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The Fight Over Pennsylvania’s Cyber Charter Schools

Sen. Lindsey Williams

Parents have options for schooling their children in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

There are traditional public schools, funded by tax dollars, as well as private schools that are funded with tuition dollars. A third option is the charter school, a public school that operates independently of school districts pursuant to a charter issued by a local board of school directors.

And then there are cyber charter schools.

A cyber charter school is an independent public school that is organized as a public nonprofit corporation. Established and operated under a charter granted by Department of Education, a cyber charter school has its own independent board of trustees, and uses technology to deliver a significant portion of its curriculum and instruction to its students through the Internet or other electronic means.

There are 13 cyber charter schools in the Commonwealth for the 2023-24 academic year with the majority headquartered in the eastern part of the state.

  • 21st Century Cyber CS, West Chester
  • Achievement House CS, Exton
  • Agora Cyber CS, King of Prussia
  • ASPIRA Bilingual Cyber CS, Philadelphia
  • Central PA Digital Learning Foundation CS, Altoona
  • Commonwealth Charter Academy CS, Harrisburg
  • Esperanza Cyber CS, Philadelphia
  • Insight PA Cyber CS, Exton
  • Pennsylvania Cyber CS, Midland
  • Pennsylvania Distance Learning CS, Sewickley
  • Pennsylvania Leadership CS, West Chester
  • Pennsylvania Virutal CS, King of Prussia
  • Reach Cyber CS, Harrisburg


But if one Pennsylvania state senator has her way, the legislature would institute a moratorium on the approval of new corporate-managed, publicly-funded cyber charters until basic education funding in the state can be solved.

State Sen. Lindsay Williams (D-Allegheny) was angered during a recent Department of Education (PDE) appropriations hearing when the PDE struggled to meaningfully answer questions about the Department’s recent approval of a five-year charter for the Pennwood Cyber Charter School. The group had previously submitted applications in January and May of 2023 that were denied by the PDE because of deficiencies.

“I was incensed when PDE approved a new cyber charter managed by a for-profit, corporate education giant,” said Williams. “This is the first new cyber charter school to be approved by PDE in eight years and its application was deficient on its face.”

Using traditional metrics, Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools have not performed to the level of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. According to PA Future Ready Index,  a collection of school progress measures related to school and student success, 3rd grade English language arts proficiency is 27.8% lower in cyber charter schools, while 7th grade math proficiency in 25% lower. Graduation rates for cyber charter schools range between 50-60 percent.

Every one of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools has been identified as needing some level of support and improvement under the state’s accountability system. More than half are currently operating under expired charters. And PDE lacks the capacity that it needs to provide financial and academic oversight for these schools.

Despite this, Pennsylvanians already spend roughly $1 billion every year on tuition for cyber charter schools, making this one of the leading drivers of property tax increases. Tuition at these privately-run, publicly-funded schools is not tied to the actual cost of education, and many cyber charters bring in significantly more money than they spend on educating students.

“Sending millions of taxpayer dollars to a new cyber charter school that is managed by a giant for-profit corporate entity when we have yet to address the school funding court decision is not only unconscionable – it is unconstitutional,” said Williams.

“Therefore, I am calling for a moratorium on the proliferation of cyber charter schools until common sense, bipartisan reforms that legislators and school boards across the state have been asking for can be implemented. We must strengthen charter school accountability and transparency, prevent fraud, better serve high-need students, and ensure that neighborhood public schools are not adversely affected. I will continue to fight to secure these broader reforms – but in the meantime, we must stop making the problem worse.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro‘s recent budget address called for an increase in basic education funding by $1.1 billion and caps the cost districts would pay for each cyber student at $8,000. Public schools currently pay between $8,600 and $26,500 per student each year to cyber schools. It has been estimated that Pennsylvania school districts stand to save $262 million if Shapiro’s reforms are adopted.

Taj Magruder, press secretary for the Department of Education, said “the antiquated funding formula for cyber charter schools is costing school districts too much money and needs to be updated.

“That’s why the governor is calling for a uniform tuition rate of $8,000 — the amount set by a bill that passed the House of Representatives last year in a bipartisan manner. This better reflects what it actually costs to educate a student at a cyber charter.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Khalid Mumin said the proposed cap would also put spending in line with the actual cost of serving these students.

“The education programming shall not be compromised. We’re looking at the difference between face-to-face brick and mortar education in comparison to charter education, which happens online,” he told lawmakers.

Timothy Eller, senior vice president of outreach and government relations for Commonwealth Charter Academy Cyber Charter School, said that the school incurs other costs that are unique to its model.

“Because we are a comprehensive, full-time school, and not a program, we have higher and unique costs in areas in which school districts do not, such as internet reimbursement to families, student computers and technical support, procuring and delivering technology and curriculum materials to students’ homes, and contracting with service providers throughout the state to provide in-home services to students with special needs,” Eller said.

The school — which enrolled just over 20,000 during the 2022-2023 school year — also provides live instruction, field trips and job training. That said, Commonwealth Charter Academy also reported more than $122 million in profits for the fiscal year ending in June 2022.

“So it definitely makes us question how much we’re paying when they’re reporting those kinds of profits. They’re spending that kind of money on advertising and sponsorships,” said Andy Christ, senior policy director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).

One Response

  1. Agree with the Senator but would take it a step further. Bring ALL tax dollars back to public schools. These charter schools are just leaching off of the schools and collecting paychecks.


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