Pennsylvania is a playground for cyber-charters, and many cybers have been happy to play there (at considerable cost to local districts). And child advocates have noticed an issue that affects a small number of students in critical ways.
I want to be clear before we get into this-- we're talking about a systemic problem, but also an issue that appears exceptionally rarely.
According to an early-June report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh School's solicitor Ira Weiss and pediatrician Mary Carrasco talked about the issue of reporting truancy after the beating death of Donovan McKee, an eleven-year-old who attended a cyber-charter. Since that case, two more children have died in similar cases.
Carrasco notes that one of things that cyber schools do not have are mandatory reporters. If a child shows up in my classroom with questionable bruises, I am required by law to pass that on to my boss and/or file a report with the state. Cyber teachers, of course, cannot. This leaves a small but scary loophole. As Carrasco tells the PPG:
“I’m not suggesting that every child in cyber charter school is at risk, but there are kids who are taken out of regular school precisely because the parents don’t want someone to see them and that’s a problem,” said Dr. Carrasco, also a member of the child death review team in Allegheny County.
That is not an easy loophole to plug-- but part of it can be addressed, and Carrasco,Weiss and State Representative Dom Costa have been trying to address the truancy piece with some legislation requiring cyber charters to deal more aggressively with truancy. In a PA school, three unexcused absences will get you an official call and a report sent up the chain of school administrator command; in more aggressive districts, even one absence will get you a phone call home. Even small schools districts such as mine employ a truancy officer.
We think of truancy in terms of getting those darn kids to school, but it's also an issue of making sure that the child does not disappear through the cracks. If Donovan McKee had been in a public school, either his repeated abuse would have been noted and reported, or his continued absence would have been followed up on.
Truancy in cyber school is an issue. Attendance is taken simply enough-- students have to log in each day. Of course, to be exact, somebody has to put in the child's login name and password. But even when students are reported absent, all the cybers are required to do is pass an over-three-day absence report to the home district.
The proposed amendment would require cyber teachers to notify their administrator and basically put the requirement to enforce truancy laws on the cyber charter. This is not unheard of-- Minnesota actually implemented a fairly aggressive anti-cyber-truancy program years ago. And Pennsylvania cybers are not unsympathetic to the need.
Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of
Public Charter Schools, reports that many charter operators get it, and "welcome that kind of accountability and authority." But they are concerned that this give cybers more work to do just as the state is getting ready to cut charter revenue.
“The problem is there’s an increased responsibility while cutting resources,” he said.
He should probably not try that plea for sympathy around any public school employees, who have regularly acquired more responsibilities even as Fayfich's members are busily sucking the blood out of public schools. I think I speak for all public school employees when I say, "Big frickin' waaah."
Forcing Pennsylvania cybers to deal with truancy more immediately, directly and effectively would be better for everyone. It does cybers no good to be known as a haven for truants and slackers, and yet there is a small but significant sliver of cyber-school sign-ups that are about a frustrated parent or student who don't to deal with truancy officers and fines any more.
I cannot say this enough-- I have absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of cyber school parents are NOT child abusers or even just truancy enablers. But clearly there are steps we can take in Pennsylvania to better involve cyber-charters in the critical work of keeping students safe and accountable.