How difficult is it for states to stop the growth of full-time online cyber charters?
Ask Pennsylvania, which for several years has strongly resisted attempts to open new cybers. On Thursday, a Commonwealth Court ordered the state department of education to grant a five-year charter to the Insight PA Cyber Charter School—an applicant the state had already rejected three times, largely because officials said the school’s nonprofit governing board was not sufficiently independent from K12 Inc., the for-profit management company with whom the school proposed to contract.
Insight PA first applied for a charter back in 2012, when I was a reporter at WHYY-NewsWorks in Philadelphia. That November, I sat in a hearing in Harrisburg, the state capital, and listened as a woman named Diana Moninger mostly read from prepared notes while pitching state officials on how “Insight PA’s well-conceived virtual education program will boost student achievement, serve the unique need of Pennsylvania’s at-risk students and families, and offer a new model for effective public education in the 21st century.”
When it came time for detailed questions about the operation of the school, a man named Todd Thorpe provided most of the answers.
Moninger was the president of the nonprofit board that was officially applying to open Insight PA. She was also the parent of two students who attended cyber charters, and the vice president of an advocacy group called Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools, which received much of its funding from K12 Inc.
Thorpe was the senior director of school development with K12 Inc.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education denied Insight PA a charter that year, then again in 2013, and again in 2014. In that last application, Moninger was still listed as board president for the group applying to open the school. In rejecting Insight PA’s proposal, the state wrote that the board members “were unable to provide responses to a majority of the programmatic questions” posed to them at that year’s public hearing. The state also wrote that information the board submitted as part of their application suggested that “ultimate control of the school [lies] with K12 and not Insight PA.”
By then, I was at Education Week. Together with my colleague Sean Cavanagh, we looked at a broad and enduring concern within the cyber charter field: Who ultimately controls the schools?
It’s a significant question, in large part because full-time online charters have performed so dismally academically, while also consistently running into significant management problems.
In Pennsylvania, for example, none of the state’s 14 cyber charters met the state’s academic benchmarks last school year. One of the Pennsylvania’s largest cybers, Agora, also recently severed most of its ties to K12. Going back to 2011, the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University found that students at Pa. cyber charters learned at dramatically slower rates than their peers in brick-and-mortar schools.
Of course, the problems with cyber charters aren’t limited to Pennsylvania. A 2015 study by CREDO found the same dynamics nationwide. And last year, Education Week published a broad investigation of the cyber charter industry. We found widespread reports of trouble at the schools going back 15 years and covering 22 states. When my colleague Arianna Prothero started asking why the sector continues to expand, despite the prevailing concerns, she found that the country’s largest for-profit cyber operators, especially K12 Inc., have been helped by sophisticated lobbying efforts in state capitals.
In Pennsylvania this week, K12’s victory this week came through the court, not through the legislature.
Insight PA’s 2014 application was rejected by the Pa. education department, which said Insight “lacked real and substantial authority over the school’s operations;" had failed to demonstrate compliance with the state’s technology requirements or show the ability to meet the needs of students with special needs and English language learners; and had issues with its financial support and understanding of assessment.
Insight PA appealed the decision to the state’s Charter School Appeal Board, which affirmed the education department’s decision not to grant the school a charter.
Insight PA then sued.
In its ruling, the state Commonwealth Court said that the Pa. education department and charter school appeal board “raise fair points” about problems with the agreement between Insight and K12, but concluded that those issues don’t violate Pennsylvania’s charter school law or a legal precedent for determining independence.
“In short, Insight, directly and through its CEO who oversees the day-to-day operations of the school, has real and substantial control of its employees at the school, including teachers,” the decision reads.
“There is absolutely no evidence in the record of this case that Insight’s board lacks independence from K12,” the court concluded.
As a result, the court decided to “reverse and remand” the appeal board’s decision, ordering that Insight PA finally be granted the five-year charter it has been seeking since 2012.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said officials were reviewing the ruling and considering their options.
A lawyer representing Insight PA was more upbeat.
“We are very pleased with the court’s decision,” said Alan Kessler. “We think it was well-written, well-reasoned and, more importantly, that it was dead right.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.