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Large Pa. Cyber Charter Under Review for Data Irregularities

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is conducting an in-depth review of the operations, finances, and child-accounting procedures at the Agora Cyber Charter School, an 8,500-student full-time online charter that has been racked by allegations of fraud and changes in management.

Last month, the department sent a series of letters to the school demanding information about Agora's "troubling financial, administrative, and governance problems." The department's areas of greatest concern, according to May 16 correspondence from Pennsylvania Executive Deputy Secretary of Education David Volkman:

  • "Agora's child accounting systems and processes—and whether school districts are properly billed for cyber charter students."
  • "Agora's student attendance—and whether students are properly kept on active membership rolls."
  • "Agora's academic accountability—and how Agora will determine whether students are receiving the education to which they are entitled."

A spokeswoman for the school said Agora is "working with the Department of Education to give them exactly what they have requested." The school submitted data to the department on May 27 and is "working diligently and cooperatively with the department to provide them with the most accurate information," according to Joann Gigliotti.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week that Agora had failed to meet a state-imposed deadline for providing information and is now under investigation.

The school, one of the largest full-time online charters in Pennsylvania, is no stranger to problems. In 2012, Agora's founder, Dorothy June Brown, was indicted on charges of defrauding the school of more than $5 million via a for-profit management-services company she also founded. A jury deadlocked on several of the charges in 2014, and the case was eventually dismissed a year later when Brown was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia.

Agora was also once a flagship school of K12 Inc., the largest for-profit manager of cyber charter in the country. A 2011 New York Times exposé harshly criticized the school for aggressive enrollment practices despite poor academic performance, prompting K12 investors to file a class-action lawsuit against the company. In 2014, Agora's board voted to end its management contract with K12 and contract with new vendors for its technology systems.

Apparently, the school has struggled to manage its operations since. The letters from the Pennsylvania education department describe Agora's issues with academic, administrative, and financial record-keeping as "deep, pervasive, and entrenched in the school's operations."  The department's most recent request seeks everything from student attendance plans to details about how the school notifies traditional districts when its students withdraw to details on Agora's payments into the state pension system.

After a rapid expansion between 2010-2012, Pennsylvania has now gone three years without approving a new cyber charter. That's been welcome news for traditional school districts, who take a significant financial hit when a student living within their boundaries decides to attend a cyber.

Across the country, full-time online charter schools are under increased scrutiny following the 2015 release of a series of reports from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes and other groups detailing the dismal academic performance and significant management problems throughout the sector.


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