Tuesday, September 28, 2021

PA: Cyber School 101

As is often the case in education, some people are just now noticing something that's been going on for a while. In this case, it's the financially destructive and educationally suspect nature of cyber schooling. So I'm going to try to collect the basics here in one post, suitable for sharing with anyone who's just arrived at the party.

Before we start, let me add the usual caveat--cyber schools (or "virtual schools" as they're sometimes called) are a great option for a non-zero number of students. Anecdotally, you can always find a kid for whom cyber education worked. But we're going to look at the larger picture, and there are issues. Sooo many issues.

The basics. A cyber school is a privately operated charter school that exists as an online connection. Students typically are given a "free" computer, and do their school work by logging in and completing lessons online. An online teacher, out there somewhere, checks the student work and may provide some instructional support. In Pennsylvania, a parent can place their child in cyber school at any time for any reason. Reasons range from a program that fits the student needs to a parent who's tired of being threatened with a truancy fine. Many districts also use cyber schools for "credit recovery" aka make-up classes to get enough credits to graduate. Students typically average only two years in cyber school, with many either returning to their home district or just never graduating at all.

Cyber schools are paid with public tax dollars, typically "billing" the student's home district. The costs are huge--Pennsylvania reimburses cybers based on the student's home district's per-pupil costs, and not what it actually costs to educate students via online school. In most districts, a "regular" student might land in the $10-15K range; Tom Wolf's proposal, from reality-based numbers, would give cybers a flat fee of $5,950.  (The numbers are even worse when you look at special needs students, but that's a rabbit hole for another day).

Taxpayers are massively overpaying for bad cyber schooling in PA. The profit margins are huge; cyber charters are rolling in money, while districts get clobbered and research suggesting that poorer districts get clobbered most of all. The cost in tax dollars is huge; in 2016-2017, $463 million in taxpayer dollars went to Pennsylvania cyber charters.

Cyber charters are largely founded and operated by businessmen, not educators. K12 (now Stride), one of the cyber giants, was founded by a Goldman-Sachs investment banker and funded by junk bond king and convicted felon Michael Milken. (K12, like several players in the field, has been caught misbehaving multiple times.) Another major cyber chain is a sub-business of Pearson, the textbook publishing company. 

Results? The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University generally favors charters and choice, but their research results about cyber schools is pretty harsh. Cybers were found not just to be weaker than the home school in academics, leaving students half a year behind in English and a full year behind in math*-- in effect, a student would be just as far ahead to stay home and play video games for a year. In Pennsylvania, no cyber charter has ever met the state PSSA or Keystone testing benchmarks for academic performance

The picture is so bad that in 2016, the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers--people whose whole business is to promote charters--issued a report saying that virtual charters were in big trouble.

Back then, there were 135 cybers operating with 180,000, with the majority in the big three states for cybers-- California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One quarter of the cybers enrolled 80% of all cyber students, meaning that most cyber students were in "schools" of over 1,000 students. Student-teacher ratios in cyber schools can get pretty high, though cybers tend to be pretty coy about the actual numbers.

There are operational issues. Student attendance is just a matter of logging in each day. More can be done--Minnesota actually implemented an aggressive and effective cyber-truancy program. But in PA, we're not doing it.

Oversight of charters is minimal. When Nicholas Trombetta used Pennsylvania Cyber School to funnel $8 million tax dollars to himself, it was federal authorities and not the state that finally caught him. Two years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer discovered that of Pennsylvania's 15 cyber charters, 10 were operating with expired charters. Cybers are not even subjected to audits. Multiple attempts have been made by members of both parties to tighten the rules so that cyber charters would be subject to, at least, the same rules as everyone else. But cyber charters lobby hard, and spend plenty of money in Harrisburg (a national pattern). Some states are pushing back against bad cybers, but in PA, there's still no progress.

The pandemic has, of course, given a big boost to cyber enrollment, and they are not above using anti-mask panic to help lift their numbers. Pennsylvania districts do have an option to try to stem the cost-- they can set up their own in-house cyber school, which has the dual benefit of keeping the money in the district and keeping students from falling too far behind academically. 

It's a mess, and it's draining small rural districts like the ones in my area. I often share this factoid--almost ten years ago, my old district closed an elementary school in hopes of saving about $800K. Their cyber school costs that year? About $800K. And to add insult to injury, as school boards try to deal with this large (and unpredictable) loss of revenue by cutting programs, the public slams them for doing a bad job of managing taxpayer money. This primer is for those folks. 

*Measuring education in years and months is extreme oversimplification, but I'm trying to keep things simple here. 

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