Pennsylvania's students belong to the the most digitally savvy generation ever. They use Chrome books and iPads to research, connect with teachers, and complete assignments. It is not surprising then, that many students choose to attend virtual or cyber schools.
However, like a destructive virus on a hard drive, Pennsylvania's cyber charter school law is causing students to crash. Harrisburg has an easy fix – they can change the law. Pennsylvania's students and taxpayers are calling on them to de-bug the system now.
Nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania school districts offer online learning programs.
When Pennsylvania first passed the cyber charter law in 2002, it was in anticipation of a growing demand. The law hasn't been updated since and is missing several key measures that support high quality options for students, particularly meaningful academic and fiscal accountability.
Oddly, unlike in other states, our charter school law does not set academic benchmarks that schools must meet to retain their charters. Charters can be renewed even if they are chronically poor performers.
Pennsylvania's 14 cyber charter schools have historically and consistently failed to make the grade. When the Department of Education used the Student Performance Profile to compare public school performance across the state, no cyber charter school earned a passing score. In fact, they have never earned a passing score. Ever. Other states' charter laws mandate closure for such schools – not ours.
As a result, Pennsylvania's cyber charter students aren't doing well. Recently, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo) found that cyber charter students perform as if they've had 118 less days of math and 106 less days of reading than their peers in traditional public schools. For context, there are only 180 days in an average school year.
Ultimately, taxpayers are paying top dollar for these sub-par results. In 2016, school districts sent about $463 million in tuition payments to cyber charter schools. Five school districts in Greater Philadelphia covered $85 million of that cost. Missing fiscal accountability language in the charter school law also plays a significant role in this debacle.
Worse, cyber charter schools receive different tuition rates from each district - often much more than districts say it takes for them to run their own programs.
The only way to resolve accountability and fiscal issues within the cyber charter school sector is to update Pennsylvania's ailing charter law.
Fortunately, legislators on both sides of the aisle agree that the current system is flawed. Last legislative session, Senate Education Chairman, Wayne Langerholc, Jr. (R) held hearings on charter school funding. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) called for a moratorium on all new cyber charter schools.
And just a few weeks ago, House Education Committee Chairman, Curt Sonney (R) held a hearing on his bill which would require all school districts to run cyber charter programs. Under the bill, cyber charters would be accountable for student performance and taxpayers could save money; millions of dollars in cyber saving could return to school districts, requiring millions less in painful property tax hikes.
But the bill needs work. While poor performing cyber charters can be shut down, there's a glaring loophole that would allow the same operator to change their name and resume operations. You don't need to be at all tech-savvy to know that does not compute.
And if we really want to know how all students are doing, the law should require disaggregated data and measures to verify that the students enrolled are the students doing the work and taking standardized tests. As it stands today, there is little preventing someone to earn a diploma while someone else does the work.
To be clear, holding hearings and introducing bills aren't enough. If the law doesn't change, we'll be having the same conversation after another generation has attended these poorly performing schools.
While the current broken system drains millions from taxpayers, students pay the greatest price by being deprived of the education they deserve, leaving far too many offline for life.
Tomea Sippio-Smith is education policy director, Public Citizens for Children and Youth. Originally published by The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) at www.pennlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.