Ten of 15 Cyber Charter Schools in PA Are Operating Without a Charter – Close Them All

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Cyber charter schools are an experiment that failed.

 

 

It’s time to pull the plug and recoup our losses.

 

 

First, let’s get straight exactly what we’re talking about here.

 

 

Like all charter schools, these are contracted institutions. In fact, that’s what charter means – they’re independent businesses that sign a deal with the state to teach kids.

 

 

So they’re publicly financed but privately run. And in the case of cyber charters, they agree to educate children online without the benefit of a physical building.

 

 

Students access lessons via computer or other device, submit work electronically, get virtual feedback and assessment.

 

 

At best, these institutions are the grade school equivalent of the University of Phoenix – good only for independent, self-motivated learners. At worst, they’re the kiddie version of Trump University – a total scam.

 

 

In Pennsylvania, 10 of the state’s 15 cyber charter schools are operating with expired charters, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

That’s incredibly significant – especially for an industry that enrolls about 35,000 students across the state.

 

These are charter schools operating without a charter. They only get the right to operate because a local school district or the state has signed a contract allowing them to do so.

 

If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet, you give him the right to enter your house and do what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean the plumber can walk in anytime he feels like it. There is a limited term of service. Once that term is up, the plumber needs to get out.

 

In the case of these cyber charters, the authorizer is the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).

 

Charters are initially issued for three to five years. They are an essential contract between the schools and the supervisory body. The school details how it will operate, what curriculum and education strategies will be used, etc.

 

 

The state has the option to revoke the charter if the school violates its agreement or fails to meet requirements for student performance or fiscal management.

 

 

After the initial period, charters must be renewed every five years in the state.

 

 

Yet for the majority of the Keystone state’s cyber charter schools, this has not happened. The charter agreements have been left to lapse without any decision being made by state officials to renew or cancel them.

 

 

Some of the reluctance to decide may stem from the fact that the state Charter Appeal Board – the body which decides on appeals of charter applications – are all serving out expired terms, themselves.  They were all appointed by the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, a notable privatization ideologue.

 

 

The current Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat now elected to his second term of office, still hasn’t gotten around to appointing new ones.

 

 

Another issue gumming up the works could be staffing issues at PDE that make it impossible to handle the reviews in a timely manner. It could be because the cyber charter schools have not provided all the data required of them by the state for the review to be completed on time. Or it could be because state officials are struggling with a fair and adequate metric with which to assess these schools.

 

 

CYBER CHARTER’S DISMAL ACADEMIC RECORD

 

 

To be frank, the latter option has to weigh heavily on state auditors. After all, it’s no secret that these schools are an educational disaster. On-line schools in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico are all being closed by their respective states.

 

Study after study consistently shows that cyber charters are much less effective than traditional public schools – heck! They’re even less effective than brick and mortar charter schools!

 

A recent nationwide study by Stanford University found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading instruction than traditional public schools.

 

Keep in mind that there are only 180 days in an average school year. So cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

 

The same study found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

Student-to-teacher ratios average about 30:1 in online charters, compared to 20:1 for brick and mortar charters and 17:1 for traditional public schools.

 

 

Researchers concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.

 

And these results were duplicated almost exactly by subsequent studies from Penn State University in 2016 (enrolling a student in a Pennsylvania cyber charter school is equal to “roughly 90 fewer days of learning in reading and nearly 180 fewer days of learning in math”) and the National Education Policy Center in 2017 (cyber charters “performed significantly worse than feeder schools in both reading and math”).

 

Even the state’s own data shows lower graduation rates and standardized test scores at cyber charters than at traditional public schools.

 

According to a 2015-16 state PDE report, about 86 percent of public school students across the Commonwealth finished high school in four years. During the same time, only about 48 percent of cyber charter school students graduated in four-years.

CYBER CHARTER’S COST TOO MUCH

 

But providing such a poor service to Pennsylvania students is only one reason these schools are problematic. They’re also ruinously expensive.

 

 

They cost taxpayers more than $463 million in 2016-17 alone.

 

The state charter law grants these schools as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, yet their costs are much less having forgone a physical building and all that goes with it.

 

So cyber charters get whatever the local per-pupil expenditure is. It doesn’t matter if a district spends $8,000 on each student or $20,000. Whatever the amount, that goes to the cyber charter.

 

However, the cost of educating kids is drastically reduced online. Their programs are bare bones compared with what you get at a traditional public school. Most online charters don’t have tutors or teacher aides. They don’t offer band, chorus or extra-curricular activities. You don’t have to pay for any building costs, grounds, upkeep, large staff, etc. But the funding formula ignores this completely. Cyber charters get to keep the difference – whatever it is. In fact, they have an incentive to keep as much as possible because they can do almost whatever they want with it. That includes putting it into operators’ pockets as profit!

