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Better-Educated Families Less Likely to Choose Pa. Cyber Charters, Study Finds

San Antonio

As information about the academic struggles of Pennsylvania's cyber charters has become more accessible, the full-time online schools have increasingly enrolled students from the state's least-educated communities and most-disadvantaged school districts, according to a new study to be presented here Sunday as part of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

The result, according to researcher Bryan Mann of Penn State University?AERA Conference Button

Cyber charter have become an inequitable corner of Pennsylvania's school-choice system, leaving the state's neediest students with another bad option that their peers from better-off school districts largely avoid.

"This may be the educational policy equivalent of asking someone in a food desert to pick between two fast food restaurants and hoping they make a healthy choice," Mann wrote in a pre-conference email interview.

In Pennsylvania and across the country, full-time online charter schools have come under withering scrutiny. Studies by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University have found at both the national and state level that students in the schools learn at a dramatically slower pace than their peers in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Last fall, Education Week published a major investigation into the sector, highlighting concerns about students not using the schools' educational software and about extensive lobbying efforts by the for-profit management companies that dominate the industry.

The paper Mann will present at AERA takes a somewhat different tack, analyzing the flow of students (and money) to cybers from Pennsylvania's traditional school districts between 2002 and 2014.  

During those years, the number of students attending the state's cyber charters grew dramatically, to more than 36,000 total children.

Based on a review of media coverage and public data, Mann divides the period into three distinct eras: 

  • An early phase, in which there was little information about cybers, which then had "high-tech cachet;"
  • A second phase, driven by the federal No Child Left Behind act and aggressive media coverage, in which cybers' academic struggles became well-known, and;
  • A more recent period in which some students and their families have become more "sophisticated consumers" in Pennsylvania's school-choice marketplace.

From there, Mann combined state data on school district enrollments with federal data on the demographics in each district's surrounding community. That allowed him to look for changing patterns in where Pennsylvania cybers drew their students from over time.

Initially, Mann found, the schools drew students evenly from across the state. Early enrollment growth was not concentrated in any geographic area. Students from more highly educated communities (as measured by the percent of the adult population with a bachelor's degree or higher) chose to attend cybers, too.

But as knowledge about cybers' academic shortcomings spread, the flow of students from those parts of the state slowed significantly.

That trend strengthened over time, Mann found. Enrollment in Pennsylvania cyber charters now comes heavily from the state's least-educated communities and worst-performing schools.

If cybers were better than those schools academically, the expansion of the sector might be considered a policy win. But most available research suggests that is not the case.  A 2011 CREDO study of Pennsylvania's sector, for example, found that "100% of cyber charters perform[ed] significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math." (Cyber charter operators generally argue that most available measures and accountability systems aren't appropriate for online schools.)

The net effect, Mann contends, is that the state's worst-off traditional public schools are sending the most money to the state's cybers, thanks to the way Pennsylvania's charter funding system works.

"Educationally and financially disadvantaged school districts were more likely to experience student flows to low-performing cyber charters, forcing these districts disproportionately to fund these programs," Mann wrote in his paper for AERA.

Like other researchers, Mann notes that cybers are a good fit for some children. CREDO, for example, has said that the schools in general work for at most 15 percent of their students.

Mann also notes that his findings in Pennsylvania may not be generalizable to other states.

But the takeaway from his analysis is that choice in Pennsylvania's cyber sector has been plagued by some of the same dynamics that affect other markets, especially differential access to quality information and quality options.

"Contrary to policy intentions, the cyber charter movement exacerbated inequality and had dubious impact on academic quality," Mann wrote.


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