Friday, May 29, 2015

PA: Cyber Whine Party

Pennsylvania cyber charters are Very Sad, because the new governor of the state is threatening to end their long-standing party.

Years ago, a local departing superintendent offered a few words of advice. "If you want to get rich," he said, "go start a cyber school." He was not kidding. For the past decade-plus, running a Pennsylvania cyber charter has been as good as printing money. Despite their abysmal record of academic failure,  Pennsylvania cybers rake in money hand over fist.

There's no big secret to it-- a cyber is paid the full per-capita home district cost of every student it enrolls. If it costs East Bucksawanna $10,500 per child to provide buildings and maintenance and infrastructure and resources and teachers and books and all the rest, then the Gotrox Cyber Acdemy gets that same $10,500, with which it provides the student with a computer (free!!) and access to a teacher or two (each of whom is carrying several hundreds of students).

It's like running a dealership where every customer will pay the purchase price of their last brand new luxury automobile and in return, all you have to give them is some object with wheels.

This has been a point of contention in PA because every cent that goes into cyber coffers comes straight out of public school tax dollars. Every student that a cyber enrolls is a budget cut for public schools, and the cuts are vicious and deep and resulting in loss of programs, closing of schools, and furloughs of teachers. Taxpayers are complaining to public schools, "What the hell did you do with all that money I gave you," and public schools reply, "That guy right over there [pointing at cyber charter] took it, and that guy right over there [pointing at legislator] says I have to let it happen." People are getting pissed off. The baloney about how the money follows the child isn't convincing, because people are now seeing that the child not only takes his own family's money, but the tax dollars from all the neighbors on his street, too.

Cyber charters in PA have created whole new traditions. For instance, a cyber school may test a student to determine if the student has special needs. Why would they care? Perhaps because they get roughly $10K for regular students and $25K for students with special needs.

There's also the tradition of enrollment day, on which guidance counselors and cyber schoolsters sit at their computers and toss students back and forth like hot potatoes on a reverse e-bay. Why? Well, there are two magic dates on the cyber calendar. After one certain date, the school gets to keep the money even if the kid leaves the cyber. After enrollment day, whoever still has the kid has to count that students test scores as their own.

Anyway. Governor Wolf has raised a fun question-- how much does it actually cost to educate a cyber-student? Because shouldn't it cost, you know, less? And if so, why should taxpayers pay more? No other public school (because, like all charters, cybers insist on calling themselves public schools) sets a budget that includes an extra couple of million just to feather the nest.

Wolf has proposed a flat fee-- $5,950. Cybers currently rake in about $400 million; Wolf's numbers would send about $160 million back to public schools (you know-- the schools that taxpayers thought they were funding in the first place). That sound you hear is the sound of cyber school operators whining, loudly.

"If that budget passes, we're going to have to either cut staff and programming, or we're going to have to increase our enrollment," said Kim McCully, the Interim CEO of 21st Century Cyber Charter, headquartered in Downingtown.

I call bullshit. 

21st Century Cyber spends $10,736 per student. 

I call bullshit again. Those statements, if true, mean that 21st Century is the most inefficient, poorly-run excuse for a cyber school ever created. 

"They've made all these conclusions about our school," said McCully, "but they have never, ever reached out to us and said, can we please come look."

I have no way of knowing if that's true in the case of 21st Century. I know that in some cyber-cases, it took some reaching out by federal grand juries to find out how a charter was spending money. Or by lawsuit. Or by another lawsuit. I also know that right now, the PA School Board Association is demanding to see charter schools financials, and charters have dismissed the whole thing as "frivolous." I think we can safely say that PA charters, both cyber and brick, have not been very interested in talking about fair funding. They've got theirs, Jack.

Or at least, they had theirs. Now they are worried. And whiny.

Cyber schools fill some real needs. There are students who are better served by that model than by the traditional set up. Cyber schools have also become a popular way to augment home schooling. But cybers have also become a good way to get out of having to pay one more truancy fine. And we don't talk very much about cyber assignments which, at the end of the day, just have to be completed on the computer at this end, by somebody.

There's a worthwhile discussion to be had about the value of cyberschools and about the many needs they meet. What we don't really need to discuss is how they meet the needs of some people to accumulate giant piles of money at the expense of public schools and Pennsylvania taxpayers. Wolf's proposal is long overdue; let's ee how it holds up against the impending onslaught of lobbyists for the charter biz. If you're in PA, now would be a good time to write to your legislators.


  1. This is a little off-topic, but I wanted to share. I found it via BBC News.
    Vir Das's message for kids with exam results:

  2. I would be interested to know what percent of cyber school graduates go on to attend and graduate from college.