Pennsylvania withholds OK for 8 cyber charter schools

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All eight statewide cyber charter school applications have been rejected, a decision that comes as legislators debate charter school funding and existing cyber schools have taken a hit for missing state academic goals.

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis announced the decision Monday, citing deficiencies in each application and calling into question what a cyber charter school really is.

"An additional factor in the denials is that many of the applicants proposed to use learning centers in a way that blurred the line between a brick-and-mortar and cyber charter school," the department's news release stated.

One trend in education -- among regular public and charter schools alike -- is blended education, which combines face time with cyber time.

Some of the state's existing 16 cyber charter schools have added opportunities for face-to-face instruction, such as in-person tutoring centers. Under the state charter school law, cyber charter schools must offer a "significant" portion of their programs through the Internet or other electronic means. They cannot require students to attend in person, with some exceptions such as state testing.

Asked about the use of learning centers by existing schools, Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said, "It depends on the cyber charter's intent with learning centers -- whether it's a supplement to the education program or it's a substitute for brick-and-mortar schools."

The eight can make changes and seek reconsideration or appeal to the state Charter Appeal Board.

In a statement announcing the rejections, Mr. Tomalis said, "The proposals submitted by the applicants lack adequate evidence and sufficient information of how prospective students would be offered quality academic programs.

"In addition, the financial plans presented call into question each applicant's ability to maintain a long-term, viable educational program for the benefit of Pennsylvania students."

The rejected applicants are:

• Akoben Cyber Charter School, Philadelphia, which previously applied successfully for an African-centered program and revised that application.

• Insight PA Cyber Charter School, Delaware County, which would be operated by Pennsylvania Community Partners in Education in Philadelphia, focusing on at-risk students.

• MB Resiliency Cyber Charter School, Philadelphia, which lists its contact as Shalom Inc., planned to provide an "emotionally supportive environment."

• Mercury Online Cyber Charter School, Dauphin County, which would offer teacher-led live webinars as well as asynchronous learning.

• Pennsylvania Career Path Cyber Charter School, Lehigh County, connected with the Hispanic American Organization, aims to reach at-risk, minority and low-income students.

• PHASE 4 America Cyber Charter School, Allegheny County, which has as its president and CEO Terrie Suica-Reed, who helped to found Phase 4 Learning Center Inc., which operates in the Pittsburgh area, Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

• Urban Cyber Charter School, York County, which planned to combine cyber and face-to-face education and partner with the YWCA to offer satellite locations and to set up hubs for optional tutoring and networking with University Companies Family of Schools.

• V3 Cyber Charter School, Dauphin County, which would include vocational technical education and give "the opportunity for traditional learning when geographically possible."

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said he didn't know details of the applications but thinks the department is trying to set "fair and consistent high quality standards for applicants."

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, said, "In addition to the specific comments and reasons cited by the secretary, it's important to note that currently there are significant questions being raised by state policy-makers about the efficacy of cyber charter schools generally and certainly about the way they are funded."

Last week, Republicans in the house proposed changes in the way charter schools are funded. Currently, the home school district pays a fee set by the state for each student. The fee is the same whether the school is a cyber or other charter school. There is disagreement over whether cyber schools cost less to operate and should be paid less.

Also last week, the state released recalculated results showing that no cyber charter schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2012.

More than 30,000 students were enrolled in cyber charter schools statewide last school year. For information on the applications and denials: www.pde.state.pa.us.

education - mobilehome - homepage - state

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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