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Pa. education secretary rejects all 8 proposed cyber charters

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis rejected on Monday all eight cyber charter school applications pending before the state Department of Education.

The schools had hoped to serve a total of almost 10,000 Pennsylvania students at a projected cost to taxpayers of roughly $350 million over the next five years.

In a statement, Tomalis cited both academic and financial concerns as reasons for the denials.

“The proposals submitted by the applicants lack adequate evidence and sufficient information of how prospective students would be offered quality academic programs,” Tomalis said. “In addition, the financial plans presented call into question each applicant’s ability to maintain a long-term, viable educational program for the benefit of Pennsylvania students.”

Cybers, like brick-and-mortar charters, are publicly funded but independently managed. They provide mostly online instruction to students in their homes. Pennsylvania already has 16 cyber charter schools serving over 32,000 students. None of the 12 cybers in existence last spring met their federally mandated academic performance targets for 2012.

The rejections are “a good initial decision," said Education Law Center executive director Rhonda Brownstein.

"But, as we saw last year,” she added, “the department rejected seven applications in January, only to approve four of those applicants in June after they re-applied.”

This year’s applicants may also resubmit their applications, or choose to appeal their denials.

Brownstein said her group still supports a moratorium on any new cybers and continues to call for the state Department of Education to “carry out its duties under the law and close down the existing cyber charters that are not meeting state standards.”

The state’s leading charter school organization offered a cautious response to Monday’s announcement.

“We support the decisions, as long as the department is applying consistently fair and high standards,” said Robert Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

Two of the proposed cybers are affiliated with K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit operator of online public schools. State Budget Secretary Charles Zogby is a former executive at the company.

K12 has recently come under fire for questionable academic performance in schools using its curriculum. The company is also the subject of a class action lawsuit from shareholders who allege that CEO Ronald Packard and another executive concealed information about K12 schools’ high rates of student turnover.

Two of the proposed cybers with Philadelphia ties were rejected for the second consecutive year. Mercury Online sought to contract with for-profit Mosaica Education to provide extensive management services, while Akoben Cyber Charter proposed to become the “first African-centered cyber charter school in America.”

The state has posted the denial letters online.

One factor in the rejections, Tomalis said, was “that many of the applicants proposed to use learning centers in a way that blurred the line between a brick-and-mortar and cyber charter school.”

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite had raised the issue as a point of concern in testimony submitted to PDE during hearings held in November.

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