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No to 'Cyber' Charters

Using new powers granted under a trailblazing state law that took effect last July, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has rejected all five of its first batch of applications for new "cyber" charter schools. But no one thinks it's time to hit the delete key on those proposals just yet.

Amid continuing legal and political battles over the eight charter schools without walls now operating in the Keystone State, the legislature shifted the power to grant charters for such Internet-based schools from local school districts to the education department. The idea was to subject such schools to closer scrutiny.

The agency received five proposals for new cyber charters by its Oct. 1 deadline, and shot down all of them in mid-January. The decisions cited problems that varied from school to school, although in each case the department found a lack of proof that the proposed schools enjoyed strong community support.

Yet most, if not all, of the applicants plan to submit revised applications to the department, as the new law allows them to do. No deadline has been set for filing that paperwork, but several applicants said last week that they would do so shortly and were optimistic about passing muster.

Barbara Dreyer

Among them was Barbara Dreyer, the chief executive officer of Connections Academy, a subsidiary of the Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. The for-profit subsidiary runs virtual schools in Colorado and Wisconsin, and wants to operate a similar charter school in Harrisburg, Pa.

"We're confident that we'll be able to navigate this through so that we'll be able to open in the fall," Ms. Dreyer said.

James M. Hanak, the chairman of the board of the proposed Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School—an online school that would be based in King of Prussia, Pa., and aims to attract K-12 students statewide—said he was "cautiously optimistic."

Mr. Hanak called it "really amazing" that the department hadn't found more problems with the plans, noting that the applications were made available just two weeks before they were due.

"This whole thing is so new that everybody is scratching their heads and trying to guess what's going on," he said.

—Caroline Hendrie

Vol. 22, Issue 21, Page 15

Published in Print: February 5, 2003, as State Journal

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