Virtual Schools

With the growth of technology, distance education in the form of cyber schools has become increasingly more prominent. For the purpose of this discussion “cyber school” is defined as an educational organization that offers K-12 courses through distance learning methods via Web-based delivery. The emergence of cyber schools across the nation is evident of the changes that are taking place in education. In particular, by examining cyber schools that have been created as charter schools, one becomes aware of the many educational and fiscal accountability issues that arise from this revolutionizing force in education.

Throughout the nation there are at least 30 cyber charter schools in twelve different states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. (McClusky). However, of all these states it is Pennsylvania that has the most cyber charters. Currently Pennsylvania has seven charter cyber schools operating throughout the state enrolling approximately 5,000 students.(Woodall). With such boom in cyber charter schools Pennsylvania has also been the site of the greatest controversy over this new type of education. By examining the function of these cyber charters in Pennsylvania, and the controversy that surrounds them, it becomes possible to develop an understanding of the role that this form of distance education serves.

A thorough consideration of cyber charter schools requires a more detailed explanation of what exactly this type of schooling is. Cyber schools that operate on a charter are first and foremost a charter school. They act as an independent public school that is ultimately controlled by whoever holds the charter. Like all charter schools, their support relies on public funds that are paid to them by school districts. The amount they receive “is equal to resident district’s budgeted total expenditure per student minus a pro rata share of the cost of certain programs”. (Questions & Answers) Perhaps the most important trait of charter schools is their accountability to parents and students, without whose business they would cease to exist.

In Pennsylvania charter schools were given authority through the charter school law of 1997. This statue has recently been applied to the realm of computer based instruction as more and more cyber schools open in PA under charter. Debate has continued as to whether the charter statue allows for cyber education. Even though it may be true that cyber schools may not have been considered when the charter law was initiated, in June of this year the Commonwealth Court ruled that there was nothing in this law to prohibit them. In part of their 26-page decision the judges ruled:

The charter school law authorizes the creation of any charter school, as long as the entity complies with the requirements for a charter set forth in the statute. Based on our reading of the statute, we see no reason why a cyber school cannot meet the statutory requirements. (Woodall)

Regardless of this decision, opposition continues and lawsuits keep springing up.
One of the principal causes of this resistance to cyber schools lies in the defining difference between traditional “brick and mortar” charters and the new form of cyber charters. “While traditional charter schools are constrained by geography and can only serve limited areas, most cyber charters can be accessed at any time, from anywhere in the world.”(McClusky). Although this freedom is perhaps the greatest attribute of cyber education, it has also been the cause of many of it’s problems. Because the pool of students enrolled in various cyber schools is statewide, students are pulled from different school districts. For this reason the per student amount received by cyber schools varies based on that student’s home district per pupil allowance. The issue of the many former home-schoolers enrolled in cyber charters has also caused conflict in funding. While previously local school districts were not spending a per pupil amount on those schooled at home, once they become cyber charter students the district is financial responsible for their educational costs. Moreover, many opponents have claimed that cyber charter schools that this per pupil amount is much higher than the actual cost of the student’s education at a cyber charter schools. (Zobgy).

When discussing the opposition to cyber education, the issue of accountability has also been in the forefront of the conflict. The Pennsylvania School Board Association (PBSA) claims that being that “there is no provision of current law…that provides standards for educational, administrative, or fiscal accountability,” charter schools should not be allowed to operate. (Zogby). The concern of the lack of standards in cyber charters is in fact a concern with all charter schools. Since they are not required to follow state educational standards, there is apprehension as to the level of education that is being provided. Specifically “Internet-based approaches to education must be subject to standards of program quality and accountability at least equal to what is demanded of other schools and government programs.” (Questions & Answers). Clearly the emergence of cyber charter schools has been characterize by an assault by those who have concerns with this form of distance education. In fact many of the arguments against cyber charter are similar to the arguments that are made against many reforms that have attempted to change pubic education. As with most issues, however, there are always two sides. Just as strong as the opposition stand supporters of cyber charters who believe that these schools are a viable educational force.

