2012-02-02 / Front Page

SF Superintedent Gives Lowdown On Charter And Cyber Charter Schools

Also includes the topic of school vouchers in presentation to PTA
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz
STAFF WRITER

Presented with the opportunity to speak with members of Southern Fulton’s Parent- Teacher Association Monday night, Superintendent Kendra Trail touched on several topics hotly contested and discussed in today’s field of education.

Starting off with a comparison between charter and cyber charter schools, Trail said she hoped her 30-minute presentation would bring more awareness to the community on the issues of these schools as well as school vouchers.

According to the superintendent, charter schools are essentially independent, public schools granted charter approval by local school boards. An actual “brick and mortar” facility, a total of 135 charter schools exist across the state of Pennsylvania.

In a differentiation, cyber charter schools are granted operating privileges at a state level through the guidelines of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Basic means of instruction in this case, Trail indicated, is through some form of technology such as an online blackboard, Skype and the computer. As a result, no actual facility is required to operate a cyber or virtual charter school. Twelve cyber charter schools are known to be in existence in the state currently.

An interesting note, Trail said, is that Southern Fulton, just like other public schools, is required to pay for any members of its student body who opt to withdraw and enter a charter or cyber charter school. The district is currently calculated at spending $10,000 per child in educational related expenses. That full amount must be relinquished to the new school even if that school only spends a portion of that amount on per-pupil cost, Trail added.

An estimated $500,000 has been paid out by Southern Fulton between 2006 and 2011 for students attending these types of schools. Furthermore, Trail noted with state reimbursement cut in this area, the district will be required to pay the enrollment costs in full, thereby making the expense “the sole burden of the taxpayers.”

Twenty-seven Southern Fulton students are currently enrolled at charter or cyber charter schools. Among those are the Agora Cyber Charter, which was recently labeled by The New York Times as “one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the county run by K12 Inc.,” a publicly traded company. Agora, the “Times” said, is expected to receive revenue of $72 million in this school year alone.

“Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal,” said the article penned by Stephanie Saul.

Sharing the article with those in attendance, Trail pointed out K12 Inc. spent $26.5 million on advertising efforts alone in hopes of recruiting more students into its virtual, onlinelearning programs.

“We’re trying to compete with these schools. How much money do you think is in our budget for advertising? Zero....We need to put our money toward our kids, the kids who are here and the programs that we have,” Trail said. “It’s very frustrating. When I say there is a lot of money at stake, that is an understatement.”

Other charter and cyber charter schools attended by Southern Fulton students include Commonwealth Connections Academy Charter, New Day Charter School, PA Virtual Charter School and PA Cyber Charter School. Delving into their test results and scores associated with No Child Left Behind, Trail revealed the schools, aside from PA Cyber Charter School, are failing to make “adequate yearly progress.” In some instances, these schools have failed to make AYP for several years running even though they are required to adhere to the same testing standards as public schools.

In comparison to public schools, Trail further elaborated charter and cyber charter schools are not required to prepare an annual audit of accounts; hold public meetings or hearings on construction and renovations; advertise or bid for supplies; or have their building plans approved by PDE.

The superintendent went on to discuss school vouchers, which she equated to a “gift certificate” or taxpayer-funded subsidy that would allow qualified parents, primarily from low-income families, to receive moneyto send their children to any other public, private or parochial school of their choice.

Vouchers, she pointed out, have not be approved by the state legislature. In fact, in December the House voted down a proposed voucher amendment by a vote of 90-105. Local representative Dick Hess was one member of the House of Representatives to vote against the measure, which would result in “even more money leaving the district,” Trail said.

Trail clarified she was not opposed to private schools. Her own parents made the decision to send her as well her siblings to a private school for several years, she said.

“However, I am opposed to state and local money being used to fund them because they (private schools) are not held to the same standards and accountability that public schools are,” she said. She made further reference to the separation of church and state and the instances that could therefore arise by sending a student backed by local taxpayer dollars to a private school with religious affiliations.

“I believe in choice too, but you are taking taxpayer money and funneling it to the private sector,” she concluded.

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