Cyber Schools Carving Out Charter Niche

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With nearly 30 "cyber" charter schools offering online instruction in a dozen states, the controversies swirling around some of them are sending policymakers a message: Rules for brick-and-mortar schools may not work in cyberspace.

In Pennsylvania, cyber charters and the state government itself are being challenged in several lawsuits brought by school districts and the state school boards' association. Two such charter schools in Ohio are adding complexity to the state education department's task of overseeing academic programs. And a cyber charter that is part of a Texas pilot test of online schooling is accused of being controlled by an aggressive for-profit company.

Policymakers and educators in many places are asking whether cyber charter schools—in which students primarily stay home and access materials online with little direct contact with licensed teachers—should be counted and financed as public education.

Some critics say the online schools are nothing more than glitzy versions of home schooling and are thus not deserving of public money. But supporters of cyber charters say their opponents are just afraid of upsetting the status quo.

"We're saying we can teach a pupil at home, and you don't need brick-and-mortar-buildings," said Jeffrey Forster, the principal of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Charter School, or eCOT, Ohio's largest cyber charter. The school is in its second year and enrolls 2,838 students in grades 9-12.

Mr. Foster said: "We're part of a revolution, and the system wants to shut us down."

Growing Numbers

So far, at least 29 cyber charters are operating in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group and information clearinghouse on school choice. Their enrollments vary, from fewer than 100 students to nearly 3,000. There are about 2,400 charter schools in the nation and nearly all of them offer classes in buildings.

But the number of cyber charters could grow rapidly, proponents argue, because online schools are free of the burden of constructing classrooms; they generally use fewer teachers than regular schools; and companies are lining up to provide curricula and management and technical services to the schools. Some companies have even advanced start-up money to cyber charter schools.

And clearly they are popular with some parents "who have been disappointed in regular public schools" in the past but want their children in a formal, widely recognized, "high-achieving curriculum" that costs them nothing, said Jeanne Allen, the Center for Education Reform's president.

Drawing Statewide

To some public school educators, though, cyber charters threaten the financial underpinnings of regular public education.

For example, in Pennsylvania, four of the seven cyber charters—five new ones opened last month—enroll students from across the state.

According to the state's 1997 charter school law, districts must pay charter schools an amount equivalent to 80 percent of the state per-student allocation, which averages about $6,000 in Pennsylvania.

Because of that requirement and other philosophical differences, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and several districts have sued the state government over its interpretation of the charter law.

"Fundamentally, we don't believe cyber charters were permitted under our charter school law, or should be," said Thomas J. Gentzel, the PSBA's assistant executive director for governmental affairs.

Twenty three Pennsylvania districts have launched joint or separate lawsuits against some of the cyber charter schools, and they and others have refused to pay the per-student costs for students who live in their districts but attend the online schools.

Other groups have also weighed in against cyber charters.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, for instance, testified against the cyber charters before committees of the state legislature, which is considering two bills to regulate the online charter schools.

A House bill, which the education committee approved last spring, would require cyber charters to be licensed by the state rather than local chartering authorities or school boards, as it is done now. The bill also would make the state pay for the schools.

In the state Senate, a similar bill would require cyber charters to get the permission of school districts before enrolling students from those districts.

Cyber-charter supporters said that the House bill would introduce a lengthy approval process that would surely slow the growth of the online schools, and that the Senate bill would curb their ability to attract students from all over the state.

"You don't know from where [students'] interest may come," said Michael Maslayak, the chief academic officer of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, which was granted a charter by the Norristown school district. The school has 650 pupils in grades K-2, but plans to add grade levels in the future.

Since online schools are not for everyone, Mr. Maslayak said, restricting their geographic reach would dramatically reduce the number of potential students. He added that it would be onerous for cyber charters to have to appeal the decisions of school districts that refused to allow students to attend online schools.

Lawmakers are not expected to act on either bill until after they have received a state study of the cyber charters, which is supposed to be completed late this month.

An irony of the opposition among advocates for regular public schools is that many cyber charters were started to help public school students. For instance, the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, opened last year to allow students of the 500-student Midland school district, which has few resources and no high school, to go to school in Pennsylvania rather than being bused to Ohio.

It was actually a surprise to the school's organizers when it attracted students from across the state, enrolling 525 students from 105 of the state's 501 districts for the 2000-01 school year.

