Senator Lindsey M. Williams Calls for Moratorium on Approval of New Cyber Charter Schools Amidst Ongoing Criticism

Senator Lindsey M. WilliamsImage via Pennsylvania Senate Democrats

HARRISBURG, PA — In a sweeping statement, Pennsylvania Senator Lindsey M. Williams declared war on cyber charter schools, calling for the immediate halting of their expansion after expressing deep-rooted concerns about their efficiency and accountability.

This call to action comes in the wake of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) Senate Appropriations Hearing this past Wednesday, which saw the Department fumble on questions regarding their recent endorsement of an underperforming cyber charter school. This marked a significant turning point as it was the first cyber charter institution to bag an approval from PDE in eight years.

It’s no secret that Pennsylvania’s 13 existing cyber charter schools have been underperforming when stacked against traditional brick-and-mortar institutions as well as district schools. The disparities are glaring, with the PA Future Ready Index revealing cyber school students lagging 27.8% behind in 3rd-grade English language arts proficiency and 25% in 7th-grade math proficiency compared to their traditional school counterparts.

Furthermore, a Walton Family Foundation-backed study unveiled an unsettling reality. Cyber charter students were losing out on 72 days of English language arts learning and missing a full school year of math— a daunting 180 days of academic loss.

Even more concerning is the fact that every single one of these cyber schools has been flagged for needing some level of academic and operational improvement. Half of them are operating under expired charters, with PDE seemingly lacking the requisite bandwidth to provide the necessary oversight.

However, despite the evident slippage in performance and accountability, Pennsylvania residents continue to shell out approximately $1 billion each year in tuition for these cyber charter schools, a situation that has become a leading factor in property tax increases.

Interestingly, the tuition fees for these privately operated, publicly-funded schools do not bear a direct correlation with the actual cost of education. This anomaly has led to many cyber charters accumulating more revenue than they expend on student education.

The financial irregularities don’t stop there. Taxpayer money to the tune of $17 million was spent in the fiscal year 2021-2022 on advertising and promotional activities, ranging from local fireworks sponsorship at minor league baseball games to gift cards and branded giveaways. This, while over half of the cyber charter schools have fund reserves that amount to a third or more of their total annual operating budgets.

The Commonwealth Court recently ruled that the current system of public education in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional. Despite this, traditional public school districts and their students continue to bear the brunt of the financial drain caused by the influx of new cyber charter schools.

Senator Williams struck a poignant note in her closing remarks, labeling the state’s decision to send millions of tax dollars to a new cyber school managed by a large, profit-driven corporate entity as “unconscionable” and “unconstitutional”. She demanded an immediate freeze on the emergence of cyber charter schools until common-sense and bipartisan reforms can take effect.

In her call for increased transparency, preventing fraud, better services for high-need students, and protecting the interests of neighborhood public schools, the Senator vowed to continue her fight for comprehensive reform, insisting that further exacerbating the problem should cease.

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