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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Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

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Sometimes it seems that education policy is nothing but a series of scams and frauds that becomes untenable in one generation only to pop up again 10 or 20 years later with a new name.

 

Take Personalized Learning, the latest digital product from the ed-tech industry to invade your local public school.

 

It’s cutting edge stuff.

 

Except that it isn’t.

 

It’s just the same old correspondence school nonsense of the 1980s thrown onto an iPad or a laptop.

 

It was crap back then, and it’s crap today.

 

But it sounds nice.

 

Personalized Learning.

 

I like that.

 

That’s exactly the kind of educational experience I want for my own daughter.

 

I’d like her schooling to be tailor-made for her. Teach her in a way she can best understand and that will best engage her mind and build upon her competencies.

 

However, that’s not what Personalized Learning means.

 

It’s a euphemism for Competency Based Education or Outcome Based Education.

 

It means plopping a child in front of a computer screen for hours on end while she takes standardized tests and standardized test look-alikes on-line.

 

Cartoon avatars lecture students how to answer multiple-choice questions in mind numbing detail before making them go through endless drill-and-kill practice. If kids don’t get a question right, they do it again-and-again until they do.

 

And somehow this is personalized?

 

I’ll give you a little tip. You can’t have personal learning without people.

 

This is personalized the same way Angry Birds and Candy Crush is personalized. Except it’s way less fun – and much higher stakes.

 

Imagine if all of your classes were taught at the end of an automated help line. That’s really what this is:

 

“If you don’t understand because you need me to define a word, press 1.

 

If you don’t understand because you need me to explain punctuation, press 2.

 

If you don’t understand because you need the question repeated…”

 

What if your question isn’t on the menu? You have no recourse other than to just keep pushing buttons until you hit the one that’s supposedly “correct”.

 

Forget for a moment how ineffective that is. Just imagine how boring it is for a growing child.

 

Nothing stifles a young person’s natural curiosity more than being forced to suffer through hours of tedium.

 

And what’s worse, we already know this.

 

We’ve tried this kind of garbage before with similar results.

 

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on, especially education.

 

This opened the floodgates to for-profit corporations to offer mail order correspondence courses with little to no accountability but funded by the federal government.

For nearly a decade, student aide systems were systemically pillaged and looted by unscrupulous vendors offering correspondence schools as a trendy alternative for trade schools and credit recovery programs. They charged hefty tuition and fees for nothing more than sending students boilerplate instructional materials, multiple choice tests, and worthless diplomas in the mail.

 

The blatant fraud was documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the hearings held by then-Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. This lead to eliminating correspondence schools from participation in federal aide programs.

 

Congress realized that sending students a book wasn’t the same as actually teaching them.

 

But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, things began to change. With the popularization of the Internet, the defunct business model could rebrand itself simply by offering similar materials on-line. And after significant lobbying efforts over the subsequent decades, Congress conveniently forgot its objections to almost the same kind of fraud.

 

However, this kind of malfeasance was at first mostly confined to credit recovery programs and on-line colleges. In K-12 this was primarily a way for students who had already failed a grade to pass the required core courses over the summer on-line. It was a way to boost graduation rates or even provide resources for students to get a G.E.D.

 

The poor quality of these programs has been demonstrated time and again.

 

But instead of limiting, fixing or eliminating them, we’re pushing them into the public school system.

 

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

 

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

 

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

 

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

 

In effect, the year-end high stakes test can be entirely forgotten. Students are given a standardized test every day. Even those whose parents opt them out of the federal assessment have no escape because the tests have become the curriculum, itself.

 

And all the while tech companies are raking in the cash.

 

Education policy is not concerned with how best to teach children. It is about how best to open the trough of tax dollars to education corporations – book publishers, test manufacturers and now tech companies.

 

Meanwhile, the public has almost no idea what’s going on.

 

Educators are sounding the alarm, but well-paid corporate shills are trying to silence them as being anti-progress.

 

Calling out bad educational practices conducted on a computer is not Ludditism. Certainly there are better ways to use the technology to help students learn than THIS.

 

Moreover, there are plenty of things from the ‘80s that deserve being revisited – new wave music, romantic comedies, even the old Rubik’s cube.

 

But putting crappy correspondence colleges on-line!?

 

No, thank you.