The Pennsylvania Department of Education has the opportunity to make a meaningful New Year's resolution when it comes to raising standards for performance and accountability.
Across the commonwealth, public school districts face unprecedented financial and structural challenges, leading many -- including Pittsburgh's -- to drain reserves, furlough staff and end proven, research-based programs. Yet one sector of public education is burgeoning, due in part to a lack of sufficient regulation by the state and a funding system that creates incentives for rapid growth.
More than 30,000 students attend Pennsylvania's 16 cyber charter schools, four of which are new this year. With eight more cyber charter applications before the Department of Education, the sector's footprint could go up by as much as 50 percent in the span of just six months.
In a state where changes in education policy normally assume a cautious pace, this rapid growth should be reason enough for leaders to tap the brakes. But given the questions concerning the academic and operational performance of cyber charter schools, there is a clear need for a time-out on further approvals.
For more than two decades, the central organizing principles of education reform -- nationally and in Pennsylvania -- have been clear standards for performance and accountability for results. Against these markers, most of Pennsylvania's cyber charter schools don't measure up.
Based on a review of state data for 2011-2012, just one of 12 cyber charter schools met state academic thresholds for adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, while eight schools landed in one of several stages of "corrective action" -- the lowest level of academic progress. Indeed, a 2011 report by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes that examined Pennsylvania charter schools found that "performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick-and-mortar charters."
These results come at a heavy price: Under current law, payments to cyber charter schools are based on the per-pupil cost to educate a student in his or her home school district -- costs that include staffing a physical classroom; lighting, heating and cleaning buildings; and maintaining school grounds. The result: substantial revenue for cyber charter operators that support extensive marketing efforts to accelerate enrollment gains and drive profits.
K-12, the largest company in the online school space, reported a 14-percent increase in revenue nationally -- totaling $221.1 million -- in the first quarter of the 2013 fiscal year. According to the auditor general, reforming the payment system to base cyber charter funding on a national average for the actual instructional costs of cybers would save Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $100 million annually -- enough to restore vital funding for critical programs.
In addition to the concerns about performance and funding, there are simple questions of checks and balances that should concern every taxpayer and parent. Education policy in Pennsylvania is based on a tradition of local control: duly elected school boards, transparency in decision-making and ample opportunities for citizen input. Cyber charter schools, however, are evaluated and approved by Department of Education officials who aren't directly accountable to voters. And there is significant evidence that cyber schools, once approved, are rarely monitored in a coherent or comprehensive way. For example, the last state-level review of cyber charter schools occurred 11 years ago, although the state did push for one school to surrender its charter this past school year. If past is prologue, the department's oversight will continue to flag as shrinking staff is asked to keep watch over an ever-increasing number of cyber schools.
A good principle in life and in public policy is that when you find yourself in a hole, quit digging. Pennsylvania's current roster of cyber charter schools is costing school districts and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year while delivering results that lag far behind state standards and the performance of other public schools, including traditional charters.
While parents deserve flexibility in determining educational plans for their children, the Department of Education and state lawmakers should halt approvals of cyber charter schools until questions concerning their operations, performance and costs can be more definitively answered.
Adam Schott is a senior policy analyst at Research for Action, a nonprofit organization that studies and works to reform education policy (firstname.lastname@example.org). He also is a former executive director of the State Board of Education.