A little more than a year ago, the state’s General Assembly passed a law that froze funding for any child enrolled in cyber charter schools after March 13, 2020.

School administrators also called for a moratorium on any new enrollments in cyber schools. Rick Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers’ union, sent an email to members making it clear he was looking for ways “to prevent mass numbers of students from enrolling in cyber schools.”

But what a difference a year and a grassroots movement of parents makes. In Montgomery County, for example, parents held a protest outside a regional office of the PSEA and called out union leaders for “strong-arming” individual teachers and school boards to keep schools closed—a key reason for surging charter school enrollment statewide. It appears lawmakers in Harrisburg are listening.

Several state senators have proposed an ambitious education reform package that would expand the public and private schooling options that parents evidently want.

Keith Williams, Pennsylvania director of Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of free speech rights for public-sector workers, views cyber charter schools as a viable option for families and teachers. He describes the anti-charter stance of the school administrators’ association and the teachers’ unions as “tiresome and outdated.” He anticipates that charters in general, and  cyber charters in particular, will open up new possibilities not just for Pennsylvania families but also Pennsylvania teachers.

“Cyber charter schools offer new opportunities not just for students but also for teachers, so it’s good for the profession to embrace new technology,” says Williams, who was also a public school teacher for more than 20 years. “I think what we need is a new paradigm. Maybe you’re in a district that’s a hindrance to creativity and versatility. Cyber schools have their place, and they are properly viewed as one option of many.”

‘Cyber charter schools offer new opportunities not just for students but also for teachers, so it’s good for the profession to embrace new technology…’

Robert Pratt, a sixth-grade science teacher with the Agora Cyber Charter School, advises parents to be aware that the online learning style works well for some students but not so much for others. His daughter, for instance, benefits from in-person learning because “it helps to keep her focused.” Although his son “thrived” at Agora, he missed some of the in-person contact with his group of friends who remained at their brick-and-mortar school.

While both of his children have returned to their district school, Pratt says he’s thankful for the opportunity Agora provided to help “close gaps” that emerged when in-person options were closed to his kids and other students across the district.

For families that may be new to the cyber learning environment, Agora has “family coaches” who are regionally based and work closely with all students and parents so they can navigate their way through the technology. Chad Mullen has served as one since January 2012.

“As a family coach for Agora, I work closely with the student’s learning coach at home, which is typically a parent, but sometimes a guardian,” Mullen explained. “Some parents are off and running with the technology, others are texting or calling more frequently.”

Mullen also works closely with teachers to determine where their students might need more assistance and to ensure that students are maximizing the tools they have available.

“For students, I think there are a ton of advantages,” Mullen continued. “For starters, there is no need to conform the way they might have to in a brick-and-mortar setting. The students can just be themselves. They don’t have to fit into a box.

‘There is no need to conform the way they might have to in a brick-and-mortar setting… The students can just be themselves. They don’t have to fit into a box.’

“For teachers, there’s a great benefit in that more resources are readily available,” he continued. “There are YouTube videos for math lessons, for creative writing, for history, and for any subject that can augment their lesson plans. Teachers can also bring in more experts for particular subjects without the logistics of having to bring them in person.”

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all public and private schools closed for the 2019–2020 school year beginning last April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the shutdowns have placed a strain on families, Williams is encouraged to see more parents speaking out on the need not just for school choice but for more autonomy for individual teachers.

“It’s important to focus on variety for students and teachers,” Williams observed. “A lot of the teachers I talk would rather be completely online or completely in-person at this point. School choice is a winner for everyone because it not only helps families meet the individual needs of their students but also enables teachers to find the school that most closely matches how they like to teach. For some of them, cyber charter schools are the best option.”

Despite drawing opposition from Pennsylvania’s education establishment and its allies in government, cyber schools in the commonwealth are beginning to attract nationwide attention for their unique contributions to education.

Cyber schools in the commonwealth are beginning to attract nationwide attention for their unique contributions to education.

For instance, the Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA), which is Pennsylvania’s largest K-12 public charter school with more than 19,000 students, was named in April as a 2021 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School. CCA was recognized for its “indoor, closed-loop, soilless 6,100-square-foot growing system” housed in its Harrisburg campus, according to a press release. Known as Agworks, the growing system teaches students how to alleviate the carbon footprint of agriculture.

Mullen, the family learning coach for the Agora school, finds that the innovative learning opportunities available at cyber learning institutions across the state bolster the arguments for “having the funding following student.” He is familiar with several cases where students who “come in from a rough background” proceed to “flourish in an online environment.”

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for several national publications.

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