I received a very flashy advertisement in the mail today from Commonwealth Connections Academy, a cyber charter school that enrolls more students in our district than any other. It promises a lot: engaged learning, talented teachers, an award-winning curriculum, and more. And it promises-- 3 different times on the single flyer-- to deliver all of this “tuition-free.”
Follow the Money
But here’s the rub: Commonwealth Connections Academy doesn’t actually provide the educational services they advertise. Instead, they outsource education to Pearson, a London-based multinational corporation that made more than $1.4 billion in profits last year. And by “tuition-free,” they mean that the money they pay Pearson comes from local taxpayers-- a total of more than $63 million in 2011-2012. Based on enrollment figures and state-mandated charter school reimbursement payments, I estimate East Penn School District taxpayers alone will be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars for Commonwealth Connections Academy this year.
How is this possible? Political connections help. Their seven member school board includes Jerry Birmelin, a political consultant and former PA representative in Harrisburg, and Kevin Shivers, a Harrisburg lobbyist with experience in the PA governor’s office. Their board president, David Taylor, is executive director of a corporate lobbying group with experience on former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum’s staff. In terms of transparency, they provide much less information and public access to their operations than most public school districts. They have not posted meeting agendas to their website in almost a year; they provide no meeting minutes or information on their budget at all; and of the ten "public meetings” they have scheduled for the 2013-2014 school year, six are in reality only telephone calls.
Poor Educational Outcomes
The result? The Commonwealth Connections Academy touts high levels of parent satisfaction. But their school performance profile tells a different story. Last year they scored an abysmal 54.6, putting them in the lowest category of performance established by the state (by contrast, Emmaus High School’s score was 92.5). So taxpayers lose and students lose. The state performance scores are certainly not the only way to measure educational quality, but this huge disparity is hard to ignore. It seems the real achievement of Commonwealth Connections Academy is limited mostly to funneling public money to private corporate interests.
We Need Meaningful Charter School Reform
I’m picking on this particular school only because I received such slick marketing materials from them. Many other cyber charters are similar. The money that goes to schools like Commonwealth Connections Academy comes directly out of our pockets in the form of higher taxes. And every dollar the district is required to send to such poor-performing cyber schools is a dollar taken out of the well-performing classrooms in our district. Why are we rewarding failure by punishing success?
I say all this even as I continue to believe that a diverse school ecosystem is good for kids and our community. Having different models of education provide a natural laboratory for new ideas and innovation. Different kinds of schools can offer both parents and students a wider range of opportunities to find an educational approach that fits their values and learning style. But the current charter school law in Pennsylvania is being exploited by political insiders for financial gain. This was not-- I hope-- the original intent of the law. And such exploitation harms not only traditional public schools, but also those brick-and-mortar charter schools that seek the best possible outcomes for students and taxpayers, rather than corporate shareholders.