises a “career readiness and badging focus” and “exceptional teachers” and some super software for individualization. The application is loaded with footnotes – to inhouse “research” by Pearson.

The board of trustees, in addition to LeBlond, includes:

Joyce A. Good, who has worked for Commonwealth Charter Academy, PA Leadership Charter, and once upon a time taught 4th grade in a public school.

Stephanie Haas Theony, whose career has been in the insurance biz, most recently as a Charter School Practice Leader.

David Hardy, a Commonwealth Foundation distinguished fellow and big time charter guy with Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter High School.

C. Tyler Havey, a Philadelphia lawyer. And Laura Potthoff, a banking and economic development person.

Pennwood will open up next fall, so expect the advertisements to start flowing as Pearson tries once again to cash in on Pennsylvania’s generous cyber charter funding. It is still possible, some observers think, that the legislature could finally fix the charter funding system while they’re trying to fix the whole public school funding system itself. 

READ: Pennsylvania Cyber Schools Spend $16.8 Million On Marketing In One Year

Pennsylvania needs one more cyber charter like it needs another batch of potholes on the Turnpike, but Shapiro’s administration has delivered this instead. The department’s spokesperson delivered the most milquetoasty statement, saying that the application “met the requirements of charter school law and thus must be approved.” Nothing like teaming up passive voice and the old “well, it’s not actually illegal” for a dodging of responsibility. As the Inquirer:

“The Department strives to ensure that all cyber charter schools are accountable to students, the Commonwealth, and its residents to the extent that the current charter school law allows,” spokesperson Taj Magruder said in a statement.

No report on whether Magruder managed to say that with a straight face. 

This was originally published at the progressive education blog Curmudgucation.  

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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