Whether due to the fear of catching and spreading COVID-19 or a dissatisfaction with the virtual offerings from their local district, families more than ever are considering virtual charter schools. There has been a huge increase in virtual charter school enrollment across the country, including in Pennsylvania where cyber charter school enrollment is up by 63% to 62,000 students as of October 1st.
But even before the pandemic and influx of students, Pennsylvania’s cyber sector was one of the largest in the country, and it long struggled with quality. When I spoke with ML Wernecke, Director of the Pennsylvania Charter Performance Center*, she said “In the most recent round of assessments, every single cyber charter school scored below the statewide average in both English and math. That is not a statistical fluke but rather clear evidence that cyber charter students are falling behind.”
Public schools in Pennsylvania are measured on a variety of student success indicators and scores and rolled up into a score, known as the Future Ready PA Index and historically known as the School Performance Profile (SPP). All of Pennsylvania’s cyber charters have performed below the state average on the Future Ready PA Index and the SPP. And currently, due to this poor performance, every cyber charter in the state has been identified as needing significant support under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Despite poor quality sector-wide, Pennsylvania is considering applications from two more virtual schools to open in 2021-22. How did Pennsylvania get here? The short answer is an outdated charter law. The charter sector has evolved a lot over the last 20 years, and authorizing has evolved and changed too. Many states have updated their laws to reflect new learning, but Pennsylvania’s law has mostly remained the same. For example, NACSA recommends at a minimum, the six state-level policies below be included in state law (see this report for a more comprehensive discussion of how to improve the quality of virtual schools). We believe that these policies preserve the benefits families find in virtual schools, while helping to ensure sure kids are getting a quality education.
Pennsylvania’s law falls well short of NACSA’s recommendations.
- Authorization: Only authorizers that have been granted statewide or regional chartering authority should be able to oversee full-time virtual charter schools that enroll students from more than one district. This is the case in Pennsylvania, as only the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is allowed to authorize cyber charter schools.
- Enrollment Criteria: States should study the establishment of criteria for enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools based on factors proven necessary for student success, since it is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and many full-time virtual charter schools are not offering the accommodations needed to make them an appropriate educational setting for all students. Pennsylvania’s law does not have enrollment criteria for full-time virtual students, though it does say that charters themselves may establish reasonable criteria to evaluate prospective students.
- Enrollment Levels: States should require authorizers and schools to establish a maximum number of students to be enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools for each year of a charter contract, not to exceed a certain number of students per school in any given year. School growth should be based on performance. Pennsylvania law prohibits caps for cyber schools, and growth is not predicated by performance.
- Accountability for Performance: In addition to the rigorous goals that should be a part of every charter school contract, states should require authorizers and schools to jointly determine goals regarding student enrollment, attendance, engagement, achievement, truancy, attrition, finances and operations, and include these goals in the schools’ charter contracts. Authorizers should then make renewal and closure decisions based upon schools’ progress against these goals, closing chronically low-performing full-time virtual charter schools. While Pennsylvania’s law does require PDE to annually assess cyber charters on compliance with their contract, as well as state standardized tests, in practice, PDE has not consistently closed under-performing cyber charter schools.
- Funding Levels Based on Costs: States should require full-time virtual charter school applicants to propose and justify a price per student in their charter school applications. States should also be required to seek guidance from experts and researchers in determining responsible levels of funding based on the real costs of full-time virtual charter schools. In Pennsylvania, cyber charter schools do not have to propose or justify the per-pupil amount they need and receive funding at the same level as brick-and-mortar charter schools.
- Performance-Based Funding: States should fund full-time virtual charter schools based on some measures of performance. This funding formula should also include allocations based on the actual cost of operating full-time virtual charter schools. In Pennsylvania, cyber charters do not receive funding based on performance.
Two new cyber charter applications will be reviewed for approval in November. That’s worrisome. Tomea Sippio-Smith, the K-12 Education Policy Director at the Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), shares those fears, saying “Pennsylvania’s charter school law is badly in need of an update to approve only high quality applicants, allow only high quality charters to grow, and protect students and taxpayers from failing schools. Moreover, there should be clear processes and timelines to close schools that continually underperform. Cyber charter schools must be held to these same standards. And that’s why PCCY will continue to lead the charge on advocating for sweeping legislative reform in 2021, including stronger performance standards and a cyber charter moratorium.”
To be clear, NACSA does not traditionally support charter school moratoriums and prefers to see legislation that thoughtfully addresses the root causes and deficits in policy. But we get it. Many people in Pennsylvania are rightfully frustrated with the poor quality of the cyber sector. And given the circumstances created by the COVID pandemic, it is especially frustrating since so many more families turned to these virtual operators in desperation. We believe it is essential that Pennsylvania drop the politics and put kids first by reforming its charter law to reflect model charter law, especially those statutes and policies associated with cyber charter authorizing.
* Wernecke says the Center seeks to close the information gap by delivering reliable information on school performance for charters and district run schools to advance the policy conversation in Harrisburg and help parents make the best decisions for their children.