What improvements could be made in the organization of cyber charter schools?

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Answered by: Ann Marie, An Expert in the Online High School Category
Being a true advocate does not require blind acceptance and support. Rather, it demands a constant, honest appraisal of the cause or entity which is being advocated. Being a true advocate of cyber charter schools demands constant review of the practices and outcomes of the cyber charter schools in existence. Honest appraisal of these practices and outcomes will help to ensure that cyber charter schools stay true to their mission as an innovative public option to district schools. Open discussion and constructive criticism should serve to improve the learning experience for students in cyber charter schools. The fact that cyber charter schools are public schools, not private entities, should facilitate this open exchange of ideas.



Cyber charter schools loudly entered the educational arena in Pennsylvania in 2001 with the opening of Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and Einstein Academy. The political outcry against cyber charter schools resonated throughout the state. Einstein Academy was sued by the school districts before it even opened its servers for the first day of school. The impetus for this outcry was financial.

The funding structure in charter school legislation made charter schools and district natural financial adversaries. All educational funding had been sent to the district schools until legislation permitted the existence of charter schools. That legislation based its funding structure on the premise that educational tax dollars should follow the student and were not the assumed property of the district schools. Under this legislation, districts were required to send a percentage of the funding they historically received to a charter school should a student from their district choose to attend one. However, districts did have some control over the number of charter schools that could be established in their district. Districts were the approvers of new charter schools under the original legislation.



Cyber charter school funding raised the hackles of the districts even further. Under the initial legislation, any district could approve the opening of a cyber charter school. Cyber charter schools could draw students from throughout the state. Each district would be responsible to pay the cyber charter school a percentage of the funding for any student that chose to attend the cyber. Any one district could approve the opening of a cyber charter school and would be able to pay a reduced percentage for any student from their district that chose to attend the cyber charter school. All other districts would pay at a higher percentage.

Cyber charter legislation was later amended to decrease the conflict between the districts and the cyber charters. At this point, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is responsible to approve the establishment and maintain oversight of cyber charter schools. No district is offered a reduced payment rate. This change in legislation coupled with positive reaction from many in the public who have chosen cyber charter schools as their preferred educational format has resulted in cyber charter schools becoming more accepted educational entities.

     

Cyber charters are able to offer a rigorous curriculum taught by state-certified and highly qualified teachers in an online format. This is an optimal situation to allow flexibility and individualization of instruction. While there is always room for improvement, cyber charters offer a viable educational option for many students who have not had their educational needs met in other settings.

A decade after cyber charter schools burst onto the education scene, many of these schools are now being operated by people who had no involvement in the initial development of the mission and vision of school they are operating. The comparatively new legislation related to these schools still has not been able to address all of the possible difficulties related to operating a cyber charter school. The combination of these two factors leaves cyber charter schools at a critical juncture in their existence.

One of the primary concerns for the future of cyber charter schools is their current governance structure. While school board members in districts are elected by the taxpayers in the district, cyber charter school board members are elected only by the members currently on the board. The potential for cronyism and nepotism is high. As these boards lose original members with a commitment to school’s mission and vision, the potential exists that new board members might not have the same level of understanding or commitment. It is also quite possible that new board members might have personal agendas that would impact the direction that the cyber charter school would take in the future.

Another major concern is the involvement of for-profit management companies in cyber charter schools. These companies openly agree that they are profit driven. Cyber charter schools are non-profit organizations whose primary goal is educating students. For-profit management companies’ goals do not always coincide with this educational responsibility. This creates the potential for the cyber charter school’s mission to be co-opted into a profit making mission rather than an educational mission. Combining a group of volunteer board members, not elected by the public they serve, with a for-profit management company’s goals could be a recipe for disaster for cyber charter education.

Pennsylvania has legislation that exists to counteract the possibility of a government agency, such as a school board, behaving improperly without the knowledge of the public. This legislation is known as the Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law limits the ability of a public board to deliberate on issues outside the public arena. Deliberation of school business is expected to occur at public board meetings with adequate information available to allow the public to comment on the actions being deliberated. The current board at Achievement House has not abided by this law in several instances. The resultant lack of transparency allows for improper actions to occur.

The weak point in the Sunshine Law legislation is that there is no enforcement agency for the act. Should the public find that a public agency has broken the law, members of the public are responsible to acquire legal representation and file a complaint in Common Pleas court at their own expense. Even if they are found to be correct in their assertion that the law was broken, the only penalties provided for are that the public agency needs to appropriately re-vote the issue. If the court deems that the board intentionally acted in an improper manner, the board members found to be at fault can be fined $1000 each.

True advocacy for cyber schools cannot occur in an environment that does not support open discussion and constructive criticism related to board and administrative adherence to the mission and vision of the school and the quality of the educational services being delivered to the students. It is unreasonable and unfair to expect a board to police its own actions; avoid the human pitfalls of ambition and greed; resist the seductiveness of power; ignore the natural compulsion to hire cronies; and honestly support the exchange of ideas from diverse stakeholders. John Quincy Adams clearly recognized these challenges when he said, “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak….”.

Cyber charter school board members need to be elected by the stakeholders of the cyber charter school – the families, the staff, and current board members. There need to be methods by which these stakeholders can request that a board member be considered for removal should their actions not be appropriate. Finally, there needs to be an agency that is responsible to enforce the Sunshine Laws and to make the penalties for breach of public trust sufficient to dissuade board members from those actions. As James Madison said, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

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