At this point an examination of a particular PA cyber charter school is relevant. Although the basic structure of cyber charters has been described it is only through more intense analysis that the appropriateness of this form of education can be discerned. The Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is one of the seven cyber charters operating in PA. The school services students K-12 and the particular numbers enrolled in each grade is listed in the chart below:

Grade Number of Students
Kinder. 50
Grade 1 45
Grade 2 50
Grade 3 71
Grade 4 64
Grade 5 75
Grade 6 85
Grade 7 98
Grade 8 97
Grade 9 120
Grade 10 114
Grade 11 97
Grade 12 30
Total 996

This student population spans 217 school districts in Pennsylvania. Of all these districts Pittsburgh has the most in attendance at 51 students. (Gentzel)

The mission of WPCCS as identified on their website is the dedication “to the success of students who have not had their needs met in a traditional educational setting.”(WPCCS homepage). The WPCCS purports to foster educational excellence in a variety of ways such as:

– Students, parents and staff will plan and design the course of study that best meets the needs of each learner
– Computer technology will be used to gain access to the vast curricular resources on the World Wide Web
– Students will develop a sense of self-discipline, independences, and responsibility for the content, quality, and depth of their learning.
– Students will meet the Pennsylvania Educational Standards

This listing gives a more detailed analysis of the goals of cyber charters. Those listed by WPCCS are similar to those on other PA cyber charters’ sites. It is important to mention that one of the very concerns of oppositions is addressed in this listing.

Although there is no regulatory enforcement of PA standards in cyber charters, WPCCS maintains a commitment to assuring that there program meets these standards. Moreover, in terms of educational strategy, WPCCS emphasizes the individualized nature of instruction. Students enrolled in WPCCS. along with parents and staff, are responsible for the development of an Individual Learning Plan. This learning plan is important to mention in regards to the fact that WPCCS’s educational materials come from third party sources. Educational material being supplied by outside sources is an aspect common to cyber education. WPCCS employs the use of Accelerated Reading Software, Computer Curriculum Corporation, Pass Key Software, Virtual Classroom, and Keystone National High School, to name a few.

The use of these third party sources have managed to demonstrate some of the inadequacies of cyber charters. For instance, many online assessments do not utilize authentic assessment, relying mainly on multiple choice and true false. Also most providers do not offer opportunities for students to participate in cooperative learning. Additionally, many providers use textbook based instruction and ignore other feasible modes of instruction(Zogby). All of these shortfalls prove also to be the overall shortfalls of cyber charters.

Moreover, the fear with cyber education is that instead of producing meaningful education, it will allow students to get by without really learning anything. Of course, one could also argue that this is true of traditional public education also. However, the wealth of information provided by an education through internet learning can be inexhaustible, and approached correctly through the organization of a reliable charter student’s learning can be unlimited. Through cyber schools students are able to progress at their own pace, and receive a more individualized instruction than possible by any other means. This proves beneficial to both special education and advance placement students. Additionally, students who have physical limitations or problems in public school may also find cyber education to be a more supportive learning environment.

However, the fundamental question with cyber education is not it’s appropriateness as a form of education, but it’s appropriateness as a form of charter schools. Even the opponents to cyber charters will admit the usefulness of computer based instruction. It is the execution of this education as charter that has brought on the attack. While the commissioned state review of cyber charters observed that most of the fears about cyber education were proven to be unfounded, they did address some concern with the implementation of these programs. According to the report most cyber charter meet teacher’s certification requirements. In addition they have their students take the PSSA which shows accountability in terms of student achievement. But the study confesses that the state should consider a standard funding level for all cybers. Additionally, the report suggests that cyber schools should also be more accountable, with more oversight by state education officials.

Yet since the release of this report in October of 2001, debate over the funding and accountability have continued. Lawsuits continue to arise against cyber charters in PA, including a class action lawsuit recently filed in Butler County by 32 school districts against WPCCS. (WPCCS homepage). In order for cyber schools to reach their potential, the issue of money must be resolved. The importance of reaching this resolution can be seen by those who truly appreciate the potential of cyber learning. One grandparent writes Governor Ridge: “My grandson is a student of WPCCS. He does quite well with it. If it were to close, I don’t know what we will do He can’t, and won’t go back to Public School.”(WPCCS homepage).

Cyber charter schools stand as an example to the changing face of public education in the technological age. In PA cyber charters have become growing competition to traditional public education. This competition has led to opposition which demands more accountability in terms of funding and standards from cyber charters. Pennsylvania stands at the crossroads of this controversy with more cyber charters than any other state. I believe that the basis of cyber education has proven to be a viable force in education. Yet I do agree that more must be done to assure that this form of education is doing what it purports to do, and not simply making money. This will take more involvement from the state to help the parents, students, local school districts, and even cyber schools themselves, understand their function and liability in American education.

1.Gentzel, Thomas J. Pennsylvania School board Association. June 26, 2001.

2.Questions & Answers. Pennsylvania School Board Association.

3. Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools homepage.

4.Woodall, Martha. “Cyber schools legal, Pa. court rules. Philly Inquirer. Jun 18, 2002.

5.Zobgy, Charles B. “Cyber Charter Schools Review.” Oct 30, 2001.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 + five =