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Cyber schools report has holes

Key information missing or not verified by consultant

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

By Eleanor Chute and Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writers

A $175,000 study of the state's controversial cyber charter schools is missing some significant data -- information from the state's largest cyber school.

KPMG Consulting, hired by the state Department of Education to examine the cyber schools, couldn't get many statistics from The Einstein Academy Charter School, based in Morrisville, Bucks County.

The cyber school report, released yesterday by the state Department of Education, also noted that the information about the state's seven cyber schools came from the schools themselves. The report noted numerous times that its information "has not been independently audited" by the consultants.

Among recommendations in the report:

The state should consider a set per-pupil payment for districts whose students enroll in cyber charters. Because the schools draw from all over the state, different districts currently pay differing amounts for the same cyber school education.

Both the student and cyber charter officials should let the home district know when a student enrolls in a cyber charter.

Cyber charter schools should keep detailed records on finances, management and student enrollment.

Cyber charter schools need to come up with ways to allow residents statewide to have access to cyber school board meetings.

Despite the self-reported data and the lack of information from the Einstein school, which enrolls about 58 percent of the state's cyber charter students, state Department of Education officials said they were pleased with the report.

Beth Gaydos, spokeswoman for the education department, said, "We of course would have liked full participation. We still feel this gives us an accurate snapshot of [cyber] charter schools.

"The study shows what thousands of Pennsylvania parents already know, that cyber schools provide innovative education for children."

But Tom Gentzel, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said, "I don't know how they can be comfortable they have an accurate snapshot of cyber schools when the program that has over half the students in the state has said very little."

David Broderic, executive director of the state Senate Education Committee, said, "Einstein's refusal to provide information speaks volumes about the need for greater accountability measures."

Einstein officials could not be reached for comment.

Currently, there are at least two bills in the state Legislature that deal with charter schools -- a House bill that says cyber schools should be licensed by the state and a Senate bill that would require cyber schools to have separate agreements with each school district that sends a student to the school.

Cyber charter schools, which are public schools, have been controversial in part because a cyber school can enroll students from throughout the state, not just from one district. Some school district officials have complained they've received bills for students they never heard of.

School districts, including some in Butler County, have won lawsuits against Einstein Academy, with judges ruling that for the time being, they don't have to pay for Einstein students. In the meantime, the state is withholding thousands of dollars in subsidy payments from school districts that have refused to pay cyber tuition bills.

Under state law, the home school district must pay a fee, which varies by district, for each student who enrolls in a cyber charter school.

With many of the fees topping $6,000 a year per student, some critics have contended that cyber charter schools are making money. In fact, the KPMG study says that two of the cyber schools have fund balances. But the report said that the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, which is chartered by the Midland School District in Beaver County and has about 1,000 students, plans to provide more service and will eliminate the fund balance.

The SusQ-Cyber Charter School, which serves districts in the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit and has 76 students, is considering returning dividends to school districts, according to the report.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has filed a lawsuit challenging whether cyber schools can be considered charter schools. Results from the report indicate that the schools may not actually be very "cyber."

Typically, the student logs onto an online curriculum provider's Web site to receive the day's assignments. Most assignments then are done offline using a textbook. The report said some students may spend as little as 20 percent of their time online, and even less for elementary students.

The study complimented the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, chartered by Norristown Area School District in Montgomery County. The school, which has 622 students in kindergarten through second grade, uses the K-12 curriculum developed by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett and his associates.

The full report can be viewed online at www.pde.psu.edu



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