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Creative Disruption
Cyber Charters Drive Innovation in PA

You couldn’t ask for a better example of competition driving innovation than this. A tiny public school district in Pennsylvania was losing students to online charter schools, so it decided to play their game and offer its own online courses. The Hechinger Report has the story:

The small rural school district of Quakertown in Bucks County has become a national model for how to use technology to transform the public school experience. The majority of students in the district take at least one class online and all ninth graders are given laptops they can take to college when they graduate.

Since 2008, when the program began, Quakertown has gone from losing students to cyber charter schools to enrolling students from across the state in its online classes. Graduation rates are up, the district’s budget is healthy again, and Quakertown is now showing several districts – including Philadelphia – how it’s done.

“We’ve had increases in our student achievement,” said Cindy Lapinski, the principal of Strayer Middle School in Quakertown. “I don’t know if it’s technology, but I can say that kids outside of this building are wired 24/7, and for many of our students, that’s the way they think, that’s the way they operate.”

The school district lost about $10,000 for every student who left to attend a charter school, and more for students in special education. (Pennsylvania districts have to pay the tuition of students enrolled in charters.) Many of these students enrolled in one of Pennsylvania’s 14 “cyber charters”, which now serve approximately 35,000 students. To keep students in the public schools, Quakertown officials decided to go toe to toe with the cyber charters: With the help of funding from the Obama administration’s stimulus program they bought new computers, and took money from their own budget to purchase better equipment and hire more teachers. Instead of farming out the course development, they asked their own teachers to design the online classes.

After a few years of trial and error, the program has proved a success, though development is still ongoing:

Middle school teacher Damian Gomm says most students do better when they take a combination of face-to-face and cyber classes. The ones who stay home and take all their classes online tend to struggle, he said. Research bears this out: Studies suggests technology may be more powerful when used as a tool to help kids learn, rather than as the primary way children are taught.

There’s evidence the cyber program is improving academics though, Quakertown officials say. The graduation rate, which doesn’t include out-of-district students, rose from 88 percent in 2009, after it launched its cyber program (along with a separate intervention program for struggling students), to 95 percent in 2012; its relatively high test scores for younger grades haven’t changed.

Students have even started leaving the charters for the district’s public schools, bringing back a few hundred thousand dollars in funding to the district.

It sounds to us like charter schools are doing exactly what they are supposed to do in Pennsylvania: offering options to students who don’t thrive in public schools, and forcing the public schools to step up their game. In the competition between charter schools and public schools, we say, let the best schools win.

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  • ErikEssig

    Egads, competition! Wouldn’t it be easier to politically kill the competition so that the traditional public schools don’t have to work that hard?

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