Virtual schools that draw students from across Pennsylvania, cyber charters have seen interest spike amid the pandemic, up from 38,000 the year prior, according to state education officials.
(TNS) — As the school year approached, Jaime Bassman wasn't ready to send her children back into classrooms. But she also wasn't comfortable with the virtual program offered by her school district, which she felt would deprive her children of valuable live instruction.
"We all needed some real consistency this year," said Bassman, a
Virtual schools that draw students from across
The growth casts new light on what has long rankled traditional public school backers: School districts pay charters, which are independently run, to fund the education of each student enrolled. In
And cyber charters have posted consistently poor academic results, further frustrating district leaders who see cybers as failing students while draining public school resources.
Earlier this month, a Moody's Investor Service report warned the enrollment swells at cyber charters may pose a credit risk to
Cyber charter leaders say they incur some costs districts don't and defend their track record, saying they enroll students who have struggled in traditional public schools. After pushing back on past efforts to limit their funding, they say the pandemic is proving their value.
Lawmakers "have seen in their own lives just how hard it is for a school district to run a cyber program," said Jim Hanak, CEO of the
Rick Levis, spokesperson for the state education department, said increased cyber charter enrollment has "only heightened the need for charter school reform."
Among other measures, Gov. Tom Wolf has called for setting a statewide rate to standardize the cost per pupil at cyber charters. Currently, payments are based on what each district spends on its students, which varies widely.
"Our concern is they're needlessly taking more money out of local school districts, with very little accountability to the local taxpayers," said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the
It's unclear which school districts are losing the most students to cyber charters because the state has not yet released enrollment data for the current year.
Nationally, other school districts have reported declines in enrollment too. "It's sort of an explosion of people looking for something different and better" to ride out the pandemic, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group in
Cyber charter leaders say their experience running virtual schools has been a selling point for parents frustrated with how traditional schools handled the abrupt transition to online instruction in the spring.
Public school parents "didn't want what they got from schools -- 10 minutes of a teacher talking to you on Zoom, then go do this work," Hayden said.
Cyber charters have already worked through technical challenges, and their teachers are experienced in keeping students engaged online, said Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter, which has 7,600 students this fall, up from 5,100 last year.
School district leaders said many districts had experience offering some form of online instruction before the pandemic.
Like other booming charters, Jensen's school has been hiring teachers. But while enrollment has soared, charters aren't necessarily growing the ranks of teachers at the same rate.
"We don't want to be overstaffed," said Hanak, whose Pennsylvania Leadership Charter is enrolling 5,120 students, up from 3,100 a year ago. "What we don't know is: Are we going to lose those 2,000 (students) as fast as we gained them?"
Not all new cyber charter students are coming from district schools. After JT Anderson's 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, had a rocky experience in the spring with virtual instruction at Collegium, a brick-and-mortar charter school in
He landed on the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter website, which describes the school as the "#1 Best Online School in PA & Top 30 Nationwide" -- rankings from Niche.com, a website that uses public data and user reviews. (
"This is not a practice session for them, like all the other schools," Anderson said. He said the school's orientation for new families was "excellent" and that his daughter has been happy so far.
Anderson said he was aware of criticisms of cyber charters. He had debated with a relative who told him charters were "a complete ripoff," depriving traditional public schools of resources.
"What else are you going to do?" he said. He felt his daughter would be "getting a bad education" if she was in the public school she originally attended in
While Lower Merion later announced it would provide live virtual instruction, Bassman decided she would stick with the cyber charter for the fall. So far, she has been satisfied with how the school has addressed her children's needs.
As for whether she will return to the district once the pandemic subsides, Bassman said she would "have to wait and see."
"My eyes have been opened to other possibilities," she said.
(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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