Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has announced the creation of a new division within the state department specifically meant to make improvements to charter schools in the state — and especially online schools.
The main focus of the new division will be on increasing accountability for the 14 virtual charter schools in the state, which are authorized and overseen by the Pennsylvania Education Department.
However, the group will also have an influence over the operations of the almost 180 physical charter schools in the state as well. These schools are authorized by local school districts, and the monitoring will take the form of instructional best practices and professional development for teachers.
The division was created by repurposing four currently vacant positions, as the state budget crisis last year had left school districts with too little funding. Work is expected to begin early next year.
"One of the things that we're going to be doing is we're going to be more vigilant in our monitoring, actually going out to visit our cyber charter schools," said Executive Deputy Secretary David Volkman, referring to the online schools' administrative offices. "We haven't done that with any kind of regularity over the last couple of years."
Meanwhile, a sketch by John Oliver featured on HBO's "Last Week Tonight" focused on fraud and financial mismanagement by charter operators, including some in Pennsylvania. In addition, a recent report by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association suggested a need for an increase in accountability and transparency in charter schools in the state, writes Mark Keierleber for The 74.
An audit has also been released by the state auditor general calling the charter school law in Pennsylvania "faulty" and adding that the education department's process of dealing with payment disputes between public school districts and charters is "inconsistent, confusing, and conflicting."
And on the same day the announcement was made by Wolf, the founder and former CEO of a Pennsylvania online charter school pleaded guilty to diverting more than $8 million from the school.
In all, around 30,000 students in the state enrolled in cyber charter schools last year, an increase from around 27,000 in the 2011-12 school year. However, despite this increase in enrollment, critics continue to suggest that the schools are unable to adequately educate their students.
A study released over the summer by 50CAN, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Association of Charter School Organizers suggested the need for those charter schools found to be chronically low-performing to be shut down. The report looked at more than 100 full-time charter schools in 17 states.
The study found that students in Pennsylvania typically progressed as if they had attended school for 101 less days of school for reading and 167 less days for math when compared to students enrolled in traditional schools.
However, those who support cyber charter schools maintain that the schools offer an important alternative for students who do not benefit from traditional public schools.
There are some students that this model is really working for," said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, the state branch of 50CAN. "But some parents are treating cyber schools as the only space where their kid is safe. They're choosing the school as a last resort. We need to be looking deeper into who is doing well."