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Forum: No more pencils, no more books

Cyber-schools offer hope for underserved students in Pennsylvania, writes Bruce Barron, but some state legislators are determined to squelch this innovation

Sunday, June 17, 2001

For once, Pennsylvania is on the cutting edge. Some 600 students in grades K-12 received their public education through approved online schools this year. The most visible cyber-education provider in the country has chosen Pennsylvania as its test site. Cyber-schools are aiming to enroll 20,000 students within the next three years.

How is the General Assembly responding to this exciting development? Nearly half the state Senate is seeking to shut the schools down. Their arrival at this unusually backward position is a tale of dollars and counterproductive state education policy.

Bruce Barron is a homeschooling father who lives in Bethel Park.

In 1999, the Elizabeth-Forward School District barred a student from competing on its volleyball team because she was homeschooled. Since Pennsylvania law lets school districts set their own policies regarding homeschoolers' participation in extracurricular activities, the family had no recourse.

In 2000, the same student enrolled in the Western Pennsylvania Cyber-Charter School. Under the state's charter law, Elizabeth-Forward was required not only to accept her on its volleyball team, but also to send over $6,000 to the charter school to pay for her education.

Elizabeth-Forward, like other school districts that have previously ignored with impunity the requests of homeschooled and homebound children, is unhappy with this shift in the balance of power. The reallocation of funds to cyber-charters could exceed $100 million statewide if cyber-education grows as expected.

As a result, school boards are pushing for legislation that would shut down these cyber-schools, safeguard school district budgets, and restore thousands of Pennsylvania families to their former state of disenfranchisement.

In a sane society, educational policy would be encouraging families to educate their children at home, not deterring them. The most authoritative recent study showed the typical homeschooler achieving four grade levels above average by high school, at a cost far less than the $7,000 or so that taxpayers would incur if the student enrolled in a public school.

In contrast, Pennsylvania's homeschooling law, considered the second most restrictive in the nation, requires students to submit portfolios of their work for district review, take standardized tests and undergo a yearly independent evaluation at their family's expense. (When the law was written in 1988, homeschoolers asked state legislators to pick one of these three means of compliance, and the legislators picked all three.)

About half the state's school districts, recognizing their educational and fiscal interest in promoting quality home instruction, energetically pursue collaborative relationships with homeschooling families, offering them partial enrollment options and extracurricular activities.

But many others provide nothing more than what the law requires: health services and textbooks. Charter schools at first promised new hope to families dissatisfied with existing public education options, but the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) successfully limited charter school authorizing power in Pennsylvania to school districts and a special state appeal board.

Then, capitalizing on the inattention of former state Education Secretary Eugene Hickok and the Ridge administration, it helped make the appeal process so costly and difficult as to be virtually useless.

As the charter law enters its fifth year, the number of schools approved on appeal in Western Pennsylvania is zero and counting. The PSBA, however, didn't protect against rebels within its own membership. That's what the Midland School District became when it approved a cyber-charter school with no admission cap and offered tuition-free enrollment to students anywhere in the state, with each student's host district compelled to pick up the tab. Midland enrolled 519 students for the 2000-2001 school year and could double in size by this fall.

Meanwhile, William Bennett's K12 organization has secured a charter from Norristown and is also recruiting Pennsylvania cyber-students for this fall. School districts have responded to this competition in somewhat schizophrenic fashion, both copying it and seeking to shut it down.

On one hand, several intermediate units have started their own cyber-charter schools in collaboration with school districts. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit's executive director was surprisingly frank about the motivation for its cyber-charter school, telling the Post-Gazette last November that "This is not something we would have done if it hadn't been for the financial crunch the school districts in Allegheny County are facing."

On the other hand, the PSBA, which had no objection when an intermediate unit opened a cyber-charter school two years earlier, belatedly decided that such undertakings were illegal -- when operated by the wrong people, at least -- and sought an injunction blocking payments to the Midland school.

Having failed in that legal action, the PSBA has now inspired Senate Bill 891, introduced by Senate Education Committee chairman James Rhoades, which would bar cyber-charters from enrolling any student without the host district's permission.

The bill has cleared Rhoades' committee and has southwestern Pennsylvania Sens. Tim Murphy, Jay Costa, Allen Kukovich, and Leonard Bodack among its 24 co-sponsors.

Mindful of the homeschooling community's capacity to wreak grass-roots havoc on legislative offices -- in 1994, the U.S. House was inundated with phone calls for two days until it speedily shot down a proposal to require certification of homeschooling parents -- the PSBA has been working under the radar screen, hoping to win passage of SB 891 before the General Assembly's summer recess.

Granted, the charter law currently sends cyber-schools more money than they need in order to operate. But the obvious answer is to adjust the funding arrangement, not close the schools.

The dispute would end immediately if the General Assembly agreed to fund cyber-schools separately from school districts. But that would require more public money, a truly foolish response to an innovation that is both technologically progressive and less expensive than traditional public education.

Instead, the Legislature should use this cyber-crisis as an opportunity to reduce costs while ensuring access for all students to the emerging educational mode of the future. The state could make home education more attractive by loosening restrictions and by offering a modest per-pupil stipend.

And rather than slamming the door on cyber-schools, the General Assembly should be encouraging their expansion statewide through collaboration by school districts, intermediate units, universities and independent providers.

What our legislators finally decide to do will probably depend on whether they hear from Pennsylvanians concerned for quality education or only from the public school bureaucracy that is already lobbying fiercely to protect its budgets.

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