Pennsylvania still doesn't trust cyber charter schools, and rightfully so

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 31, 2014

From The News Desk

This week, for the second year in a row, the Pennsylvania Department of Education rejected each and every one of the programs hoping to open full-time cyber charter schools in the state. The state government is sending a clear, unambiguous signal that its cyber school standards are tougher than ever before.

As Education Week reported, the six schools that applied were rejected because of conflicts of interests between school board members and the curriculum companies they intended to use. For example, the proposed Insight PA Cyber Charter School wanted to use the the for-profit company K12 Inc. for its technology and curriculum needs. Only one problem: The President of the Insight PA board also served as a board member for Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools, which gets money from K12 for its lobbying efforts. Suspicious much?

Pennsylvania's Department of Education thought so too and stamped a big fat no on the Cyber School application.

Three years ago, this would have been nearly unthinkable. Pennsylvania was one of the states leading the national charge to implement cyber charter programs. Educational leaders in Pennsylvania stood behind the new approach, arguing that some students with learning disabilities, or located in rural areas far from any schools, stood to benefit from the online programs. The claim was that cyber schools allowed these students to receive more personalized attention and go at their own pace.

It's a trend that has been sweeping the nation for the last decade, with the number of K-12 full-time cyber school attendees growing from almost 0 in the year 2000 to nearly 200,000 by the year 2012. Much like MOOCs became all the rage in higher education, virtual education was heralded as the great education democratizer, revolutionizing primary schools.

In Pennsylvania in 2012, 16 of the schools in the public school system were cyber charter programs.

The crowning jewel was PA Cyber Charter, started in 2000 by Midland School District teacher, principal, and then superintendent Nicholas Trombetta. It was consistently held up as the example of the ideal cyber charter program, one that "saved" the crumbling town of Midland by injecting it with local jobs and resources.

Of course, that was before the elaborate PA Cyber Charter school money laundering scandal came to light in August. Trombetta was charged with fraud by the federal government. Turned out, he had allegedly taken the $8 million money given to the program and used it to buy an airplane, among other toys.

The case rocked not only the town of Midland, where much of the local economy was based on the Cyber School, but also the state's educational system. It caused government officials to start scrutinizing cyber schools much more carefully.

Two years out, Pennsylvania is still showing its reluctance to trust cyber charter programs and rightfully so.

So what does this mean for edtech startups? These are some of the companies that stood to benefit the most from the success of cyber charter schools. Cyber schools are built on virtual curriculum, homework, and lessons. These Internet-enabled features aren't "add-ons" the way they would be with with a brick-and-mortar school, they're core to the cyber program. The more cyber schools there are, the more business opportunity for a wide range of edtech companies.

But with the nation falling rapidly out of love with cyber schools and the state that originally led the cyber charge rejecting all such school applications two years in a row, the sector is clearly on the decline.

[Image via Thinkstock]