The public education options for Pennsylvania parents have expanded, thanks to the Pennsylvania Department of Education authorizing the opening of four new cyber charter schools, to begin operating this fall.
This now brings to 17 the number of cyber charter schools in the commonwealth.
Each of the four new schools — Achieving Community Transformation (ACT) Cyber Charter School, Education Plus Academy Cyber Charter School, Esperanza Cyber Charter School and Solomon World Civilization Cyber Charter School — will have headquarters in Philadelphia, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“Charter schools, both brick-and-mortar and cyber, provide families with a viable alternative to traditional public schools,” said Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis. “Parents may choose to enroll their child in a charter school for a variety of reasons. Regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location, all students deserve an environment that is conducive for their academic growth. Charter schools fulfill this role for more than 105,000 students across the state.”
ACT will serve students in grades 9–12, and will admit 400 students in the fall; organizers are planning on teaching 2,000 students by its fifth year. Education Plus, a K–12 school, will enroll 400 students this fall and organizers there, too, plan on reaching 2,000 by its fifth year as well. Esperanza, also K–12, will accept 600 students this fall and has aspirations of reaching 1,245 by its fifth year.
Each of the new cyber charters had their initial applications denied for a variety of technical reasons. For example, each cyber charter had to submit a complete curriculum plan, while others were more specific to the individual charter school. Esperanza had to submit a concise budget, while Solomon was required to establish an English as a Second Language program and streamline its purchasing policy.
Education Plus, meanwhile, needed a speech language pathologist and the establishment of an ESL program before its application was approved. For ACT to gain approval, it had to first submit a multi-year financial plan. These charters had 120 days from the date of their initial denial to resubmit the applications with the requested corrections.
Because a charter receives authorization doesn’t mean the state can’t revoke it — as the PDE has done by revoking the charter of the locally-based Frontier Virtual Charter High School.
According to Tomalis, an investigation by the PDE found that Frontier Virtual failed in delivering the core educational programs to its students that its charter demanded.
“Over the past year, Frontier fell short in providing its students with the core academic programs parents and students expect of our public schools,” Tomalis said. “These issues were not just the normal difficulties typically experienced by a first-year organization, but they go to the heart of Frontier’s ability to provide quality educational opportunities to students within the confines of its charter, as well as the Charter School Law.”
Tomalis outlined Frontier’s failings, which appear to be many. Frontier was notified in January that state education officials would do an on-site assessment in April; however, officials weren’t allowed access to school records nor were they allowed to talk to any school personnel. During that time and without department of education consent, Frontier fired its principal and its entire teaching staff, leading to further organizational disarray while obstructing the officials’ assessment process.
The PDE’s investigation also found that Frontier failed to reimburse students for equipment, technology and services; failed to properly monitor student attendance and work progress; failed to maintain the financial wherewithal required by the Charter School Law; had one or more violations of its own charter; failed to meet the base, acceptable standards of fiscal management or audit requirements and finally, that Frontier blatantly violation of the Charter School Law.
Frontier’s Board of Directors released a statement acknowledging that it has voluntarily surrendered Frontier’s license, but takes umbrage at what it feels was neglect and lack of cooperation from the PDE.
“It is with profound sadness that the Board of Frontier Virtual Charter High School voted at yesterday’s Board meeting to voluntarily surrender its charter to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This difficult decision was reached by the Board and was ultimately precipitated by several factors. From its inception, Frontier made numerous overtures to PDE for assistance with the operations of its institution, each of which was rebuked or ignored,” read the statement from Frontier’s board. “After the conclusion of its first — admittedly difficult — year of operation, PDE notified Frontier on June 13, 2012, that the PDE wanted the school to voluntarily surrender its charter. At that time, Frontier asked PDE what grounds the revocation was going to be based on, but was told that PDE was not willing to inform the school of those grounds. Thereafter, Secretary Tomalis transmitted a letter to Frontier identifying some of the issues being considered by PDE in our revocation. After review of these issues — several of which were in error — Frontier was prepared to fight the revocation. The Board believes in the mission of this organization and wanted to see the community we served continue to receive the help we were providing.
“Frontier then presented an offered compromise to PDE to alleviate the Department’s concern regarding the operations of Frontier,” the statement continued. “This proposal, which in part included a temporary suspension of our charter while we demonstrated to PDE that we were prepared to educate our students, was flatly rejected by PDE with no counter.”
Frontier’s board also said the PDE didn’t possess any verifiable evidence of its alleged fiscal mismanagement, and that it decided not to fight the PDE, given the extensive cost involved.
Either way, the PDE appears unwavering in its decision to ban Frontier.
“The department is ultimately responsible to students, parents and taxpayers for ensuring that Pennsylvania’s students have access to quality cyber charter programs,” Tomalis said. “It is of the utmost importance that all charter schools — brick-and-mortar and cyber — adhere to conditions of their charter and the requirements of the Charter School Law to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used to provide students with high-quality academic programs.”