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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cyber Charter Schools

Okay this will appear in the "Virtual Schooling in the News" feature at the end of the week, but I felt the need to draw attention to this a little more than simply including it there. This particular item came to me from my Yahoo! news alert for cber school. Unfortunately, because Yahoo! uses this search tool as if it is cyber+school and not "cyber school" I don't get much useful in that alert - in fact most of it is usually about cyber bullying. But this one was interesting.

Cyber charters: We are public schools
By SHARON WILLIAMS For The Evening Sun
Article Launched: 06/22/2007 08:49:28 AM EDT

A recent article in the Evening Sun outlined the campaign led by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) against public cyber charter schools in communities across the state. Unfortunately, it was full of many of the same old myths about cyber schools.

For years the PSBA has led the charge against public cyber schools, filing multiple lawsuits, supporting legislation that would severely cut funding, and spreading misinformation and distortions about cybers.

Cyber charter schools are as accountable as both the Hanover and the South Western School districts and more. They are public schools designated with the same local education agency status as school districts, thus are held to the same accountability standards, audits and state reporting requirements as every other school district. Public cybers are also required to undergo several audits unique to charter schools.

The state of Pennsylvania, through the Department of Education (PDE), provides full oversight and implements accountability measures for all cyber charter schools. PDE, as the authorizing agency for cyber charter schools, has the authority to conduct reviews and audits at any time. If a cyber charter school is not succeeding, their charter could be revoked by PDE and their school closed - a level of accountability school district's never face.

All of this information is available at the PDE or by request, as required by law. Those who
say they aren't sure what cybers are doing simply do not want to know. If this is indeed the case, local residents should expect more from their elected school board members.

A closer look at academic achievement shows public cyber charter schools are performing well and meeting almost all of the AYP academic performance targets.

Last year, Pennsylvania's eleven public cyber charter schools met 42 of 45 AYP academic performance targets. These numbers are especially strong when you consider that cyber charter schools often take high numbers of students who come in one or many grade levels behind because their local school failed to meet their education needs.

PSBA argues that cyber charter schools funding should be dramatically reduced.

They advocate passage of a bill (HB 446) that would arbitrarily cut cyber charter schools funding upwards of 60 percent, which would force these schools to close. PSBA understates the significant costs associated with operating full-time, full-service public cyber schools and ignores studies that refute their assertions. For instance, a 2006 independent report prepared by Augenblick, Palaich, & Associates on behalf of the Bell South Foundation titled, Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools, determined that the "the operating costs of online programs are about the same as the operating costs of a regular brick and mortar school," and concluded that actual costs for full-time cyber schools range from $7,200 to about $8,300 per student.

You will see pigs fly before you see the PSBA advocate for more burdensome regulations, red tape and massive funding cuts for public schools. Except, of course, if the public schools are charters.

As nice as it may sound to the PSBA members that it is "their money" going to cyber charter schools, the parents of kids enrolled in cyber charter schools, all hard-working taxpayers themselves, are quick to remind them that the funding is designated for their children's education only, and not for anything else.

Ultimately, the PSBA's arguments over money, power and control is a mask to what they really oppose: school choice for parents. Cyber charter schools continue to grow because parents and kids are choosing to enroll, and they want cyber charter schools available as a public school option. And that is the real rub for the PSBA.

Unlike traditional public schools, not a single child enrolled in cyber charter schools are assigned to attend because of where they live. Every family in one of our cyber charter schools is with us because they exercised their right to choose our school. When they enroll, the school districts no longer have any responsibility for the education or oversight of those students. They can concentrate on the kids in their schools and need not spend any time or energy worrying about our students. We'll take good care of them. If we don't, they are free to leave, go back to their locally assigned school and take their funding with them. That is the ultimate accountability.

If the PSBA wants to put the interests of our children first, then they will cease the relentless and misleading attacks on cyber charter schools, respect the education choices of our families, and end their campaign to strangle our schools out of existence.

Sharon Williams is currently the Head of School and Chief Administrative Officer of the Agora Cyber Charter School. For more information: http://www.agora.org/

What I found most interesting about this was that, at least in this particular publication the only one that stodd up for (or at least the only one that was published) was the administrator of a cyber charter school. But hey, I used to be involved in politics and someone writing on behalf of the candidate or elected official is nothing new, but at least in politics we would usually ask someone not so closely associated with the political individual involved to write those kind of pieces. If I were Sharon Williams, I would have had one of the parents of a student at my cyber school write this but that is neither here nor there.

Let's take a look at some of the things that Ms. Williams has to say... Yes, charter schools are public schools. However, they are not as independent or virtuous as she would have us believe. Charter schools are one of the ways that conservatives and right of center individuals have found to circumvent the traditional public education system. Since the 1980s and the panic created (or should I say manufactured) by the A Nation at Risk report, conservatives in the United States have been looking for ways to dismantle the traditional public education system - charter schools, including cyber charters, are one of their latest attempts.

