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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Beyond Brick and Mortar: Cyber Charters Revolutionizing Education - CER Action Paper

Another one taken from NCSW@yahoogroups.com


Beyond Brick and Mortar: Cyber Charters Revolutionizing Education
CER Action Paper

January 11, 2002


The Opposition

Opposition to cyber charters is mainly a matter of control. "Cyber Schools: Friend or Foe?," a report in the October 2001 issue of School Administrator, a publication of the American Association of School
Administrators, lays out the case against cyber charters from a superintendent's perspective: "I cannot think of one superintendent who is not upset with cyber schools," says Stinson Stroup, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Superintendents. "They're concerned that the quality of some of the cyber programs that are being offered is not good, that they do not have an opportunity to review the programs and that there's no documentation that the cyber schools provide that verifies where the students actually live...."

Free of bricks and mortar, the virtual school can grow indefinitely, without the fear of stretching library facilities or adding portable buildings. But many state lawmakers . . . are wrestling with laws so wide open - or even nonexistent - that they fear anyone could throw up a Web page, hire a couple of teacher aides and start recruiting home schoolers.


Pennsylvania at the Crossroads:

There are at least 30 cyber charter schools nationwide, operating in twelve states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Of these states Pennsylvania has the most cyber charters - and the greatest controversy.

Prior to 2001 only two cyber charters were operating in Pennsylvania. With the beginning of the 2001 school year, however, the Keystone state saw a boom in its cyber charter population, with five new schools either opening or scheduled to open. It was estimated they would serve approximately 4,500 students. Apparently it was too great a number to go unnoticed by the education establishment.

In April the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and four school districts filed a suit challenging the requirement that districts release funds for their students who enroll in cyber charters. The action claimed that cyber charters cater to home schoolers, a population not covered by the state's 1997 charter school law. The suit asked for an injunction to prevent the state Department of Education from withholding
funds to districts that refused to pay the costs of their students attending cyber charter school.

In May, Judge Warren G. Morgan ruled against the PSBA, arguing that to grant the injunction would put the state's cyber charters and the students they serve at risk. However, despite the setback, the PSBA and the aggrieved districts vowed to continue their fight.

As a sign of the defiant districts' resolve, cyber charters continue to have great difficulty collecting funds. The Einstein Academy Charter School (TEACH), which accounts for over half of the state's cyber charter students, has collected only a fraction of the funds it is due. As of the middle of October 2001 Einstein founder Mimi Rothschild reported having received only $500,000 of the $5 million she estimated her school was owed.

Although much of the cyber charter fight has taken place in court, action hasn't just occurred in the judicial arena. Executive and legislative entities have also entered the fray, attempting to exert increased state control over cyber charters.

In September, Pennsylvania Auditor General Robert P. Casey released a report highly critical of cyber charters. Casey - a likely gubernatorial candidate - said he has "concerns about the ability of these schools to accurately document student membership and to ensure that minimum required instructional time is provided to students." Casey's conclusion was based on limited information from an audit of the SusQ-Cyber Charter School conducted in its first two years of operation, the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years. SusQ was chartered by the school districts in the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU), and at the time of the report served 76 students in grades 9-12. The school now serves 115 students. Considering the major
problems faced by any school in its first years of existence, the report should be taken with a grain of salt.

Like Casey, the October 2001 KPMG review of cyber charter schools recommended that the state take greater control of cyber charters, citing the importance of measuring "the progress of these schools in their infancy, before new and/or poorly implemented programs can have a detrimental effect on student achievement." Among the report's proposals:

  • the state should consider new approval, oversight, and school closure measures
  • the details and amount of information required on cyber-charter applications should be expanded
  • financial reporting by cyber charters should be made more regular and detailed.

The KPMG recommendations appear to be part of a preemptive effort to curb the autonomy of cyber charters. Such efforts, however, are not new.

Even before the release of the Auditor General and KPMG reports, Pennsylvania legislators with ties to reform opponents like PSBA were working to impose state control over cyber charters. In June the state Senate education committee passed an amendment that would make it illegal for students to enroll in a cyber charter without approval from the student's district. That same month, a more restrictive proposal was introduced in the state's House of Representatives that said because "technology permits students enrolled in cyber school to access instructional programming without being physically present in an educational facility, cyber schools do not fit the requirements of the Charter School Law." Chartering authority would be taken away from local entities, and all power to authorize, maintain and dissolve cyber charters would be in the hands of the Secretary of Education.

(end of snips)


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