As Pennsylvania’s public schools prepared for remote learning last year, Robert Pratt decided it would be best to send his children to a school that already had a well-developed online curriculum.
That school was the Agora Cyber Charter School, based in King of Prussia, where he works as a sixth–grade science teacher. He found that the “interactive classroom” available at Agora was much more advanced and reliable than what his “brick and mortar” school district was offering. Pratt began his career with Agora more than 10 years ago as a math specialist, and he transitioned to his new position just last year.
“The flexibility the cyber environment offers to teachers is just awesome,” Pratt said in an interview. “You can be as creative and innovative as you want to be. Everything is at our fingertips as instructors. So instead of printing out, say, 60 or 70 copies of a worksheet to give to students, I can simply create a worksheet and send it out instantly to the different individual breakout rooms for students in their online platform. I can create a quality lesson plan in an hour’s time thanks to new technology.”
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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all public and private schools closed for the remainder of the 2019–2020 school year, beginning last April. This prompted Pratt and his wife to carefully evaluate how their Franklin County School District handled the challenges of virtual learning.
“There was a lot of uncertainty going on when the schools were closed,” Pratt said. “We decided that instead of getting caught up in the chaos it would best to send our children to Agora.”
‘If we want parents to have a choice, then cyber charter schools are the only school that every student in Pennsylvania can go to because there are a lot of school districts that have no brick-and-mortar charter schools.’
The contrast between the virtual offerings at Agora and the conventional district schools “could not be more stark,” Pratt said. “Kids were getting lost in the instruction. The recordings were awful and the quality just didn’t work. The students were done with their work by mid-week.”
And beyond the benefits to his children, Pratt highlighted the benefits to teachers. Since the cyber platform makes it possible to create comprehensive lesson plans in a short period of time while also providing instructors more options in terms of how they can deliver classroom materials to students, Pratt anticipates that more teachers will be drawn to cyber schools as a career option over time.
Agora is one of 14 public cyber charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in 498 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts. Funding for charter schools is based on each district’s per-pupil costs after subtracting expenditures for debt, transportation, and facilities. On average, Pennsylvania charter schools receive 25 % less per pupil than district schools, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg.
Dr. James Hanak, executive director of the Public Cyber Charter School Association, is encouraging policymakers to take a fresh look at the supply and demand challenges associated with charter schools.
“If we want parents to have a choice, then cyber charter schools are the only school that every student in Pennsylvania can go to because there are a lot of school districts that have no brick-and-mortar charter schools,” said Hanak, who is also the CEO of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. “Our school systems are not failing everywhere, but they are failing in big cities, and if we’re going to give these mostly minority students a chance at a good education, then we have to think of another solution.”
Hanak estimates that there are about 30,000 students on the waiting list for charter schools in Philadelphia. Although the “mechanisms are in place to create more charters, the opportunities are not,” Hanak explained, because it is the local school district officials who give out new charters.
‘Our school systems are not failing everywhere, but they are failing in big cities, and if we’re going to give these mostly minority students a chance at a good education, then we have to think of another solution.’
“Right now, Philadelphia officials are figuring out ways to prevent new charter schools from emerging,” he said. “They fear that if the charter school movement continues to grow, then the whole public school system could be dramatically changed.”
But times could be changing because pending state legislation could potentially liberalize the approval methods for charter schools.
Rep. Andrew Lewis, who is pushing his own version of an education reform package on the House side, envisions a statewide charter authorization board stepping in to approve new charters where they are most needed. Lewis, a Republican representing parts of Dauphin County, finds that under current conditions, local districts in charge of the approval process have too much of an incentive to prevent parents from having a charter school option.
Dr. Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School, is concerned that there is too much of a fixation with financial “line items” on the part of some education officials when the focus should instead be on the “human element” standing behind school choice initiatives.
‘One of the silver linings from the pandemic is that families that have never considered online or virtual learning are now taking the time to consider this model.’
“We need to investigate and find out more about why families want to leave their schools in the first place,” Jensen said. “If a particular school system were serving families, there would be no reason for them to leave. There may be bullying issues or anxiety issues where a student has a hard time learning in certain environments.”
After schools closed for in-person learning in March 2020,, enrollement at Agora immediately increased. As the 2020–2021 school year opened, the enrollment numbers at Agora swelled, with 2,200 new students enrolled, bringing the total student population to 7,600 students, up from 6,000 prior to graduation last year.
“Cyber schools are designed to address the digital divide, and we’re designed to make sure all students get a computer and get on the internet,” Jensen observed. “I think we have closed this gap. One of the silver linings from the pandemic is that families that have never considered online or virtual learning are now taking the time to consider this model.”
Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for several national publications.