New bill governs online schools

August 11, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

A suit filed by five Franklin County school districts against a Pennsylvania cyber school may be modified or dropped now that a new bill addresses many of the suit's complaints, State Rep. Pat Fleagle said last week.

The suit was filed in January against Einstein Academy in eastern Pennsylvania by school districts in Chambersburg, Greencastle/Antrim, Waynesboro, Tuscarora (Mercersburg, Pa.) and Shippensburg. It claims Einstein does not have a legal charter to operate.

Einstein is one of seven charter cyber schools in Pennsylvania that offer academic curriculums to students in their homes over the Internet.


According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, cyber school students interact with self-paced computer programs and on-line reference sites. There is no requirement that a parent or guardian be present while the students study.

Pennsylvania is a pioneer in cyber charter schools, with more than any other state.

Typical cyber school students seek accelerated or college-level courses, need to work at a slower pace, have physical limitations, are employed or have been homeschooled, according to a report issued by the association.

About half were previously homeschooled, the association said.

Prior to the new legislation, parents were not required to notify local school districts when they enroll their children in cyber schools. Local districts had to pay their tuition on the basis of what it spent each year on each public school student - usually from $5,000 to $6,000 per student.

Local school districts became aware of Einstein Academy last fall when they began receiving bills for students enrolled, according to the suit on file in Franklin County Courthouse.

More than 45 Franklin County students were enrolled in cyber schools last year, area school superintendents said. The number includes about 30 in the Chambersburg Area School District and about five each in the Greencastle-Antrim, Waynesboro and Tuscarora school districts.

About 4,500 students are enrolled in cyber schools statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Control at issue

The local superintendents' biggest complaint, aside from tuition costs, is the lack of control over the curriculum in cyber schools. Also, they said, cyber school teachers are not required to hold state teaching certifications. There are no rules stating how long students should spend at the studies each day. Parents are not required to be home with their children.

Fleagle said the new bill, part of the School Code Budget Bill signed by Gov. Mark Schweiker in June, addresses most of the school district's concerns. The state will now reimburse the local districts for up to 77 percent of the cost of cyber school tuition.

The legislation also puts new state Department of Education controls over cyber schools to ensure they comply with state school codes and that local districts are notified in advance for students who enroll and to allow local districts an opportunity to dispute residency claims.

Cyber schools will now have to provide parents with information on day-to-day operations, curriculum, textbooks and computers used, staffing and policies.

Most of all, Fleagle said, the legislation will provide for assessment and evaluation and the power to pull the charters of cyber schools if necessary.

"Cyber schools came out of the woodwork about two years ago as an adjunct to charter schools," Fleagle said. "There was no correlation between the actual cost and the amount billed to local school districts. School boards didn't know how to budget for them and there was no accountability."

Schools have value

Several area school superintendents interviewed agreed with Fleagle that cyber schools have value.

"They give parents a choice," Fleagle said.

"Virtual education is fine for some students," said P. Duff Rearick, superintendent of the Greencastle/Antrim School District.

He supports the concept and believes it's healthy for public schools in Pennsylvania to have competition.

"They'll never become real popular, but it's another way to educate," Rearick said.

"There's a mentality in public education that one size fits all. Schools shouldn't be like WalMart," he said. "They're not much different from the old correspondence schools and they worked."

Eric Michael, assistant superintendent in the Chambersburg Area School District, said parental choice is an important element in education.

"Cyber schools are still new. We'll have to see how they play out," he said.

"They're not going to go away. They're part of the new technology," said William Konzal, superintendent of the Tuscarora School District in Mercersburg, Pa.

He said the new law will bring more control over cyber schools than there is over Catholic parochial and other religious schools in Pennsylvania.

Cyber schools, with the right controls, can play an important role in the overall education program, he said.

Homeschool potential?

Rearick and Konzal said cyber schools can help families who homeschool. About 130 children in the district are homeschooled, Rearick said. There are about 80 homeschooled children in Konzal's district.

Mary Hudzinski, one of six founders of the Mason-Dixon Home School Association in Waynesboro, advises parents who homeschool not to bother with cyber schools.

Hudzinski, who has homeschooled eight of her nine children, runs the association's office.

"Homeschoolers want control over what their children learn," she said. "We have options. Cyber schools control the curriculum the same as a (public school) classroom.

"There's no advantage. My advice is don't do it."

Hudzinski said cyber schools are aggressively marketing to homeschooling parents.

"Just this week I received four advertisements in the mail from cyber schools," she said.

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