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Pennsylvania Cyber Charters Under the Microscope (Updated)

Pennsylvania officials are considering whether to approve a group of new cyber charter schools, even as the performance of the state's existing network of online providers is coming under scrutiny and criticism.

A decision is expected today from the state's department of education on whether to allow eight cyber charters seeking the right to open.

[UPDATE: Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis announced today that he had rejected all eight of the cyber charter applications for next school year, citing a litany of shortcomings in curriculum, finance, and operations.

"The proposals submitted by the applicants lack adequate evidence and sufficient information [on]how prospective students would be offered quality academic programs," Tomalis said in a statement. "In addition, the financial plans presented call into question each applicant's ability to maintain a long-term, viable educational program for the benefit of Pennsylvania students."]

Those applications came under review as new data had shown that the number of overall Pennsylvania charters making "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind Act dropped significantly when their scores were calculated using a new, more stringent method, at the direction of the U.S. Department of Education. Those calculations also showed that no Pennsylvania cyber charters subject to AYP made that mark, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Last year, Pennsylvania officials had sought to have charters' scores calculated as though each one was a school districts, rather than an individual school, as part of the state's accountability plan.

But in November federal officials rejected the state's method. The state's policy was "not aligned with the statute and regulations," Deborah S. Delisle, an assistant secretary of education, wrote to Tomalis.

When the state released the scores for charters schools under the new calculation, their performance fell significantly. The number of charters statewide making AYP dropped from 77 to 43, and none of the state's cyber charter schools hit that mark, according to the Post-Gazette. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which had raised objections last year to the original calculations used by the state, said that there were 12 cyber charters in Pennsylvania affected by the recalculation, and that none made AYP. In addition to the online charters, 144 brick-and-mortar charters were affected by the recalculation.

(You can read the state's calculations for both the district and school counting methods here.)

The school boards association said its concern was that "this attempt to artificially inflate the number of charter schools regarded as making AYP served to mask deficiencies in charter schools and deny families the information necessary to make informed choices, misleading them about the charter schools they are considering choosing, or that they already attend," the organization said in a statement on their web site.

"It also had the effect of delaying crucial improvement and corrective action measures for a failing charter school, or prematurely ending those measures for a charter school that was already in improvement or corrective action status," the school boards association added. "These academic achievement issues should be critical considerations in the charter school renewal process."

Pennsylvania has been the site of a number of protracted battles in the state legislature over charter school growth and regulation, and the new data seem certain to add a new layer of volatility to the mix. At the national level, cyber charters have not scored well in AYP calculations, either.

Whether the new data will lead to a retreat, or at least a review of the charter school landscape in Pennsylvania, remains to be seen. Worth noting: A group of Republican state legislators recently unveiled a proposal to impose new regulations on charters, including cybers.

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