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Pennsylvania officials: Expand oversight of cyber education

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

An 11-count federal indictment charging the founder of the state's largest cyber charter school with skimming nearly $1 million for himself from the school he founded underscores the need for tougher state oversight, government officials and educators said.

“Clearly, we need to address openness, accountability, accreditation and the funding stream for these schools,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

The indictment, announced Friday by U.S. Attorney David Hickton, accuses PA Cyber founder Nick Trombetta — who resigned as the school's CEO in June 2012 — of using connected profit and nonprofit organizations to skim nearly $1 million in public money for himself from the taxpayer-funded school.

“All of these things we have rules against,” said state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, and the indictment demonstrates the need for Pennsylvania to enforce those rules. “It shouldn't take the U.S. Attorney and an 11-count indictment to catch this.”

Trombetta has declined comment about the charges and referred questions to his attorney. David Jaskiewicz, president of the board of PA Cyber, also declined to comment about the indictment.

Hickton was careful when asked about implications of the indictment on the state's charter schools law.

“We are not indicting PA Cyber or cyber education,” he said.

Gov. Tom Corbett is renewing his call for a comprehensive charter school overhaul, said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

Pennsylvania's charter school law, passed in 1997, never anticipated online cyber charter schools, said Ron Cowell, founder and president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg think tank.

Cowell was chairman of the state House Education Committee when the charter school law was adopted. The idea was to create a new breed of public school with enough flexibility to establish creative models for education.

Nationally, charter school students surpass gains made on standardized tests by students at traditional public schools, but, on average, Pennsylvania's charter students fall behind their public school peers, according to a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. The study looked at traditional and cyber charter schools.

Today, Pennsylvania charter schools enroll 119,000 of the state's 1.8 million K-12 public school students. About one-third of the charter students are enrolled in cyber programs.

Taxpayers pick up the tab, paying tuition based on costs in a brick-and mortar school. Many school officials argue that online education costs cyber charter schools much less.

“Cyber education is here to stay and has an important role to play in the choice menu for all students in the commonwealth, but I believe there needs to be a differentiated funding formula for bricks-and-mortar charter schools and cybers,” said Ron Sofo, former superintendent of Freedom Area High School, Beaver County, now the CEO and principal of City Charter High School, Downtown.

Charter schools, born under the administration of former Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, were largely supported by Republicans. The concept has backing from some urban Democrats, but many Democratic lawmakers and public school advocates, including state organizations that represent school boards and school administrators, have been critical, saying the system takes money from struggling school districts and lacks transparency.

Charter schools, which receive about $1.1 billion a year in tax money,ignored citizens' requests for records about 87 percent of the time and didn't participate in nearly three of four appeals to the state Office of Open Records, agency records showed as of May.

An audit released late last year by DePasquale's predecessor, Jack Wagner, found that multi-million-dollar, year-end surpluses at PA Cyber suggestedlocal school districts paid far more in tuition than PA Cyber spent to educate children.

“There's too much money in the system, and the funding formula must be corrected because we're inviting people to rip off the system, and it's happening across Pennsylvania,” Wagner said Saturday.

Audits of seven other charter schools released by DePasquale this year found improper leasereimbursements.

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said the Department of Education already is tighteningrequirements for charter schools.

“There were eight cyber schools that applied to start this year, and all of them were denied. Part of that was a process of the Department of Education tightening its guidelines on accountability and transparency issues,” Fayfich said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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