There are also a reason why charter schools, and in particular cyber charter schools, have a reputation for not having to meet the same state requirements or not being as cost efficient as the traditional public schools. According to a 2000 American Teachers Federation document, "eighteen states either release charter schools from meeting state standards or allow charter school students to avoid taking state assessments. " I'm not sure how many of these eighteen still allow this, but if you don't have to meet the same requirements that a public school has to meet, they you aren't playing by the same set of rules and shouldn't be compared to one another (it is like comparing apples and oranges - a theme I'll use a lot in this post). I should note that if you did want to compare these apples and oranges, in a recent report commissioned by the Department of Education under the Bush administration (who are also in favour of dismantling the traditional public education system), public school students performed as well as charter school students and private school students (a real blow to their push for charter schools and their private school voucher initiative).

Also, in the past in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where cyber charters have flourished, there have been major problems with the misreporting of data and the mismanagement of public funds. Is this still going on? At some level, probably - but I would say the same for the traditional public school system and even the private school system. Do these problems plague all cyber charter schools? Probably not, but over the past five to six years they have been prone to it and have made some interesting and frequent headlines because of those problems.

I should also point out Ms. Williams mentions the Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools and mentions that it claims that "the operating costs of online programs are about the same as the operating costs of a regular brick and mortar school." While the report does make this statement, it is important to note the context around this particular statement. In the preceding sentences the authors of the report indicate that this claim is basically applicable to year two plus - meaning after the first year of operation. The need to create or lease a learning or course management system, to create or lease actual course content, etc. - all of which are costs incurred in the first year are not factored into this claim. After this claim the authors indicate that the brick and mortar costs do not include the spending on capital costs, such as the construction and maintenance of the school building. So basically the report excludes the necessary infrastructure in both online and face to face settings, so you have to really wonder if they are actually comparing apples and apples.

But let's actually look at this report a little closer (beyond methodology, which I believe is fundamentally flawed). The following groups are listed as being ones consulted for this report:
  • Branson School Online
  • Colorado Legislative Staff
  • Colorado Online Learning
  • Colorado Virtual Academy
  • Connections Academy
  • Florida Virtual School
  • Georgia Virtual School
  • Idaho Association of School Administrators
  • Louisiana Virtual School
  • Minnesota Senate Staff
  • Monte Vista School District (Colorado)
  • National Conference of State Legislatures
  • North American Council for Online Learning
  • North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
  • Southern Regional Education Board (SREB)
  • Texas Education Agency
  • Texas Tech University
  • Vanourek Consulting Solutions
  • University of California College Prep Online
Interestingly I count eight virtual or cyber school organizations, three consultants or organizations that have been favourable to virual schooling in the past, three political or legislative bodies, one university, and only four non-political bodies that represent public educational organizations. Further the report indicates:

The first draft of this report was reviewed by a sub-group of participants, along with the Michigan Virtual High School. The review was coordinated by John Watson of Evergreen Consulting Associates, who then revised the report based on reviewers’ comments. The final report reflects the thoughts of the meeting participants, reviewers, and authors.
Let me begin by stating that I have a great deal of respect of John Watson, I've met him a couple of times at the annual Virtual School Symposium meetings. However, the report that states that virtual schooling is as cost effective as brick and mortar schooling talked to eleven online learning bodies, but only four brick and mortar bodies. It was reviewed by a virtual school and then revised by a consultant who has written a great deal about virtual schools - most of it in a positive fashion. I'm not saying that the report is wrong, but you have to start to ask yourself is it credible. Let's even look at their conclusions...

According to Ms. Williams, in the article she indicates that the authors of this report state that the "actual costs for full-time cyber schools range from $7,200 to about $8,300 per student." On page 13 it indicates that the cost of brick and mortar schools range from $5,851 to $9,801, with a national average of $7,727. So the cost is comparable between the national brick and mortar average and the cyber school range. But is it really? In this table on page 13, it only lists the cost per pupil from eight states (i.e., Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, New Hampshire, South Carolina,Texas and Vermont) and then provides the national average. From that list, I see seven states that allow for charter schools:
  • AZ - $5,851
  • CO - $6,941
  • FL - $6,213
  • ID - $6,011
  • NH - $7,935
  • SC - $7,017
  • TX - $6,771

That gives me an average of $6,677, which is well below the range for cyber schools. So compared to the national average it is comparable, but what if we only used states that allowed for cyber charter schools, would it still be comparable? In the table on page 13, Vermont - $9,806 is included. But Vermont isn't one of the forty states that allow for charter schools. And according to data from 2005-06 published by the National Charter School Research Project, eight of those forty states do not have any charter schools. So what happens to that national average if we only include the thirty-two states that do have charter schools or even the forty states that allow for them? Does it lower the national average below that $7,200 (i.e., the lower limit of the cyber school range)? I don't know because I don't have that information. But again, are we really comparing apples and apples or are we really comparing apples and oranges.