 

And when it comes to special education funding, it gets worse. In Pennsylvania, our funding formula is so out of whack that charters schools of all stripes including cyber charters often end up with more funding for students with special needs than traditional public schools get. However, because of this loophole in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania online charters have been increasing the number of special education students they enroll and even working to label as many of their students as possible as needing special services on the flimsiest of pretexts.

 

According to a report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), tuition for special education students is often twice as much at cyber charter schools than at traditional public schools.

 

CYBER CHARTER FRAUD

 

Unsurprisingly, these conditions have lead to rampant fraud and malfeasance.

 

Just this past year (2018) the head of the largest cyber charter chain in the state was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from his school into his own pockets.

 

PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta was found guilty of tax fraud in relation to the theft of public funds. He used that money to buy an airplane, a $900,000 condo, houses for his girlfriend and mother, and nearly $1 million in groceries and personal expenses, according to the grand jury. Trombetta allegedly set up numerous for-profit and nonprofit businesses to provide goods and services to the cyber charter. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

 

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She was well known for student test scores and had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

 

It’s no wonder the state has been tardy renewing these schools’ charters!

 

Frankly, there is no good reason to continue lavishing taxpayer dollars on a system of education that provides  subpar services at an exorbitant expense and is subject to runaway fraud.

 

But lawmakers have always been reluctant to do the right thing.

 

After all, there are a slew of wealthy investors who want to make sure the money train of taxpayer dollars keeps flowing to their shady businesses. And lawmakers who enable them are assured hefty campaign contributions.

 

The only chance we have of saving our children from this monstrous abuse of power and saving our wallets from this shameful waste of funding is if voters make their intentions known.

 

The people of Pennsylvania need to stand up and demand an end to the cyber charter school experiment.

 

We need lawmakers with the guts to stand up to big money and rewrite the state’s charter school law.

 

And that’s part of the problem. The law is a joke.

 

It’s more than 20 years old and was only amended once in 2002 to allow cyber charters.

 

Subsequent attempts at requiring more accountability have resulted in horrible compromise bills that would have made the situation much worse and – ultimately – no vote.

 

With Ohio and California, Pennsylvania was in the “big three” cyber-charter states in 2016, accounting for half of cyber charter enrollment nationally, according to the industry’s authorizers’ association. While 35 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time cyber charter schools, eight do not, including neighboring New Jersey.

 

The right course is clear.

 

We just need a people-powered movement to force our lawmakers to do it.

 

Either that or replace them with those who will.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Facebook is Censoring Your Favorite Bloggers

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Have you seen me?

 

Probably not.

 

In fact, you’re probably not even seeing this right now.

 

Though you may have read and enjoyed my articles in the past, though you may still want to have the opportunity to see and enjoy my posts in the future, you probably aren’t seeing them anymore.

 

The reason? Facebook has employed a new algorithm to determine exactly what you’re allowed to see on your news feed.

 

Like a parent or a government censor, they are scanning your content for certain words, judging your posts based on interactions, and otherwise making choices on your behalf without your consent.

 

Unless someone pays them to do otherwise. Then they’ll spam you with nonsense – fake news, lies, propaganda: it doesn’t matter so long as money is changing hands.

 

So homegrown blogs like this one are left in the dust while corporations and lobbyists get a megaphone to shout their ideas across social media.

 

Look, I don’t mean to minimize what Facebook does. There’s a ton of information that comes through the network that COULD be displayed on your screen. The company uses an algorithm – a complex set of steps – to determine exactly what to show you and when. But instead of basing that solely on who you’ve friended and what you’re interested in, they’ve prioritized businesses and shut down the little guy.

 

Since Facebook made the change in January, my blog only gets about 40% of the hits it did in years passed. And I’m not alone. Other edu-bloggers and organizations dedicated to fighting school privatization and standardization are reporting the same problems – our voices are being silenced.

 

And all this is happening after a series of Facebook scandals.

 

After the whole Cambridge Analytica outrage where Facebook gave the data of 87 million users – without their consent – to a political analysis firm that used it to help elect Trump…

 

After Facebook sold more than $100,000 in advertisements to Russian bots in 2016 who used them to spread propaganda to help elect Trump…

 

After enabling the spread of hate speech in Myanmar which allowed the military to engage in “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority – which has forced 700,000 people from their homes and across the border into neighboring Bangladesh…

 

After all that, Facebook still pretends that changing its algorithm is simply a way to crack down on “fake news.”

 

It’s not.

 

They are controlling information.

 

They are policing free expression.

 

They are NOT cracking down on falsehoods and deception.

 

In fact, much of what they’re doing is completely devoid of ideology. It’s business – pure and simple.

