Jan. 22—Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania failed to meet state averages on standardized tests in 2022, a review by The Sunday Times found.
Cyber school leaders attribute the proficiency rates, including 4.6% in math for the state's largest charter school, to low participation rates and a different way of learning.
The test results, coupled with new state leadership, have renewed the call for charter school reform in Pennsylvania.
As of last year, 5,469 students in Northeast Pennsylvania learned from home, many of them enrolling in cyber charter schools at the height of the pandemic and opting not to return to traditional public schools when restrictions eased.
Just in Lackawanna County, the 1,279 students in cyber charter schools amount to more than the enrollment of the entire Old Forge School District.
For more than a decade, educators have called for more oversight. The calls are becoming louder.
"If this was a business and we saw outcomes that were consistently poor ... would that business exist? It would not," Abington Heights Superintendent Christopher Shaffer, Ed.D., said. "We need to be playing by the same rules. It's a shame. Long term, it will have an impact. Education is a pillar of democracy."
When students opt to attend cyber charter schools, the students' home districts pay tuition to the charter school. The schools do not have set tuition rates. Instead, districts pay a rate based on their own per-pupil costs. That means that if a charter school enrolls students from all 500 districts in the state, each district pays the charter school a different amount, instead of the tuition rate being based on actual costs.
When a student requiring special education services enrolls in a charter school, the district sends a much higher rate, regardless of the actual services rendered.
Charter schools are free for families, and when students enroll in a cyber charter school, they receive computers, supplies and often a stipend for internet services.
Scranton pays charter schools $12,085 for non-special education students and $28,149 for special education students. At Abington Heights, those figures are $11,612 and $22,050. At North Pocono, tuition ranges from $14,970 to $29,749.
During the 2021-22 school year, Scranton spent more than $9 million on cyber charter tuition.
"We are concerned that cyber charter schools are not held to the same rigorous accountability standards as traditional public schools, and may not be fully transparent in their operations. Additionally, the current system for funding cyber charter schools does not take into account the unique costs associated with providing a brick and mortar education," Scranton Superintendent Melissa McTiernan said. "This clearly results in an unfair, and possibly excessive, allocation of local resources to cyber charter schools as the school tuition is not based on actual costs of educating cyber charter students. The loss of local tax dollars reduces funds available for home district educational programming."
The state requires third through eighth graders to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams each spring. High school students take end-of-course Keystone Exams.
Scores released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in November showed declines in all subject areas and in nearly every school. The state blamed the pandemic and related learning loss for the lower proficiency levels.
The 13 largest cyber charter schools failed to meet any of the state averages on English language arts, math and science exams. Some of the results, including for the cyber charter school with the greatest number of local students, had scores among the lowest in the state.
A 14th school, Susq-Cyber, had too few students take the exam for the state to provide public results.
The state uses the Future Ready PA Index to report scores, along with graduation rates and other benchmarks. The proficiency rates calculated by the state include exam results from the PSSA, Keystones and Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment, for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
But the way the state calculates proficiency rates has a "fatal flaw," said Timothy Eller, senior vice president of outreach and government relations for Commonwealth Charter Academy. The Harrisburg-based school, with 22,500 students, has a family service center in Dickson City and purchased an office building on Montage Mountain for $17.8 million last month.
Only about 20% of eligible CCA students took the spring 2022 tests, the lowest cyber participation rate in the state. Most traditional, in-person public schools have rates between 90% and 100%.
When participation rates fall below 95%, each subsequent non-tested student is designated as non-proficient. The state implemented the change in 2017-18 to adhere to federal assessment regulations.
"We can't make it mandatory," Eller said. "We inform families that the test is required for state accountability. Under state regulations, parents can opt their students out of the test."
For standardized testing, cyber charter schools rent hotel ballrooms, conference centers and other large spaces across the state. Families may have to drive an hour for the testing, explained Brian Hayden, CEO of Pennsylvania Cyber, based in Beaver County. The school had participation in the mid-50% range.
"For many of our students, being around other students physically is a challenge, taking them out of the security of their home, putting them in a room with other kids," Hayden said. "I'm not convinced the results are an apples to apples comparison ... but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't do better."
For CCA, Eller said if the state only counted the scores for students who took the test, CCA would have been at 57.2% for English language arts, 21.6% for math and 71.2% for science.
Nine of the cyber charter schools — Achievement House, Agora, ASPIRA Bilingual, Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation, Commonwealth Charter Academy, Pennsylvania Cyber, Pennsylvania Distance Learning, Reach and Susq-Cyber — have the state designation of "Comprehensive Support and Improvement" schools, which face the most significant challenges in academic achievement, student growth and other areas. The schools must have plans to improve outcomes.
Only one school in Northeast Pennsylvania has the same designation: Freeland Elementary/Middle School in the Hazleton Area School District.
Lawrence A. Feinberg, director of the Keystone Center for Charter Change of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, questioned why the Pennsylvania Department of Education hasn't done more to increase cyber proficiency and graduation rates, which are also below the state average.
"It's tax dollars, and if your district is spending one or two million in cyber charter tuition, that's one or two million that you don't have to serve your own kids," he said.
Beyond academics, area superintendents want greater oversight of charter schools and funding reform.
"I think reform needs to happen yesterday, so to speak," Dunmore Superintendent John Marichak said. "I can tell you from our perspective, as a district, it is hurting us in terms of our local tax base having to pay for it."
The state Department of the Auditor General ended routine school audits last year, including those of cyber charter schools.
In 2020, The Sunday Times found the office had never audited six of the state's 14 cyber charter schools. As of last week, those schools — Achievement House, Agora, Esperanza, Insight, Pennsylvania Leadership and Reach — had still not been audited, according to state records. The last state audit of CCA, with a budget of $306.9 million this school year, was in 2012.
Gov. Tom Wolf, whose final term ended last week, sought to establish a statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools, but the proposal never gained traction in the Legislature.
Attempts to obtain comments from the office of new Gov. Josh Shapiro were unsuccessful.
Cyber charter leaders say their schools provide a needed option for families; superintendents hope the governor makes reform a priority.
"Lakeland, like many other districts, has seen a significant increase in students enrolled in cyber charter schools and now spends over $1.8 million per year out of a $27 million annual budget on charter school tuition," Superintendent Marc Wyandt, Ed.D., said. "The funds we are forced to allocate to cyber charter tuition directly impact our ability to implement and support programs for Lakeland students. Ultimately, it is our taxpayers who bear the burden of funding cyber charter schools, which often perform to a standard that almost no community would tolerate."
Funding reform needs to address the disparity of the per-pupil cyber charter tuition that is based on district per-pupil expenditure, Mid Valley Superintendent Patrick Sheehan said.
"The factors that comprise the district per-pupil expenditure, which include actual services provided to students, are not equitable to the services provided by or cost to the cyber charter system," he said. "Without reform of any kind, these taxpayer-funded costs will only continue to increase resulting in even greater financial burden on the districts."
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