Also, a big issue for me is what do you do with Florida? Florida is the only state in the US where the state-wide virtual school is treated the same as any other school district, so they get funding based upon their full-time student enrollment the same as the brick and mortar schools do. So do you exclude Florida because the system is designed to be equal? Do you somehow control for it? Do you complete two sets of analyses, one with Florida and one without - explaining the unique situation in Florida? These are methodologies questions that the report doesn't answer.

Am I saying that this report is wrong or presenting a false picture? No. I simply can't answer that question because I don't have the information to answer all of the questions that I have raised here. Do I look skeptically at this report because of all of these questions that I have raised? Yes, most definitely.

Getting back to Ms. Williams and her defence of cyber charter schools, as I mentioned in a recent comment to Bill Tucker I am not in favour of charter schools or cyber charter school. I believe that they are a conservative policy designed to undermine the traditional public school system. Do cyber charter schools get a bad rap, as Ms. Williams indicates? Probably. Do they deserve that bad rap because of the large scale mismanagement of public funds and failure to report student performance data in a number of highly publicized cases in Pennsylvania and Ohio in particular? Yes.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever compared the costs of PA's Blended Learning Programs compared to the cyber charter's in PA?



10:16 AM  
Blogger MKB said...


I haven't... In fact, beyond what I read in this report when it was first released, I haven't done any kind of comparison. Some of the clips that you have in the entry at this blog though, make my statement about some of the cyber schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio being less than open with financial and achievement data seem fairly accurate.


5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. I came across this article as I was searching for alternative education opportunities for my son, 11th grader. Understanding that you are oppose to cyber/charter schools what is your suggestion for parents like myself?

Im a single mother of three living in Harrisburg PA. As you may know Harrisburg School District as well as Chester Updland has been identified as an empowerment zone and has been governed by the Education Empowerment Act for over 5 years. Our school district is controlled by the mayor and two school boards (Board of Control and Elected Board).

According to the law our school will remain under the empowerment act until we have met AYP. Well, we have not met AYP in over 5 years. Our students PSSA scores have steadily declined across the board every year. All 15 schools in our district has failed to meet AYP including all three High Schools (one of which is considered the ELITE Sci-Tech High).

Our parents (inlcuding myself) have no where to go. Our kids are held hostage in this district because there are no cooperative agreements between harrisburg school district and any surrounding school. So our choices are cyber/charter. All of the charter schools have waiting lists and only goes to the 8th grade.

So, what do you suggest when over 80% of our 11th graders could not score proficient in math or reading last year but has advanced to the 12th grade?

PS. Im also a former Elected Board Member and Board of Control Member

1:51 PM  
Blogger MKB said...

As a parent in Pennsylvania, there are a number of options available to you. Depending on the course that you are looking for, both Aventa Learning and Apex Inc. might have something that would interest or be of use to your child. I should also note that the Pennsylvania Home Schoolers Association offers a number of online courses and I can personally recommend their AP European History course (as I know the teacher and course designer).

Having said that, I think you have misread my position slightly on a couple of accounts. In this specific article I am not necessarily indicating that cyber charters schools are bad, I am only indicating that the person being quoted is very selectively using a specific report that also needs to be read with a certain level of doubt.

My position overall concerning cyber charter schools is decidedly cautious. I think that in many instances they have been used by the political right as a way to circumvent the traditional public system. Does this describe all charter or all cyber charter schools? Certainly not. I also know that there have been a number of cyber charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania (and in Ohio) that have misrepresented and misreported data to the state in order to get more funding or claim higher achievement than what was actually happening. Are all cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio like this? Certainly not.

As a former classroom teacher I know that there are some students, at both ends of the spectrum, for whom the traditional school model is simply not an appropriate one for them. Should there be options for these students? Certainly! Has the cyber charter movement always had this noble goal in mind? Certainly not!

Personally, I see online learning as a way to provide opportunities for students who wouldn't normally get those opportunities. My personal focus has been upon the traditional public system and rural school students, but that is largely due to my own background.

So that's my personal position, my bias about cyber charter schools, and what this entry was designed to accomplish.

Now, if I had to guess I'm going to say that you're probably a little to the right of the political spectrum, a believer in charter schools because of school choice, a supporter of vouchers, am I getting warm here? While I doubt I'll ever find out for sure (both because I doubt I'll get a response and I doubt that I'll get the full story if I do get a response), that's my guess. But at least I'm up front about my beliefs and the lens that I use to look at this issue.


2:07 PM  

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