• Pennsylvania Department of Education responds to why a majority of cyber charter schools in the commonwealth are operating without a renewed, valid charter

    Editor’s note: On Aug. 14, 2019, the public relations director for Bellefonte Area School District had the chance to speak on-the-record with Nicole Reigelman, the communication director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, regarding why many cyber charter schools across the commonwealth are still operating without valid charters. In the 2018-19 school year, 10 of 15 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania were serving students despite having expired charters.

  • Reigelman said that when Gov. Tom Wolf was elected to office in 2014 and then started in 2015, there was no infrastructure in government for charter and cyber charter schools. In the first year of his arrival in office, PDE began laying the groundwork to establish a division of charter schools to help build a foundation in the department. That, Reigelman said, “took some time setting up.”

    By December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed that helped build guidance for school improvement – a measure to use when evaluating cyber charter schools when they apply and/or send in renewal applications, Reigelman said. ESSA is a federal guideline for how public education is operated and how students learn and achieve while publicly educated.

    “In order to facilitate a thoughtful process, we wanted a good plan in place, and ESSA created a good opportunity to create infrastructure in total for evaluating all schools,” she said. “We are using that same infrastructure to (also) evaluate all cyber charters.”

    In November of 2018, the state Department of Education launched the Future Ready PA Index and soon after identified schools for the federal school improvement designations: Comprehensive Support and Improvement and Additional Targeted Support and Improvement designations, which are a way to evaluate school and student group performance, including charter and cyber charter schools. According to the PDE website, the CSI designation is for schools “facing the most significant challenges in academic achievement, student growth and other areas” and ATSI is a designation for “schools in which performance by one or more student groups is at or below the level of the CSI schools.”

    “After we put that in place, the school improvement plan, that’s when we really started getting to the backlog (and) also introduced a new application for renewal for cyber charter schools so that we can have a standard application that gets to the heart of the data we want to consider,” Reigelman said.

    In 2019, PDE has renewed three of what they said were the “higher-performing” cyber charter schools.*

    “While there was a backlog, we are sifting through it,” Reigelman said. “If it’s a cyber charter school that’s performing better, then we’re taking care of those. With others, we examine the options related to the individual school’s performance and assess if the school is up to standard for our students.”

    She also added that PDE is working with cyber charter schools found to have poor performance statistics to potentially surrender their charter.

    “The bottom line is, we wanted to be thoughtful in our process, and thought takes time,” Reigelman said. “With ESSA passing, it was the perfect opportunity, even if it slowed us down a little bit, but we were able to do it in alignment of all our schools. We’re playing a little bit of catch-up, but we’re beginning to get through that now and we have the process.”