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Data & Information

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania had 14 cyber charter schools that served 36,596 students in grades K-12 in SY 2013-14, a 5% annual increase from SY 2012-13. A growing number of districts, independent units (IU), and consortia are providing online courses for area students in an attempt to draw enrollments back from cyber charters. However, these programs do not report to the state, so it is unclear how many there are or how many students they serve. The state does not have a state virtual school. The non-profit organization Blendedschools.net (BSN) has a significant presence in the state, enabling schools to set up their own online, supplemental, and blended learning programs. BSN is currently working with 77,000 students in 169 out of 500 school districts, providing a mix of supplemental, blended, and technology-enhanced programs, as well as a number of fully blended programs.

Fully online schools

Cyber charters have dominated the K-12 online options in Pennsylvania since SusQ-Cyber Charter School first opened in 1998. Enrollments have grown steadily. Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, with 10,389 students in SY 2013-14, is one of the largest online schools in the country. In SY 2013-14, Agora Cyber Charter also served 9,490 students and Commonwealth Connections Academy served 8,037 students.

While five of 16 cyber charters saw double, or even triple, digit percentage growth in enrollments, the other seven in operation prior to SY 2012-13 saw either less than 5% growth or a drop in enrollments. Four new cyber charters operated in SY 2012-13, while one surrendered its charter. (See Table 1)

Cyber Charter Name  # of Students2010  # of Students2011  % change 2010 to 2011 # of Students 2012 % change 2011 to 2012
21st Century Cyber CS 594 591 -1%  746 26%
Achievement House CS                272                536 97%                531 -1%
Agora Cyber CS 4,484 7,727 72% 8,142 5%
ASPIRA Bilingual Cyber Charter School -  - - 64 -
Central PA Digital Learning Foundation CS 134 127 -5% 112 -12%
Commonwealth Connections Academy CS 3,652 4,424 21% 5,550 25%
Frontier Virtual Charter High School - 47 -
Pennsylvania Cyber CS 8,539 8,539 0% 10,559 24%
Pennsylvania Distance Learning CS 420 327 0% 323 -1%
Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School 2,020 2,155 -22% 2,242 4%
PA Learners Online Regional Cyber CS 607 467 -23% 414 -11%
Pennsylvania Virtual CS 3,691 3,353 -9% 3,414 2%
Susq-Cyber CS 190 192 1% 178 -7%
Total 24,603 28,578 16%        32,322 13%

Table 1: Pennsylvania cyber charter enrollment 2011-12; Public school enrollment reports

 

Current policy requires school districts to pay tuition to cyber charter schools based on per-pupil expenses in the student’s resident district, a figure that ranges from $5,400 to $15,000 per student to attend the same cyber school294 (averaging $12,657 according to a 2012 report from the state auditor general). Until SY 2011-12, when a student left a district for a charter or cyber charter, the district would receive a bill for the cost of that student; the amount varied based on the home district, but averaged around $12,808. The state would then partially reimburse the district at the end of the school year for the cost of the student; in 2010-11 the reimbursement dropped to an average of 25%, and it was completely eliminated in Governor Corbett’s 2011-12 budget. The situation was analyzed in a report from the state auditor general, the report recommended setting the cyber charter funding rate at $6,500 per student; it also recommended the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) increase oversight of charters and cyber charters. Thirteen separate cyber and charter school reform bills were introduced during the 2013-14 legislative session, mainly targeting cost-reduction measures for districts, but as of September 2013, there have been no further changes to the funding of cyber school students.

Districts have responded to what they see as lost funding by opening their own online academies and working to bring students back. IUs are also opening cyber service programs for students in their districts. These programs typically offer supplemental or blended courses (although some offer a fully online option); do not have to be authorized by the PDE; and do not require separate reporting as they simply roll into overall district accountability. As a result, the total number of district online academies and online service programs is unknown.

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a report in April 2011 titled “Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania.” While the report looked at student performance among all charter schools, it also looks specifically at eight cyber charter schools from 2007-10. It found that cyber students were more likely to be white, ineligible for subsidized meals, and repeating a grade than the general student population. However, the starting score on state achievement tests for cyber students is significantly higher than for brick-and-mortar charter students in both reading and math. The report found that “cyber charter students have significantly smaller gains in reading and math than those of their traditional public school peers.”

State virtual school

Pennsylvania does not have a state virtual school. In July 2008, HB1067 established a Virtual High School Commission to study the costs and feasibility of creating a state virtual school. The Commission’s report submitted to the governor and legislative leaders on December 31, 2009 recommended the creation of a “supplemental virtual learning program” to serve students otherwise enrolled in a physical school which will maintain responsibility for granting credit for online courses.

District programs

In June 2010, twelve school districts received a $500,000 federal grant to create the Pennsylvania Digital Learning Network, linking ten Pennsylvania schools into a national network to share online courses.

Online learning policy history

With the passage of Act 88 (2002), the General Assembly allowed for the establishment of cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. Cyber charter school oversight is regulated by a combination of charter school laws that oversee all charter schools, as well as regulations specific to cyber charters. Pennsylvania System of Cyber Charter Review (PASCCR), the charter school’s annual report to the state, and the original charter school application to PDE explain how the school meets Pennsylvania’s academic standards and assessment requirements, what technical support will be given to students, how student work will be monitored, what type of communication will be held with students and parents, and how often that communication will take place.

Funding

  • The amount paid to a cyber charter school for each student is based on the budgeted expenditures per student of the school district of residence.

Governance, tracking and accountability

  • All cyber charter schools are authorized by the PDE, and an annual report and quality review specific to online programs (PASCCR) are required. Portions of the annual reports are available on the PDE website.
  • A cyber charter school must satisfy requirements for compulsory attendance, but it is up to the cyber charter school to provide a description of how the cyber charter school will define and monitor a student’s school day.
  • Cyber charters not making Adequate Yearly Progress must participate in state school improvement requirements.
  • Cyber charter school students are required to take the Pennsylvania state assessment.

Quality assurance, teaching, and curriculum

  • Curricula used by public schools must be aligned with academic standards approved by the State Board of Education.
  • The PDE recommends that all schools adopt the Standards Aligned System framework.
  • All charter schools are required to have 75% of staff meet state certification standards. Teacher evaluations must be done by a supervisor holding a Principal Certificate or Letter of Eligibility with the PDE. There are no special provisions for online teachers, but the PASCCR includes teaching and professional development provisions.
  • Cyber charters are required to implement student supports through a student services plan.

In July 2013 the Department of Education released new guidance to cyber charter applicants and operators relating to the requirements for online course delivery, and in particular the proper use of a cyber charter schools’ physical facilities.298 It states that cyber charters “offer a structured education program in which the school utilizes technology in order to provide a significant portion of its curriculum and instruction through the Internet or other electronic means without a school-established requirement that the student be present at a supervised physical facility designated by the school, except on a very limited basis, such as for standardized tests.”

last updated October 20, 2014

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