To Senator Scott Hutchinson and Rep. R. Lee James
Dear Scott and R. Lee:
It is long past time to regulate the cyber charter school industry in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps you saw the news yesterday that Nicholas Trombetta finally pled guilty to federal tax conspiracy charges. Trombetta was the founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Beaver County, a business that he used to steal at least $8 million dollars of Pennsylvania taxpayer money and spend it on things like a condo and an airplane as well as finance various real estate deals.
This was done with money that came from taxpayers, but money that was intended for schools. As you both know from your own home districts, many school districts have been hard hit by cyber charter tuition payments, prompting lost programs and closed buildings to help deal with financial struggles. It is adding insult to injury to see that some of those dollars did not go to educate students in another school, but to finance some charter operator's condo.
You may well ask, "Well, isn't it worth some risk if the cyber charters do a good job?" But at this point, we know they don't. A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO), a research group that is generally in favor of education reform, found that cyber charters have an "overwhelmingly negative impact" on student achievement, finding that a year in a cyber charter left math students 180 days-- a full year-- behind their peers.
You may hear from charter advocates and lobbyists (of which there are apparently many in Harrisburg) that any oversight of cyber charters will stifle creativity or business flexibility. But even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has released a report calling for tighter controls and more accountability for cyber charters.
The time has long passed for cyber charter accountability. Governor Wolf's recent call for charter accountability is nothing more than a requirement that taxpayer dollars that flow to charters be given the same oversight than the taxpayer dollars that flow to public schools. As a taxpayer, I can walk into my local school district office and demand a look at the budget. What a public school district does with taxpayer dollars is public information. Why should cyber charters not have to similarly account for the use of tax dollars? Tax dollars used by a public school enter a transparent fishbowl, while tax dollars used by cyber charters enter a black box. Why?
The cyber industry has actively fought any kind of accountability. In Ohio, cyber charter operator ECOT is suing the state to keep from having its attendance audited. In Pennsylvania, cyber charters complained when their revenue stream was threatened, but have made no offers for greater transparency or accountability.
The cyber charter industry of Pennsylvania is a financial drag on public schools, and provides no value or accountability for the tax dollars it collects. Oversight is so lax that the industry is ripe for exactly the sort of corruption that we saw acknowledged yesterday-- and that was in a federal, not a state, court.
It is time for Pennsylvania to hold cyber charters at least as accountable as they hold traditional public schools-- and not as part of some bill that gives cyber charters more freedom to grow in exchange for the appearance of accountability. It is time for taxpayers to be able to see what cyber charters do with the money that is taken from local school districts. It is time.
Note to any of my PA readers-- you can contact your legislator through this website. If you can't think of what to say, feel free to cut and paste from here.