Flat Rock School District (not its real name) in eastern Pennsylvania suffers from all the problems of exurban decay: Main streets and infrastructure need repair, many storefronts are boarded up, good jobs are scarce, and a web of social problems from alcohol and drug addiction to fragile families weighs heavy on the community. The community’s schools must cope with these problems while faced with one of the state’s lowest per-pupil funding levels. Flat Rock is also deep Donald Trump country, as the president won every voting precinct within the district, most by more than 30 percentage points.
Pennsylvania school districts, including Flat Rock, are at the epicenter of the cyber charter school phenomenon, a school choice program established by the state’s former republican administrations and that now receives an enthusiastic boost by the Trump administration. Any family in any district can opt for their K-12 student to receive all curriculum and instruction online, at home, and free-of-charge from companies providing the service, which is paid for out of per-pupil funds from the local district’s budget.
Started with much marketing fanfare across the state in 2000, enrollment in Pennsylvania’s cyber charters is among the largest nationally, so large in fact that if all of these students lived in one district it would be the third largest in the state.
On the surface the cyber charter school would seem like a good thing: more choice for parents, diversification of a community’s education programs, and maybe even competition to improve subpar public schooling. This might be true were it not for two negative consequences of the program: dismal learning outcomes and its growing concentration of use among the most disadvantaged districts across the state.
Flat Rock—and all other vulnerable school districts like it—continue to lose precious funds at disproportionately higher rates than wealthier school districts, and when these funds go to cyber charters, they result in ineffective alternatives.
This is what we find in our study of Pennsylvania’s experience with cyber charter schools from 2000 to 2014, which recently appeared in the American Journal of Education and is supported by several other studies.
What is a cyber charter school program and do they improve student learning?
Unlike the traditional brick-and-mortar charter school, and unlike online courses that complement a public school’s regular in-class curricula, the cyber charter school is a form of digital home-schooling, a virtual charter school. Supplied with a computer, the cyber charter student, from as young as age 5 or 6, learns to open the company’s platform at home and receives her regular school subjects from online programs.
With the establishment of Pennsylvania’s Department of Education general charter school policy in the late 1990s, organizations began selling cyber charter school platforms. Following state regulations, these platforms and their instructional programs were authorized as cyber charter schools and hence they could receive tuition from public funds to independently operate (and advertise) as a virtual school across the state.
While participating national companies such as K12 Inc., Pearson’s Connections Academy, and those of local educational entrepreneurs are technically prohibited from profiting from tuition payments, the companies generate considerable revenue beyond operating costs through various mechanisms.
As reviewed in our paper, a steady stream of recent, scientifically sound, national evaluations reveals that cyber charter students tend to score lower on year-end tests and also have lower growth in learning over time than regular public school students. The same is true in Pennsylvania, where there is even evidence of knowledge loss (negative growth scores) from 4th to 8th grade in reading and math, literature, algebra, and biology among many cyber charter students.
There are some exceptions, and for students with certain disabilities and other special circumstances, online schooling can be a godsend. In our interviews with education leaders from across Pennsylvania—including those running and working in cyber charters—we found genuine concern for the well-being and success of their online students, examples of good cyber charter practices for students with no other choice but online learning, and some online student success stories.
Nevertheless, across academic researchers, state departments of education, and investigative journalists, almost all conclude that these programs are not performing well academically. Added to their academic failure, Pennsylvania has seen these programs grow in a way that has been a disaster for most students and their districts—particularly disadvantaged ones like Flat Rock.
What does this mean for the state’s public education system?
Before reports of potential ineffectiveness, cyber enrollments increased in many districts after extensive marketing. But as media stories of dubious benefits mounted, districts with more educated parents did not increase enrollment in cyber charter schools while those with fewer resources and with less-educated parents saw enrollment climb.
This means that for over a decade and a half, the most vulnerable and struggling districts lost proportionally the most students along with their per-pupil funding. While it may seem like a wash to lose a student and her funding to the cyber companies, when even modest losses pile up in underfunded (and often smaller) districts, a tipping point is reached that threatens their collective effectiveness.
For example, Flat Rock’s students come mostly from low-income, white families (62 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch), and they attend schools struggling financially. Low local property values and incomes yield tax revenue for the district’s budget that cannot hire enough teachers. This results in class sizes that are too large (the district is among the state’s top 5 percent in high student-to-teacher faculty ratio) and scarce learning services.
Consequently, when what sounds like a modest 3 percent of Flat Rock’s families opted for the cyber charter schools, the district annually lost more than half a million dollars, adding to its budget struggles. A loss like this leaves a small district with tough choices: Cut a teacher and drastically increase class size despite only losing three or four students in a grade? Cut support staff? Extracurricular activities? Art or music? Ironically, the ongoing lack of available resources may have led some families to flee public schooling, compounding the district’s financial woes.
Across the state, cyber charter schools were paid an average of $800,000 annually from a local school district’s budget (standard deviation about $3,100,000). Such losses to a dubious educational alternative have hit the most disadvantaged districts the hardest.
While lawmakers in at least 21 states plus Washington, D.C, pushed cyber charter school policy as a way to use choice to increase academic quality—particularly in districts like Flat Rock—the Pennsylvania story suggests it has had the opposite effect.