In my previous post, I questioned the wisdom of pursuing a dramatic change in education policy, specifically school vouchers, in an economy ravaged by financial crisis when school districts are grappling with severe cuts in programs and staff. It’s worth remembering that past education “solutions” have often proven to be anything but.

In 1997, state lawmakers, with the support of then-Gov. Tom Ridge, passed a bill allowing for the establishment of charter schools in Pennsylvania. The goal was to introduce competition as a way of prodding some struggling schools to make changes. In some cases, that has worked.

But it also threw open the doors to cyber charter schools, and a record number of students from all schools—including many that have always had highly-regarded academic programs—are considering a cyber education. On one hand, this completion has led schools to offer new options for parents, of which the CV Virtual Academy (CVVA) is just one example. On the other, it has drained millions of dollars from public school programs.

But is it making a difference? State testing data from Lancaster County may raise some eyebrows. Consider the chart below. The data points represent 2011 reading scores from all county schools. Obviously, the goal is to show both high growth and high achievement (in the upper right-hand quadrant):

Lancaster County Public Schools – Reading (2011)

Now compare those results to the leading cyber charter schools:

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools – Reading (2011)

We see a similar patter with math scores:

Lancaster County Public Schools – Math (2011)

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools – Math (2011)

It would be a mistake to conclude that cyber school students are underperforming relative to their public school peers because of the cyber platform. But if the goal of the charter law was to provide students with better options, the results are still not there–only the costs.

And as I discussed earlier this month, cyber charter schools cost significantly more than online education at local public schools. Last year, the annual tuition rate for students attending the CVVA was a little more than $3,700. That cost includes computer hardware and software, reimbursement for a broadband Internet connection at home, technology support and access to school activities, like field trips, art and music classes and athletics.

Still, the state set cyber charter school tuition last year for students living in Conestoga Valley at more than $8,300. Where is that extra money going? Given the broad-based, sophisticated marketing that cyber charter schools are doing, it is reasonable to suspect the extra tuition revenue is going to expenditures that do not directly benefit students.

I am proud that Conestoga Valley educators are embracing the competition from cyber charter schools and crafting a program that will meet diverse needs of 21st century students. And we are not the only school district in Lancaster County with these programs. Given our track record, I am confident our students will be better for it.

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