This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A group of national charter school advocacy groups released a controversial report this week recommending that poor-performing virtual, or cyber, charter schools be closed. It also proposed that states overhaul the funding and oversight systems to regulate them.
“We believe that existing policies for oversight of full-time virtual charter schools are particularly inadequate,” reads the report, titled A Call to Action: To Improve the Quality of Full-Time Virtual Charter Public Schools.”
The organizations that created the report — the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50CAN — make clear that they do support the existence of virtual charter schools. At the same time, they stressed that the systems in place across the 23 states (and D.C.) that allow for virtual charter schools are deeply flawed and largely failing.
Call to Action does not present any new data, instead drawing on data from three significant national reports published in October by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which were the first comprehensive national reports of their kind on the state of U.S. cyber charter schools. But the just-released report is notable because in it, these organizations from the national charter school movement are publicly criticizing the state of cyber charters.
“It’s the first time that the three national advocacy organizations for charter schools have made such a dramatic call to action on this particular issue,” said Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the report’s primary author. “I think it’s one thing for researchers to suggest policy recommendations, it’s helpful, but I think it is different thing when it is the charter advocacy organizations saying it.”
The report suggests that state officials and authorizers consider policy changes that have been controversial here in Pennsylvania, the state with the second-largest cyber charter enrollment in the country. These recommendations include requiring cyber charters to implement criteria for enrollment, increasing accountability, creating a funding model based on real costs, and tying enrollment levels and funding on performance.
Brick-and-mortar charter schools generally cannot set enrollment criteria. But the report suggests that screening families may be necessary for cybers to ensure that both students and parents are prepared to handle the high level of independent drive and parental guidance that is necessary to make the model work.
“It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working,” the report says. In terms of parental oversight, the report cited a parent who noted that an online school isn’t the right fit for families who can’t devote as much time to the program as she did. It quotes her as saying, “Would you send a bunch of kids into a classroom with no teachers? Of course not.”
And in order to increase accountability, the report urges policymakers to close failing schools for the sake of those that are working: “We also call on authorizers to hold full-time virtual charter schools accountable for their performance, including making the tough decisions to close those that are chronically low-performing.”
For Jon Cetel of PennCAN, the most important recommendation was for stronger authorizing.
“We believe that the Department of Education needs to get serious about stopping the authorization of cyber charter organizations that are under-performing,” said Cetel, “This is three national pro-charter organizations saying that the the cybers who are underperforming need to be closed." The Pennsylvania Department of Education, which authorizes cybers in the state, already has the power to do this, he noted.
The report also recommends that states adopt a funding model along the lines of one that has been proposed by Gov. Wolf, but has not gotten traction in the General Assembly. That model would set a uniform per-pupil rate for students in cyber charters across the state that is based more closely on their actual costs. The current formula in Pennsylvania pays cybers the same per-pupil rate as it does to brick-and-mortar charters, and that rate varies depending on the student’s home district. Wolf and others have maintained that cyber charters, some of which are operated by for-profit companies in Pennsylvania, are receiving too much money relative to their costs.
The report also urges states to separate the way they regulate virtual schools from the way they govern brick-and-mortar schools. A few states – not Pennsylvania – already do this.
Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that although his organization only represents brick-and-mortar charter schools, not cybers, it is clear that the two have different requirements.
"There are many differences in how they operate," he said.
"Cyber has a completely different setup and completely different needs,” said Eller, noting that he was not necessarily advocating for cybers to get less funding, but rather an amount based on a unique formula for cybers. “I think there should be a demarcation between the two."
And finally, the authors of the report argue that both enrollment levels and funding should be based on the school’s performance. Four states — Florida, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Utah — all have performance-based funding systems in place that rely on the school’s academic record. This record is measured differently in different states. Minnesota, for example, counts course completions determined by the state, while New Hampshire assesses “competencies mastered” based on teacher evaluations. But the report is most notable as a sign that the charter school movement may be moving away from full support of cyber charters. The authors argue repeatedly that some states may need to separate virtual charter schools from charter school laws.
“To be clear, our organizations support full-time virtual schooling,” the report says. “We have advocated in states across the country to make sure this option is available to the families who need it.’
But, it adds: “Unfortunately, the results clearly show that significant problems exist within this part of the charter school movement. Left unchecked, these problems have the potential to overshadow the positive impacts this model currently has on some students.”
Ziebarth acknowledges that there are divisions in the charter school movement about whether virtual schools should even exist or be included under the umbrella of charter schools and charter school advocacy. Many believe that the charter school movement should distance itself from virtual schools, which, for the most part, perform much worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
“There was quite a bit of debate about this particular issue and some people saying, ‘yeah, we need to just explicitly say that they should not be part of the charter movement for a variety of reasons,’” said Ziebarth. “We obviously did not come down that way. We think it works for some kids and that states should make it available. But I think we are more agnostic now than we have been in the past about whether these should be charters or whether they can be another type of public school."
But Cetel sees the criticism of virtual schools as consistent with the larger charter mission.
“The promise of the charter movement is autonomy in exchange for more accountability,” he said, “if the school is not performing, it needs to be closed.”
Eller said that given the differences between brick-and-mortar and cyber charters, he doesn’t necessarily see the debate over cybers affecting charter advocacy.
“It is up to the brick-and-mortar charter school advocates to show the differences of how brick-and-mortar charters are performing, compared to how cybers are performing,” he said, “In the General Assembly, there are people that want to take a harder look at cybers. And that’s fine. But we have to remember that parents are making the decisions to send their children there and they also can make the decision to take them out. I don’t think we can lose sight of that."