Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charter school reached an enrollment of 10,000 students in Fall 2010, a milestone that education officials say mirrors a national trend, one that could gather steam as education officials across the nation continue to face budget challenges.
“We’ve never had a year in which enrollment did not grow,” said Fred Miller, communications coordinator for Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, which opened in 2000. “I think it’s a testament to the quality of service the school provides.”
Michael Horn, executive director of the Innosight Institute, an education think tank in California, said Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School’s rapid growth points both to the broadening appeal of charters and to widespread frustration with traditional public schools.
“I think, broadly speaking, it shows that very clearly there are whole sets of students who are speaking very clearly that the system that doesn’t work for them,” Horn said. “They’re seeking other options. It’s pretty unambiguous, when you see the numbers from the whole set of providers.”
Draws Urban, Rural Mix
The school, based in western Pennsylvania, opened three years after the state legislature passed a law allowing the creation of charter schools. The first graduating class had 17 students. Students are provided a free laptop and Internet access. The curriculum is delivered online by state-certified teachers, and the school requires at least one parent be available during the student’s study hours to oversee the education.
Miller said the school has a mix of rural and urban students—many of whom don’t fit well into traditional classrooms.
“Some kids need more time,” he said. “We can give them more time. In a lot of ways, it’s a customized education. A kid in the back of the classroom who’s afraid to speak up, they’re not afraid on the computer.”
Parents’ Choice ‘Loud and Clear’
Pennsylvania Cyber’s growth doesn’t surprise Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, whose group has given the state strong marks for its openness to charter education.
“Pennsylvania education leaders and lawmakers have provided a strong digital option for parents in the form of virtual charter schools,” Allen said, “and parents continue to make their choice loud and clear.”
In Pennsylvania, the state pays charter schools 75 percent of the per-pupil dollars it would allocate to traditional schools. That’s less of a challenge for PA Cyber and other online schools that spend far less money on bricks-and-mortar than their traditional competitors.
Cyber Charters ‘More Affordable’
Horn says the lower overhead and relative economy of online schools should make them attractive to policymakers in coming years.
“In a time of declining budgets and so forth, the potential [is there] to make education more affordable while higher-quality,” Horn said. “That’s a conversation we haven’t had, but it’s very exciting.”
The public also benefits, Miller said, because PA Cyber and similar schools have forced traditional schools to be more competitive.
“They’re starting to regard their families as clients instead of a captive audience,” Miller said. “They have to provide service—and quality service—if they want to keep them.”
Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.