On the afternoon of Wednesday, January 24th, Governor Josh Shapiro’s Department of Education quietly posted a letter addressed to Mark LeBlond informing him that the Department had granted his application for a five-year charter for the Pennwood Cyber Charter School. 

LeBlond is the director of policy at Ed Choice, a pro-school privatization organization that is based in Indiana. LeBlond is also a former policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, a right-wing advocacy organization in Harrisburg with close ties to billionaire Jeffrey Yass, who has, incidentally, spent tens of millions of dollars pushing his school privatization agenda in Pennsylvania.

The announcement of the approval of Pennwood Cyber Charter School’s charter came as a shock to many people. Pennwood had submitted applications that were denied by PDE on January 13, 2023 and on May 16, 2023 because of their egregious deficiencies. 

The letter that approves Pennwood’s charter indicates that many of the deficiencies were not rectified in the application that PDE ultimately approved. In fact, PDE explicitly states the Department expects Pennwood to take additional action and for a review to include a very long laundry list of substantial issues that were not addressed inPennwood’s application. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is the authorizer of cyber charters and, therefore, the entity that is charged with ensuring that cyber charter schools are held accountable for complying with the terms of their charter and meeting the needs of students.  

For more than eight years, under the Wolf Administration, PDE did not approve a single new cyber charter school. A seriously under-resourced PDE worked through some cyber  school renewals and closed one school during this period. However, many cyber charter schools continue to operate with expired charters because PDE has not completed the renewal process to ensure that these schools are complying with the terms of their charters. 

The Shapiro Administration’s approval of a new cyber charter with serious deficiencies in its application (and strong connections to pro school privatization groups) is both confounding and deeply troubling. This approval sends a signal that the expansion of poorly-performing cyber charter schools backed by school privatizers is a higher priority for the Shapiro Administration than ensuring accountability for current cyber charters or addressing the urgent crisis in the student academic achievement in the sector. 

Pennsylvania’s cyber charters enroll more than 50.000 students and are among the lowest–performing schools in the commonwealth. Cyber charter graduation rates hover at around 50-60% and their student achievement is abysmal. For example, test results from Commonwealth Cyber Academy (CCA), the largest of the cybers, show just 14% of CCA’s students were proficient in English language arts and 5.4% of CCA students were proficient in math in 2022-2023.

Authorizing a new cyber charter that will require extensive support from PDE will necessarily draw scarce human resources in the Department away from renewing the expired charters of current cyber schools, making it even MORE difficult to ensure any accountability for existing, failing cyber charters.

Also worth noting, most cyber charter schools have either never been audited by the state or were audited more than a decade ago. And with Auditor General Timothy DeFoor’s decision to shut down his bureau of school audits in 2022 and kick the audits to PDE, we do not expect to see any kind of rigorous oversight of cyber charter schools’ finances or operations anytime soon without additional resources in the Department. 

This leaves more than $1 billion in tax dollars that school districts send to cyber charters with grossly insufficient oversight by the state–the entity that has authorized the cyber schools and that mandates the school district payments that fund them.

On Tuesday, February 6th, Governor Josh Shapiro will give his budget address and lay out his priorities for education for 2024-2025. Maybe his budget proposal will include an increase in funding for PDE so that the Department can staff up and hold cyber charters accountable. We can at least hope for now.

If you’d like to share your thoughts on this issue with Governor Shapiro, you may call his office at 717-787-2500 or send him a text at 717-788-8990.