HomeSchool Reform NewsWell-Funded Opponents of School Choice Target Pennsylvania Cyber Charters

Well-Funded Opponents of School Choice Target Pennsylvania Cyber Charters

Cyber charter schools that made a smooth transition possible for Pennsylvania students in search of quality online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic are under assault from well-financed opponents of education choice for lower-income children.

A Harrisburg-based outfit called Education Voters of Pennsylvania has circulated a series of news articles and reports taking aim at cyber charters, with much of its ire focused on the Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA), the state’s largest public cyber school. The group has repeatedly called for a state audit of the academy and accused the school of misusing taxpayer funds for events such as field trips.

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of PA, claims in a blog “school districts are starving” while cyber charter schools are “awash in excess tax money.”

After former Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all public and private schools in Pennsylvania closed to in-person learning during the height of the pandemic in the 2019-2020 school year, many families turned to virtual education. Enrollment at the Commonwealth Charter Academy doubled in 2021 and now includes more than 22,000 students. A study from the Pennsylvania Charter Performance Center shows virtual schools nationwide experienced an almost 60 percent increase in enrollment in the 2020-2021 school year.

Unlike conventional “brick and mortar” public schools, cyber charters provide online instruction to students who use a computer at home to access lesson plans. Cybers make use of interactive technology and multimedia techniques in place of in-person classroom instruction. The jump in enrollment indicates the availability of cyber schools during the pandemic created new avenues for parents and students when they were most needed. That’s something self-described advocates of quality public education might want to celebrate, but that hasn’t been the case.

Commonwealth Charter Academy President and CEO Thomas D. Longenecker released a statement on behalf of the school, pushing back against its critics. The “unfounded accusations and trumped-up statements” are part of an effort to “influence budget negotiations and misinform CCA families,” Longenecker says. Longenecker also reminded readers the CCA is already audited on annual basis.

Like other public schools, cyber charters don’t charge tuition. They receive most of their funding from the school districts of their enrolled students. The amount is based on a state formula that accounts for “special needs” students and “mainstream” students. More than 160,000 students were enrolled in the state’s charter schools for the 2021-22 school year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Department records show the state currently has 179 charter schools, including 14 cyber charters, educating almost 164,000 students.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free-market think tank (for which this reporter serves as senior investigative journalist), makes the critical point that since 87 percent of Pennsylvania school districts have no “brick and mortar” charter schools, the cybers are the only tuition-free option available for families who are not satisfied with their local government-run schools. In addition, the organization notes, the cost of charter schools is 27 percent less than the cost of conventional district schools, which means the charters save the districts money.

Evidence shows Education Voters of PA is bankrolled by well-funded special interests working to undercut education choice. Education Voters of PA identifies itself as a project of the Keystone Research Center on the same webpage where it solicits donations. Influence Watch, an initiative of the Capital Research Center in Washington, describes Keystone as a “left-of-center policy organization” with annual revenue of $1.8 million and assets of $1.4 million.

Financial disclosure records available from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2021 the Keystone Research Center received $25,000 from AFSCME Council 13; $25,000 from the Pennsylvania State Education Association; $13,000 from the teachers  union’s National Staff Union; $5,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers national headquarters; and $20,000 from UFCW Local 1776. Public employee unions have a history of strong opposition to charter schools because the latter are generally not unionized.

Keystone is also tied in with Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic network of nonprofit funds that support progressive causes. Influence Watch reports that as of 2020 these funds had revenues exceeding $1.7 billion and expenditures of $1.3 billion. In 2020, Keystone received $426,500 from Arabella’s Hopewell Fund and $645,000 from Arabella’s New Venture Fund.

The numbers show families that benefit from charters are up against a lot of money and powerful organizations from inside and outside their state. Meanwhile, public schools are not exactly in the poor house. “[P]ublic school spending is at a record high and Pennsylvania ranks among the highest spending states in the country,” a report from the Commonwealth Foundation states. Pennsylvania school districts spent almost $20,000 per student in the 2020-21 school year, which the report says is more than $4,000 above the national average.

In his rejoinder to Education Voters of PA, Longenecker notes more than half of the online charter school’s students are from low-income families.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that all programs, services, and activities are accessible to ALL students,” he says. “This is not only required by law, but it is the right thing to do.”

What happens next with charter schools in Pennsylvania with a new governor and new members of the General Assembly is an open question. A previous legislative proposal called for creation of a statewide authorization board, which would greatly reduce the ability of local school districts to block new charters. Elected officials who receive campaign contributions from the teachers’ unions have ample leverage to block any such proposal in the current legislative session.

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Kevin Mooney
Kevin Mooney
Kevin Mooney is associate news editor of the Heartland Daily News. He is also an investigative reporter with Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, PA and The Heritage Foundation in Washington DC who writes for several national publications including The Daily Signal, The Daily Caller, National Review, and the Washington Examiner. A native of New Jersey, Kevin specializes in covering energy, education, and labor policy.


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