Wednesday, January 22, 2020

PA: Another Bill To Take Down, Sort Of, Cyber Charters

Rep. Curt Sonney is a GOP top dog in the Pennsylvania Education Committee, and he's never been known as a close friend of public schools. But he represents Erie, a district that has been absolutely gutted by school choice, so maybe that's why he has spent the last couple of years nipping at the heels of Pennsylvania's thriving cyber charter industry.

Harrisburg just had hearings on his latest proposal, a bill that he first announced last October and which has something for virtually everyone to hate.

Pennsylvania cyber schools are an absolute mess, barely covered by laws that never anticipated such a thing and protected by a massive pile of money thrown both at lobbying and campaign contributions.

The cybers do offer a service that is useful for some students (I personally know of one such case). But they also provide a quick exit for parents who don't want to deal with truancy issues or other disciplinary problems. Their results are generally very poor (none have ever been ranked proficient on the Big Standardized Test), and state oversight is so lousy that many were allowed to continue operating for years without ever having renewed their charters.

But what really has drawn the wrath of even people who don't pay much attention to education policy is that they are expensive as hell. Because the charter laws didn't really anticipate this cyber-development, cyber-charters are paid at the same rate as a brick-and-mortar charter. So an individual student may bring in $10-$20K, but costs the cyber charter the price of one computer, one printer, and 1/250th of an on-line teacher. The profit margin is huge, but so is the cost to local districts, with poorer districts in the state being hit the worst.

A year ago, there was a bill floating around Harrisburg to change the game-- if a local district opened a cyber-school, then any families that wanted to send their kid to an out-of-district cyber would have to foot the bill themselves.

The bill (HB 1897) is a bit involved, and we'll go digging in a moment, but the two headline items are this: all cyber-charters will be shut down, and all school districts will offer cyber education. Now, to look for some of those devilish details.

The timeline is nuts. The bill requires districts to have a full cyber education plan developed and submitted to the state by November of 2020. This pretty well guarantees that the plans will be a rush job for some districts, though many already have some sort of cyber-learning thingy in place. I appreciate the need for speed, but this is the kind of process that guarantees that some districts will be submitting paperwork-satisfying plans that don't necessarily have anything to do with reality. But all of that can be brought up at the public hearing required locally within 60 days of submitting the plan.

In addition to their own cyber-school, districts must also "provide provide students with the option to
participate in at least two alternative full-time cyber education programs." Those two programs must be provided by a third-party vendor. Why? Well, the cynical answer would be that this throws the cyber-charter industry a bone in the hopes that its lobbyists won't descend in numbers that blot out the Harrisburg sun. "Yes, I know we shut down your school, but there are now 500 districts that must hire cyber-providers for 1000 programs, so, you know-- ka-ching, and you're welcome." In fact, buried further down the bill, is explicit permission for the dissolved cybers to go ahead and do that.

There is a student-teacher ration requirement-- 25:1 for elementary and 30:1 for secondary. The state may waive this if the secretary is convinced that a higher ratio "will not adversely impact the academic quality of the program." Okay, question-- does that mean that if the program is lousy, it can have a waiver because a 150:1 ratio won't make it any lousier? Just asking.

All staff have to be properly certified-- an excellent protection for students in the program.

If a district pulls 20% of its students into cyber-education, it shall establish a cyber-school. It has the discretion to do this even if it doesn't meet the 20% mark.

It lays out the items that may be included in those third-party vendor contracts, which sets those vendors up to have at least some level of transparency. And those contracts will be available to the public (as are all such records in a public school system) and not kept secret (as in a charter school).

If a student is habitually truant, that student will be bounced out of the cyber-progam and not allowed to re-enter for two years.

Students can't be required to enroll in the cyber.

The department will offer some guidelines and "best practices" stuff to help districts set this all up. And there will be a state cyber-advisory committee. Those third-party vendors get a rep on this, but not anyone from an actual district.

And then the part about all cyber-charters being dissolved. They would be done at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Cyber-schools and cyber-student parents are freaking out about this, deploying op-eds wit varying degrees of accuracy and half-truthiness. But cyber charter operators are being offered a sweet market of captive customers. My numbers earlier were not exaggerations-- Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, so the law would call for 1,000 cyber-education programs to be run by third-party vendors. And seriously-- who but the companies that have been running cyber-charters will be ready to operate as third-party cyber-vendors within a year? Okay-- fun wrinkle, universities and other school districts are allowed to be third-party vendors, too. But cyber-school management companies will still have a leg up.

So what is there for the cyber-charters not to like? They will be forced to work with public school districts instead of around them, and they'll be forced to operate with more transparency than they're used to, and they'll have to hire more staff, and they will probably have to give up some of that tremendous profit margin they enjoy (although the bill is not super-clear about the money side of things). So, okay-- plenty.

For public schools, the biggest head scratcher is the need to offer three cyber-education programs.

Will this be the bill that finally does something about cyber-charters in Pennsylvanmia? Maybe, maybe not. It is one more sign that legislators are understanding more and more that cyber-charters have a huge funding and accountability problem. Let's see what they come up with next.

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