OP-ED: Cyber charter schools are the reassurance every parent, child and taxpayer deserve
Since the pandemic began, Pennsylvania’s public cyber charter schools have fielded more than our typical barrage of negativity from school districts and their advocates.
Our approach is always to embrace criticism as an opportunity to have equitable discussions about how to best empower families to make the most informed decisions regarding the education of their children. We craft our responses carefully with respect for school districts and the role they play. We make full transparency a priority, and we focus not only on the facts, but the facts in proper context.
However, a proper response to Eric Wolfgang’s recent op-ed requires something more. Reassurance.
Op-eds like Mr. Wolfgang’s often utilize fear tactics to stoke opposition against cyber charter education. They talk of unjust use of taxpayer dollars and “schools bleeding cash” at the hands of cyber schools. The last thing anyone needs right now is more fear and worry.
For 20 years and long before COVID, Pennsylvania cyber charter schools were demonstrating our uncompromised dedication to educational excellence by making sure our students have the opportunity to learn and thrive. That’s why I’m writing to reassure parents and taxpayers that cyber charter schools are here to help us move forward from the COVID pandemic, not hold us back.
In fact, we stand ready, as we have offered time and again, to help any school district or charter school build effective distance-learning programs for their students and their faculty.
With specific regard to the misplaced concerns of Mr. Wolfgang’s op-ed, I can’t reassure you enough that cyber charter schools are not costing school districts the hundreds of millions of dollars claimed by Mr. Wolfgang. School districts don’t need new funding to “pay” us when a student opts for cyber charter education, and we don’t impact tax levels.
In fact, for the Central York School District alone, cyber charter schools actually save the district approximately $5,000 for every student we enroll. Remember, each child in Pennsylvania is allotted a dollar amount that “follows” him/her. However, when a student enrolls in a cyber charter school, that school receives only 75% of what a traditional public school gets for that very same student. The balance remains with the school district. Again, in Central York that equates to $5,000 per student remaining in the district even though the district is no longer responsible for educating that student.
The reality is that, on average, total cyber charter tuition payments comprise less than 2% of a district’s budget — not exactly the definition of “bleeding money” that districts cite. And these payments are clearly not a reason to raise school property taxes –– whether a district is allowed to or not.
Lastly, Incomplete soundbites about the academic performance of cyber charters fail to recognize the tireless efforts of dedicated cyber school teachers and staff. Further, they prevent a deeper look into the dynamics behind performance scores.
Students frequently come to our schools a year or more behind academically. Any number of factors — from learning disabilities and bullying to medical challenges and instability in the family — create challenges that cyber charters are uniquely equipped to address. The performance scores often cited reflect the work of students “playing catch up” before our teachers and staff help them achieve academic success.
In fact, standardized testing often rates the success or failure of the home school district rather than the failure(s) of the new charter school. However, when SAT/ACT scores and internal growth assessments are analyzed, Pennsylvania cyber charter schools do quite well. For example, on SAT scores, one of the 14 cyber charter schools is rated No. 1 of all 180 Pennsylvania charter schools and in the top 5% of all Pennsylvania public high schools.
In conclusion, I believe families are not turning to cyber charter schools “in desperation,” but by choice. They have seen our value and the opportunities we give them — opportunities that are not always available, especially right now, from school districts.
As we navigate the pandemic, we are all ready for life to return to normal, but focus must remain on educating students. For PCCSA schools, that means having the singular focus of giving every child equal, affordable access to the type of education that is best for their individual need.
— Jim Hanak is executive director of the Public Cyber Charter School Association and CEO of Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School.