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Pa. Rejects Cyber Charter Applicants, Citing For-Profits' Role

For the second consecutive year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has denied all the applicants proposing to open new full-time virtual charter schools in the state.

One big factor in the rejections: The department believed that the purportedly independent boards of five of the six proposed schools were too closely tied to for-profit companies poised to receive contracts from the new schools if charters were granted. 

Take the proposed Insight PA Cyber Charter School, which the department said would have relied on Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc. for "all or a majority of the products and services needed to operate the proposed cyber charter school"—everything from curriculum to teacher training and recruitment to "turnkey management services."

The members of Insight PA's nonprofit board, the department wrote in its rejection letter, "were unable to provide responses to a majority of the programmatic questions" posed to them at a public hearing, and the information they submitted as part of their application suggested that "ultimate control of the school [lies] with K12 and not Insight PA."

The department offered a similar rationale for rejecting the application of Provost Academy Cyber Charter School, which proposed a similarly far-reaching contract with for-profit EdisonLearning, Inc., based in Knoxville, Tenn. The department also questioned the relationships between the nonprofit boards and potential for-profit vendors of three of the other proposed cyber schools. 

A bevy of other factors were also listed in the six rejection letters, including a lack of adequate information about everything from curriculum to technology support to facilities to student field trips.

A spokesman for the department of education declined to elaborate on the denials of the applications. 

A spokesman for K12 Inc. referred questions to the Insight PA board, who responded through an attorney. In a written statement, Diana Moninger, the board president, defended the decision to select K12 as a service provider, writing that Insight PA's board is independent and has been "actively involved in every step of the application process and the school vision."

Moninger also served for at least four years as a board member of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools, a nonprofit lobbying organization that has received substantial financial support from K12. 

Pennsylvania has one of the most extensive networks of independently managed cyber charter schools in the country, with 14 such schools currently serving roughly 35,000 students. For-profits, including K12 and Connections Education, a division of publishing giant Pearson, play a major role in many of those existing schools. The companies have lobbied actively in the state capitol, where former K12 executive Charles Zogby now works as the state's budget secretary.  

Despite one of the most generous funding formulas in the country, Pennsylvania's cyber charters have been plagued by poor performance, high rates of student attrition, and dramatic examples of fraud.

Critics accuse the online schools of draining funding from traditional districts. At the national level, even online-learning proponents have expressed reservations about the effectiveness of full-time online schools for most students. 

In 2012-13, Pennsylvania's cybers received more than $350 million in taxpayer funds, money that was passed along from state's traditional districts, which are required by state law to pay the bulk of the tuition for each student living within their borders who attends a charter. That year, 498 of the Pennsylvania's 500 districts had students attending cybers.

Kate Shaw, the executive director of Philadelphia-based Research for Action, a nonprofit research organization that has been sharply critical of the cyber charter sector, hailed the rejections of new cyber applications this year and last as a step in the right direction. 

"The fact that the department denied 14 proposed cyber charter schools ...is evidence of appropriate oversight during the application process," Shaw told Education Week via email.

The Pennsylvania legislature is currently considering controversial charter reform legislation that would likely reduce payments to cyber charters, among a host of other provisions. Related legislation has failed in each of the state's past three legislative sessions. 

In November, the National Education Policy Center, a research and advocacy group housed at the University of Colorado in Boulder, issued a call for an overhaul of how full-time online charter schools are funded in states across the country.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends. 

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