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Costs, performance records fuel criticism of charter schools

Jamie Martines
| Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, 12:30 a.m.

School districts across the state are struggling to balance budgets and keep up with mandated costs, programs and services public schools are required to provide to charter schools, according to state and federal laws.

Among those costs, school administrators say, is money lost when a student decides to leave the home district and the student's tuition dollars are forwarded from the district to the charter school.

In Westmoreland County, charter-related costs are primarily related to cyber charters. The Adelphoi Ketterer Charter School in Unity is the only brick-and-mortar charter school in the county and focuses on supporting adjudicated youth.

The Jeannette City School District, for example, spent about $997,000 to send students to cyber charter schools during the 2015-16 school year, according to Business Manager Paul Sroka. The cost for the 2016-17 school year, when about 60 of the district's roughly 1,000 students attended cyber charter schools, was about $820,000. Sroka expects about the same number of students to attend cyber charters this school year.

Such costs represent about 5 percent of the district's $19 million budget for the 2017-18 school year.

On top of the cost, cyber charters often are criticized for poor performance.

A 2017 report by the National Education Policy Center, nonprofit think tank housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder, reaffirmed existing data showing that Pennsylvania cyber charters “performed significantly worse than feeder schools in both reading and math.”

According to the report, full-time virtual schools across the country, including the cyber charter model found in Pennsylvania, typically do not perform as well as brick-and-mortar counterparts.

A 2016 report by researchers at Penn State presented similar findings, citing data showing that enrolling a student in a Pennsylvania cyber charter school is equal to “roughly 90 fewer days of learning in reading and nearly 180 fewer days of learning in math.”

According to 2015-16 school year data from the Department of Education:

• About 86 percent of public school students statewide finished high school in four years. That same year, the average cyber charter school four-year cohort graduation rate was about 48 percent. The state's largest cyber charter, PA Cyber, had a four-year cohort graduation rate of 55 percent that year, while PA Virtual had a rate of 81 percent and Commonwealth Charter Academy had a rate of 66 percent.

• In 2016, about 54 percent of third-graders statewide scored proficient or advanced on state tests in math, and about 61 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. About 37 percent of third-graders at PA Cyber scored in that range for reading, and about 23 percent scored in that range for math. At PA Virtual, that breakdown was about 53 percent for reading and 42 percent for math. At Commonwealth Charter Academy, it was about 42 percent for reading and 28 percent for math.

• In 2016, about 31 percent of eighth-graders statewide scored proficient or advanced on state tests in math, and about 58 percent scored proficient or advanced in reading. About 42 percent of eighth-graders at PA Cyber scored in that range for reading and about 10 percent scored in that range for math. At PA Virtual, that breakdown was about 38 percent for reading and 10 percent for math. At Commonwealth Charter Academy, it was about 37 percent for reading and 8 percent for math.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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