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A Clash On Cyber Charters Kicks Off Fall Legislative Session In Harrisburg

The Pennsylvania State Capitol dome.
Matt Rourke

Stefaine D’Amico says her oldest son Bobby was bullied relentlessly at the public and Catholic schools he’d attended.

“The bullying just took over. That’s all he cared about,” she said. “He would go to school and sit there like, ‘Oh my god are they looking at me? Are they gonna say something?’”

For sixth grade, the Delaware County mom decided to send Bobby to a cyber charter school, where he could learn online from home.

She says the cyber school has been a godsend, providing Bobby the refuge needed to focus on academics. He’s now a senior and he’s thriving, D’Amico says, who has also enrolled her other two children in cyber charters.

On the other side of the state, Beth Pacoe, also a mother of three, had a much different experience. The family had tried public and private schools in Pittsburgh but didn’t like either.

She hoped cyber school would be the right fit for her son Preston.

Preston, like Bobby, started at a cyber charter school in sixth grade, but he left after just a few months. Distance learning required too much independence, Pacoe says. And she ended up having to hover over him to ensure he did the work.

“I was playing bad cop all the time,” she said.

Public school superintendents say they see this dynamic too often. Families leave for a cyber charter and return in a few months or a couple of years. Returning kids, they often claim, come back months or years behind academically.

A recent study by researchers out of Stanford University found that the typical cyber school student in Pennsylvania fared far worse on state tests than students with similar demographics who went to public schools.

Pacoe thinks cyber school can work for some kids, but she’d like to see tighter regulations and worries about the impact on funding for traditional public schools.

“I really do feel ambivalent about the funding issue,” she said.

As lawmakers in Pennsylvania return to Harrisburg this week, it’s stories like these that will fuel what’s expected to be one of the capitols’ biggest debates this fall. Amid a larger push by Gov. Tom Wolf to reform charter school policy, a bipartisan interest has grown to amend the rules and funding methods of cyber charters.

How it works

Public school districts must send a tuition payment each time a student in their area enrolls in cyber charter school. Those costs can add up, and even rural school districts — often represented by Republican lawmakers who ideologically support school choice — are taking note.

“Superintendents are getting increasingly frustrated with trying to make ends meet each year when the cost continues to go up for cyber schools,” said Ed Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.

There are about 37,000 students in Pennsylvania’s 15 cyber charter schools, making Pennsylvania one of the “big three” states in terms of cyber enrollment. There’s long been a debate over how to regulate these schools.

What’s changing now is the politics.

Wolf introduced a charter reform proposal this summer, which included specific measures that could limit cyber charter school growth.

State Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie) has a bill that some cyber operators consider a financial death sentence because it would eliminate tuition payments from districts who offer their own, in-house virtual education option. Sonney recently became chair of the House Education Committee.

If Sonney’s bill becomes law, it would be among the more dire outcomes for cyber charter proponents.

Sources say there could be a middle-ground proposal that would require districts to pay cyber schools a set amount, with parents picking up the rest of the tab if cybers charge above the baseline.

The question is if the political momentum created by the governor’s proposal — and backed by rising unrest among superintendents — will overcome school-choice advocates.

Stefaine D’Amico says there are legions of parents in Pennsylvania who need the cyber option and will make that known to legislators, starting with a rally in the Capitol rotunda on Monday.

“It’s scary to think that someone might take this from us,” she said. “We chose this.”

Other topics to watch

Keystone Crossroads canvassed advocates and legislative aides to get a sense of what other education issues could surface as legislators reconvene.

Several mentioned reforms to Pennsylvania’s overall charter law, which Governor Wolf made a priority this summer.

The governor’s office believes it can make some changes via regulation, but it will be leaning hard on the legislature to pass reforms, as well. Wolf wants lawmakers to alter the charter school funding formula and increase transparency of management companies that perform back-office services for public charter schools.

Many charter advocates see Wolf’s agenda as an attack on their sovereignty and fiscal stability.

Multiple sources also mentioned potential changes to Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system, with an eye on diminishing the influence of student test scores. That idea has bipartisan support, and a bill behind it sponsored by state Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster).

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) is drumming up support for a bill that would allow families in the embattled Harrisburg School District to pay private school tuition with some of the state money allocated for the district. 

There’s also a measure that would give Pennsylvania’s military families the option to use state money earmarked for K-12 education for tutoring or private school payments.

Some lawmakers have floated this concept for all Pennsylvania students, but a smaller measure like this one could become a compromise starting point.

Commissions galore!

The state’s Special Education Funding Commission is expected to release a new report this fall that could recommend tweaks to Pennsylvania’s special education funding formula.

Some lawmakers will also participate in the recently convened Higher Education Funding Commission, which is tasked with creating a formula for how Pennsylvania doles out money to state universities.

Pennsylvania may also establish yet another education funding commission. State Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has a bill that would create one specifically on charter schools.