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Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as Pennsylvania Report Examines The State's Online Charter Schools

Pennsylvania Report Examines The State's Online Charter Schools

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State-financed online or "cyber charter" schools are delivering to Pennsylvania homes a wide range of instruction, but steps need to be taken to ensure those schools are held accountable, concludes a state education department report released last week.

"This study shows what thousands of Pennsylvania parents already know—that cyber schools can provide an innovative education for many children," Charles B. Zogby, the state's education secretary, said in a statement accompanying the report.

The $175,000 study, which was conducted for the department by the Mclean, Va.-based business-research firm KPMG Consulting Inc., outlines many possible improvements in making the online schools more accountable for their finances and educational results.

"The study is a great start in addressing major issues involving cyber charter schools," said Innocenzio A. Grignano, the director of the Charter Schools Project at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Moreover, the findings will aid Pennsylvania lawmakers as they work this month on legislation to increase oversight of the online schools that have sprung up under the state's 1998 charter school law, said Sen. Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Democrat.

Who Goes to Cyber School?

The report presents the clearest picture yet of the impact of cyber charter schools in the state. Those seven schools enroll a total of 3,953 students from across Pennsylvania, the report says.

Of those students, the study found, 56 percent were previously home-schooled, and 33 percent had attended a traditional public school. The rest had attended private schools. Roughly 12 percent of the students enrolled in cyber schools were children who qualified for special education services.

The report also notes that the three largest online charter schools enroll 92 percent of the total students, and that those bigger schools appear to provide education at lower costs than the smaller ones.

But Thomas J. Gentzel, the assistant executive director for governmental and member relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which is opposed to cyber charter schools, said he was disappointed that the researchers did not arrive at "a clear indication of the cost of operating a cyber school."

Instead, the report presents estimates by the cyber charters themselves, which range from $4,989 to $7,015 per student for the current school year.

The researchers themselves qualified their findings by noting that the largest of the state's cyber charters, the 2,713-student Einstein Academy Charter School, had failed to provide some important documentation. That made a "thorough and comprehensive review" of the Morrisville, Pa., school "impossible," the authors say.

Officials at the Einstein Academy did not return calls requesting comment.

Legislative action targeted at cyber charter schools is likely in Pennsylvania because of conflicts between several cyber charters and the PSBA, which has sued the state for allowing public funding of the online schools. ("Cyber Schools Carving Out Charter Niche," Oct. 24, 2001.)

The state's charter law requires a school district to pay to a charter school the per-student allocation from the state for the district in which the student lives.

In response to that requirement, some districts have sued the cyber schools to avoid paying those bills; other districts have simply refused to pay. A recent PSBA analysis estimated that districts could be billed more than $18 million this school year.

To address that problem, the report recommends that cyber schools be required to notify the home district of children who have enrolled, and for the districts to set up contingency budgets to cover the cost.

Also, to solve the funding controversies, the report proposes that the state consider setting a uniform, statewide funding rate that the cyber charters may charge school districts. It suggests no specific rate, however.

Holding Them Accountable

To improve educational accountability, the report says, the cyber schools should provide more information about their curricula and methods when applying for their charters. Such information would include descriptions of how their courses would be aligned with the state's academic standards and assessments.

The report notes that most cyber charters use outside companies to provide curriculum materials, not all of which are aligned to Pennsylvania state standards and the state's academic assessment.

Moreover, the report suggests, it is important for the authorities that grant charters to know how the schools plan to monitor students' attendance, how they would evaluate whether students are doing their own work, and what services they would provide for special education.

Vol. 21, Issue 10, Page 30

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