Charters on rough waters
Educators and administrators leading Pennsylvania’s cyber and charter schools would almost certainly like memories of the last couple of weeks to evaporate as quickly as a snowdrift on a 65-degree day.
First there was word that, when adjusted to meet less lenient standards, only 28 percent of the commonwealth’s charter schools met Adequate Yearly Progress targets on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, and none of the cyber charters did. The adjustments were made after federal officials said the schools had to be evaluated on an individual basis, just like schools in the public sphere, rather than being examined as a self-contained school district.
Then, the state’s Department of Education turned down all eight requests for new cyberschools, citing deficiencies in the applications and questions about whether they actually met the “cyber” designation and were not, in fact, a mix of computer-based learning and bricks-and-mortar education.
Of course, it should be noted we have voiced skepticism about the fever for standardized testing that has gripped the education world. And officials who balked at the paltry number of public schools that reached the Adequate Yearly Progress plateau in the fall had a potent argument to make – the benchmarks that have been laid out under No Child Left Behind are simply unrealistic. Proponents of cyber and charter schools also point out they are sometimes serving children with special needs or issues that make a traditional classroom education a bad fit for them, or who cycle in and out of the programs too quickly. They have pleaded for more time for the schools to demonstrate their full potential.
Admittedly, we have some misgivings about the notion that a student can sit in front of a computer all day and receive an education comparable to one they would get in a classroom, where they can directly interact with teachers and collaborate with peers. Nonetheless, we are open to arguments about the possibilities of cyber and charter schools. But our misgivings are more pronounced when it comes to the current funding formula for these schools – once a student departs from a public school district for one of these alternatives, their per-pupil funding from the state goes with them. That drains the already-strained coffers of public school districts and, by extension, hurts the educational possibilities of students who stay in public schools. It should be noted some school districts, on their own or in partnership with others, are setting up their own cyberschools to keep students – and funding – within their own districts.
Students should have the choice to attend a cyber or charter school, in the same way they also have options to go to private, religious or boarding schools. But the cost of these individual choices shouldn’t be borne by all the taxpayers.