Cyber Charter Schools: Can Accountability Keep Pace with Innovation? Because of Their Focus on Innovation, Charter Schools Have Always Posed a Puzzle for Those Concerned about Accountability. How Much More Difficult Is It to Keep Track of Nonclassroom-Based Charter Schools? the Authors Look to the Pennsylvania Experience for Answers

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CHARTER SCHOOLS have become a significant movement in public education. Over the past decade, both the popularity of the reform and the number of charter schools founded have grown dramatically. Student enrollments increased by 130% from 1999 to 2003. (1) At present, an estimated 3,600 charter schools serve one million students in 41 states. (2) The rapid growth of charter schools has encouraged innovation and adaptability and facilitated the emergence of new models of schooling. Foremost among these are cyber charter schools.

It is tempting to dismiss cyber charter schools as a trivial byproduct of a larger charter school movement. But preliminary analysis suggests the existence of a substantial demand for nonclassroom-based learning, especially among families frustrated by the stringent requirements of public education. In 2004, an estimated 68,000 students were enrolled in nonclassroom-based charter schools, accounting for 10% of the total charter school population. (3) Two primary forms of nonclassroom-based charter schools have emerged. Home-school charter schools closely mirror private home schools. Parents serve as the primary education authority and are responsible for keeping track of attendance, determining the length of the school day, setting curriculum goals, and monitoring peer interactions, student progress, and student achievement. (4) In contrast, cyber charter schools rely primarily on computer-based learning provided either in real time or through prepackaged lessons created by a third-party curriculum provider. Student performance is evaluated by the school, but family cooperation is required.

Both organizational models have attracted large numbers of formerly home-schooled students. For example, approximately 60% of all Pennsylvania cyber charter students were formerly home schooled. (5) One reason for the appeal of cyber charters to this segment of the population is that state and local oversight of nonclassroom-based charters is minimal. A second reason is that teachers are expected to act as education consultants and to defer to parents' decisions in managing the processes of teaching and learning. When we consider that about 1.1 million students are home schooled each year, (6) it is clear that enrollment in cyber charter schools has the potential to increase dramatically.

However, it is unclear whether cyber charter schools will be allowed to continue to operate as they are currently set up. Cyber charter schools have resulted from loosely defined charter school laws that have failed to explicitly identify permissible teaching and learning strategies. (7) As interest in charters has grown, policy makers have begun to question whether these schooling models go too far in defining what is both innovative and permissible within a public school system. Four distinct characteristics that separate cyber charters from traditional "brick-and-mortar" schools are at issue.

1. Learning occurs primarily outside of a classroom and often in isolation from peers.

2. Instruction is delivered through an alternative medium, usually a computer.

3. Schools enroll students who did not previously attend public schools, especially home-schoolers.

4. Schools do not conform to district enrollment lines and can draw students from across a given state.

Combined, these four characteristics challenge current accountability structures and reduce oversight within public schooling.

The difficulty of governing cyber charter schools has been demonstrated by several high-profile scandals. In Pennsylvania, more than 200 school districts refused to forward per-pupil funding allotments to the state's largest cyber charter, TEACH-Einstein Charter Academy, for failing to provide services and materials, including computers, Internet access, and learning materials. (8) The school's eventual closure affected over 2,500 students. In response to such events, legislatures in several states have begun adopting new policies aimed at strengthening oversight of cyber charter schools. …