 

They’re monetizing the platform. They’re finding new and creative ways to squeeze content providers to gain access to users’ news feeds.

 

This won’t stop propaganda and fabrications. It just charges a fee to propagate them.

 

It’s the same thing that allowed those Russian bots to spread Trump-friendly lies in 2016.

 

It’s pay-to-play. That’s all.

 

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg characterized the change in January of 2018 as prioritizing content from “friends, family and groups.”

 

Zuckerberg admitted this means it will be harder for brands and publishers to reach an audience on the social media platform – unless they pay for the privilege. That’s significant because even though organic reach had been diminishing for some time, this is the first time the company admitted it.

 

Zuckerberg wrote:

 

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard—it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

 

What are “meaningful interactions”?

 

Apparently, what the company calls active interactions are more important than passive ones. So commenting and sharing is more important than just liking something.

 

In practice that means if you comment on someone’s post, you’re more likely to see things by that person in the future. And if they respond to your comment, their post gets seen by even more people.

 

Reactions matter, too, as does the intensity of those reactions. If people take the time to hit “Love” for a post, it will be seen by more people than if they hit “Like.” But whatever you do, don’t give a negative reaction like “Sad” or “Angry.” That hurts a post’s chances of being seen again.

 

I know it’s weird. If someone shares a sad story about their mother with cancer, the appropriate response is a negative reaction. But doing so will increase the chances the post will be hidden from other viewers. Facebook wants only happy little lab rats.

 

Sharing a post helps it be seen, but sharing it over messenger is even better. And just sharing it is not enough. It also needs to be engaged in by others once you share it.

 

Video is also prioritized over text – especially live video. So pop out those cell phone cameras, Fellini, because no one wants to read your reasoned argument against school privatization. Or they may want to, but won’t be given a chance. Better to clutter up your news feed with auto-playing videos about your trip to Disneyworld. I suppose us, social justice activists, need to become more comfortable with reading our stuff on camera.

 

And if you do happen to write something, be careful of the words you use to describe it. The algorithm is looking for negative words and click bait. For example, if you ask readers to like your posts or comment, that increases the chances of Facebook hiding it from others. And God forbid you say something negative even about injustice or civil rights violations. The algorithm will hide that faster than you can say “Eric Garner.” So I guess try to be positive when writing about inequality?

 

Do you happen to know someone famous or someone who has a lot of Facebook followers? If they engage in your posts, your writing gets seen by even more folks. It’s just like high school! Being seen with the cool kids counts.

 

One of the best things readers can do to make sure they see your content is having them follow you or your page. But even better is to click the “Following” tab and then select “See First.” That will guarantee they see your posts and they aren’t hidden by the algorithm.

 

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I know. I know.

 

This is all kind of silly, but Facebook is a private corporation. It should be allowed to control speech however it likes. Right?

 

Wrong.

 

The social media giant collects a ton of data about its users and sells that to advertisers. As a user, you have to make that Faustian bargain in order to gain free access to the platform. However, as we’ve seen, that data can be used by political organizations for nefarious ends. Private business cannot be trusted with it.

 

Moreover, there is the echo chamber effect. Facebook controls what users see. As such, the company has tremendous power to shape public opinion and even our conception of reality. This used to be the province of a free and independent press, but after media conglomeratization and shrinking advertising revenues, our press has become a shadow of its former self.

 

In order to maintain a democratic system that is not under the sway of any one party, faction or special interest group, it is essential that social media providers like Facebook become public utilities.

 

It must be regulated and free from manipulation by those who would use it for their own ends.

 

The way things are going, this seems more unlikely than ever.

 

Our democracy is a fading dream. Fascism is on the rise.

 

But if we want even a chance of representative government, we need to reclaim social media for ourselves. We need control over what we get to see on Facebook – whether that be a school teacher’s blog or your cousin’s muffin recipe.

 

In the meantime, do what you can to take back your own news feed.

 

If you want to keep seeing this blog, follow me on Facebook and click “See First.” Hit “Love” on my content. Comment and share.

 

The only thing standing in our way right now is a brainless computer algorithm. We can outsmart it, if we work together.

 

Hope to be seeing you again real soon.

Killing Net Neutrality Would Muzzle Many Teacher-Activists 

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As a blogger, I’m a big fan of net neutrality.

If the communications giants get to favor or block particular Websites, people-powered blogs like this one probably would become isolated and irrelevant.

As it stands, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to vote Dec. 14 to undo strict regulations on Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon that stops them from slowing down or blocking any sites, apps, or otherwise deciding which content gets to users faster.

If the Republican controlled five-member committee votes as expected, it would muzzle free speech.

It would effectively stifle hundreds, thousands of grassroots activists who’ve taken to the Web to educate and protest against the plutocracy strangling our democratic freedoms.

