Originally posted in the Pocono Record, reposted here with permission from the author.
September 8, 2020.
Editor’s Note: This My Turn column submission is in response to “Money for nothing: Pa. cyber charters rolling in pandemic aid while school districts scrounge.”
There’s been a good deal of talk lately—including a recent op-ed in this publication by Richard Robinson—about Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools “profiting” off the COVID-19 pandemic. Too much talk, in my opinion. Instead, we, as caring PA educators, influencers and citizens, should be using every platform available during these extraordinarily challenging times to help parents make informed fact-based decisions about their children’s current schooling needs and educational futures.
As Executive Director of Pennsylvania’s Public Cyber Charter School Association (PCCSA) and CEO of Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School (PALCS), it would be easy for me to dissect Mr. Robinson’s opinion piece, pointing out every misperception, partial-truth and out-of-context statement and providing the financial data and facts that definitively make the argument that PA cyber charter schools are in no way capitalizing on the pandemic while brick-and-mortar public schools struggle to operate. However, my goal here is to maximize this opportunity to provide the public not with overwhelming detail, but with the facts that matter—and context that guides them in envisioning the educational environment, options and opportunities best suited for their children.
Mr. Robinson’s concerns can be addressed with one fact: PA cyber charter schools operate as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. So, simply put, there is no charter cyber school profiting off the pandemic, taxpayer dollars or anything else. Like all schools across the country, we are feeling the negative financial impact of COVID-19 and are extremely grateful for the state and federal pandemic-relief funding aid available to help public schools continue to operate as effectively as possible. While our financial needs and “stress points” may not look exactly the same as those in traditional schools, they run just as deep and are equally as imperative to the quality education and support of our students and families. Consider a few points:
Health and safety: Cyber charter schools do have needs for these grants because actual facilities—including staff offices, facilities for monitored student testing and engagement spaces for special-ed and other students requiring in-person support—are a critical part of our infrastructure. We’re using every dollar according to health and safety fund requirements to ensure our spaces are safe for every staff member and student.
Educating for less: According to PA law, tax dollars “follow the student” through the public-school system, with charter cyber schools receiving 70-75% of what a brick-and-mortar school receives with 25% remaining in the district. Cyber charters provide top-quality education with lower per-student compensation.
Enrollment growth without compensation: Pennsylvania froze compensation for new students enrolling in cyber charter schools from March-June, 2020, a period during which PCCSA schools typically see steady enrollment. During COVID-19, many saw an additional uptick driven by parents seeking a better distance-learning option. Not only did our schools not receive student money for the COVID-driven enrollment, but they didn’t receive it for students who would have enrolled anyway. Consequently, PCCSA schools educated thousands of new students since March without financial support. These students needed technology, instructors, coaches and other resources to ensure they received proper education and support. With tuition payments halted, the COVID-relief funding has been essential to our operation and seamless education.
Educational success: Extensive independent evaluations show that not only are numerous cyber charter schools rated highly, one cyber charter school is even rated #7 in Best Charter High Schools in Pennsylvania.
PA cyber charter school missions aren’t about vying for every dollar and “fair treatment.” We are—first and above all else—educators. Our commitment is to students, families and the quest to continually evolve and elevate the number and quality of educational opportunities available to every child. This is why in late March, PA’s 14 cyber charter schools mobilized to become a resource for school districts needing to pivot to a distance-learning model. We established our own professional “institution of learning and mentorship,” to support any brick-and-mortar school willing to accept our help. Happily, we’ve collaborated with dozens of these educators who are now poised to run successful virtual classrooms in the fall. We will never be driven by the need to compete with brick-and-mortar schools. We are driven—like those who’ve accepted our support—by a commitment to educational excellence and empowering promising futures for the children of Pennsylvania.
We respect the incredibly complex waters parents have to navigate for their children’s education and cannot tell any parent/guardian which option is the right option for his or her child. What I can tell them is that PA cyber charter schools have two decades of experience in understanding, strategizing, evolving and perfecting the virtual learning experience that today’s pandemic-altered world requires. We are proud of the countless families who thank us every day and of the successes of our students. We will continue to pursue innovative solutions, provide a continuum of education and offer our experience and resources to every PA family.
Dr. Jim Hanak, Executive Director, Public Cyber Charter School Association (PCCSA); CEO, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School (PALCS)