But when those districts began receiving tuition invoices from the online school totaling thousands of dollars per student—in many cases, for former home schoolers that the districts didn't even know about—opposition started to grow.

Last spring, more than 60 of the districts refused to pay the tuition; in response, the state education department withheld about $850,000 in state aid from those districts. And that's what provoked the PSBA's lawsuit.

Even so, other cyber charters in the state have avoided conflict with districts.

For example, the SusQ-Cyber Charter School, created by five districts in central Pennsylvania in 1998, limits enrollees to the boundaries of the 13 districts served by the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit.

"We don't want 500 students from Pittsburgh, 400 students from Philadelphia," said James Street, the chief administrative officer of the 82-student online high school, which has no plans to expand beyond the 118-student limit in its charter. "We want students from this area that can use this type of education."

A Regulatory Issue

Other states are also puzzling over how to respond to this new type of charter school. "I don't think the [Ohio] Department of Education is opposed to cyber charter schools, but they're having a difficult time with them," said Stephen J. Ramsey, the president of the Ohio Charter School Association. Until last spring, he was the assistant director of the state education department's school options office, which oversees charter schools.

"It's a regulatory issue, forcing people to look at things differently," Mr. Ramsey said.

Although Ohio has just two online charter schools, the option has intensified demands on the education department, which oversees about 100 charter schools. In addition, with online schools, state officials have to decide how to ensure that learning is taking place even though they are unable to count the hours that students are actually in school.

"The Ohio Department of Education—they threw up every roadblock they could," said Mr. Forster, the principal of eCOT. J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio education department, said, "our law is that students must have 920 hours per school year, but how do you monitor enrollment in an online school? These are struggles nationwide that departments of education are having with cyber schools."

The two men agreed that tense relations between the department and the state's cyber charter schools have improved.

Texas Experiment

In Texas, another new cyber charter, the Texas Virtual Charter School, is participating in the state's two-year pilot test on the use of electronic courses. The other pilot sites include nine school districts and two other charter schools that use online learning as part of their programs.

But the Austin-based Coalition for Public Schools argues that the all-online program of Texas Virtual is improperly depending on parents at home to provide much of the instruction.

"The Texas legislature has not approved using tax money to pay for cyber charter schools that are taught by parents," said Carolyn Hinkley Boyle, the coordinator for the coalition, which represents 36 Texas education groups and spends much of its time opposing vouchers.

She pointed to what she called a misstep by K12 Inc., the McLean, Va.-based online education company started by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.("Bennett's Online Education Venture Opens for Business," Oct. 17, 2001.) Mr. Bennett's company has contracted to provide content and manage Texas Virtual, which enrolls more than 230 children in grades K-2 from around the state.

But the Texas Education Agency has said it will only pay for the 35 students enrolled in the school who live within the Houston school boundaries, according to Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman.

"K12 is saying someone at TEA told them they could serve that broad area," Ms. Boyle said. "They're just grabbing for all the kids and territory they can get."

Gregg Vanourek, the vice president of K12's charter school division, said the company accepts that state money is only available for students in Houston, but is committed to serving all the families it has enrolled.

Last summer, the National Education Association passed a resolution stating that it does not support cyber charters. Later this fall, a union study group on online learning will examine cyber charters more closely.

But advocates insist that educators and school policymakers should take a closer look before discounting the beneficial role of cyber charters.

John M. Gould, the superintendent of the 1,017-student Morrisville, Pa., school district, which issued a charter to The Einstein Academy Charter School, a cyber charter that reportedly has enrolled nearly 3,000 students from 364 school districts, said that "to have the concept of a school district as a single geographical point makes no sense at all—we must begin to look at those issues."

Vol. 21, Issue 8, Pages 1, 21

Published in Print: October 24, 2001, as Cyber Schools Carving Out Charter Niche
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • In April 2001, the Pennsylvania School Board Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of several districts, stating that cyber schools are not lawful charter schools. The PSBA recently released "White Paper on Cyber Schools," a report that explores the costs of state-funded cyber schools and calls for state standards for those schools. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)
  • "A Question of Funding," from Electronic School, September 2001. Editor Lawrence Hardy talks with Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School principal Nick Trombetta about the school's financing and the state's role.
  • The Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School offers several programs for its students, including a curriculum for homeschoolers and "fast track" high school students.
  • K12, an online learning program founded by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, provides information about virtual charter schools in Alaska, California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
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