Think about it.

Close your eyes and imagine a United States where you couldn’t access your favorite Websites without paying a fee or – as in China – maybe even at all.

Want to know why standardized testing is harming our children and their schools? Sorry. That costs extra.

Want to know why Betsy Devos’ latest plan to give your tax dollars to Roy Moore’s Christian Fundamentalist Middle School and Dating Center endangers child welfare? Sorry. That information is no longer available.

Sure, you could probably look it up in the library and find it in a book, but that requires a complete change in how we consume media.

Most of us get our news on-line. We don’t read paper newspapers or glossy photo-print magazines. Books, when we read them, are often occasional pleasures or e-texts.

Searching out such material would take a paradigm shift back to the way we used to do things 10 or 20 years ago. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be onerous.

Remember traveling everywhere with a pile of books weighing down your bag, or a newspaper and magazines folded under your arm? People seeking such information would really need to want it.

Moreover, articles published in this way would almost surely become out of date quickly at least in regards to particulars. You can easily write something about the evils of charter and voucher schools in general that will be true for years if not decades, but it won’t as easily apply to individual charter and voucher schools by the time it’s published and been on the shelf for a while.

Additionally, writing and publishing such articles would become increasingly more difficult. Unless individuals or groups of activists bought up archaic printing presses or somehow funded mass media campaigns at Kinko’s and there were likewise an as yet undiscovered distribution engine that could disperse such periodicals across the country and the world – unless all of that, the resistance would be relegated to mostly scholarly tomes.

Take it from me: writing a book is not easy.

I just published my first volume of some of my best blog articles for Garn Press called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

I am embarrassingly proud of it, but this would not work for everyday activism.

Even though most of the articles were already written, it took a team of us months to revise them, insert end notes, edit, format, design a cover, market and all the other multidinous things that go into the process.

Whereas, with a blog, I can just write it and press “publish.”

The result isn’t as neat. It isn’t as error-proof. There’s bound to be spelling and grammar problems. It doesn’t pack nearly the authoritative punch. —But it’s so topical and subversive that it can slice through steel.

Campbell Brown can’t publish a billionaire-funded diatribe against those greedy teachers and their damn unions and their precious tenure without an army of teachers taking to the Web and showing her the error of her ways.

Bill Gates can’t send his well-paid trolls off to write op-eds praising Common Core without a grassroots tsunami of educators, parents and students responding with scores of counternarratives throughout the blogosphere.

And it’s net neutrality that allows us to do it.

The democratization of information made possible by the free Internet has greatly empowered the voices of the wise but penurious.

You no longer need a printing press or a think tank or a media empire to get information before the public.

Sure this means that even the lunatic fringe gets a voice in the conversation that is American culture, but it also allows ideas to win or lose based more on merit than money.

If enough people share an article on-line, it gets read. People see it. They know it.

False information is eventually found out, disproven and neutralized. But a factually-based critique of bad policy? That can move mountains. It can change the world.

And it has!

Think of how even neoliberal policymakers have rushed to claim they’re in favor of reducing standardized testing. Longtime standardization supporters like former President Barack Obama had to distance themselves from their own policies or face the torches and pitchforks of moms and dads everywhere.

Think of how Democratic and Republican partisans clamored over each other to denounce Common Core. Heck! The movement was so successful President Donald Trump even jumped on the bandwagon and used it as a rallying cry to help install himself in office.

And think of how the reaction to Trump’s dismal and dimwitted Education Secretary, Devos, caused a stampede away from school vouchers and even to some extent charter schools. Even longtime champions of privatization like Jeb Bush and Cory Booker are afraid to offer even a tentative thumbs up for fear of the Web’s blitzkrieg of Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and other shade.

None of this would be possible without the Internet and the blogosphere.

None of this would be possible without net neutrality.

It’s no wonder Trump and his cronies want to destroy it. The open communication and debate on the Internet is a clear and present danger to his policies.

It is dangerous to the neoliberals and conservative fascists alike.

Though the movement fighting against corporate education reform has been rightly critical of unlimited technology for technology’s sake in our classrooms, that same confederation owes a great debt to technology for its current power.

We meet on Facebook and plan actions to be conducted IRL – In Real Life. Groups like the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education and United Opt Out use the technology to spread truth and question authority.

If the life line of net neutrality is severed, so will much of our activist networks.

I know we’re all concerned about competency based education, Teach for America and toxic testing, but we have to make room for net neutrality, too.

The 99% rely on it for the free exchange of ideas and the unhindered expression of our speech.

If the Trump administration crushes that venue, it will seriously weaken our ability to resist.

So before that day comes, exercise your rights.

Raise your voice for net neutrality – before it’s too late.


 

Please go to www.gofccyourself.com and urge the FCC to keep Net Neutrality.