The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

Maybe it’s hopelessly old school, but anyone who reached adulthood before the internet came of age probably has a hard time comprehending how the same level of learning and achievement can be attained if a student is sitting in their home in front of a computer screen, rather than in a bricks-and-mortar classroom.

After all, if you are in a classroom with a flesh-and-blood instructor nearby, there are more opportunities for spontaneous interaction with that teacher and other students, and fewer opportunities to be distracted. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to keep your nose to the grindstone when you know you might be scolded for staring out the window during a tedious algebra lesson on a sunny day.

It turns out that concerns about how well students learn when they attend cyberschools isn’t just a function of fuddy-duddyism. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes released a study earlier this month on the performance of charter schools in Pennsylvania, and it found that, in general, charter schools don’t offer an education that is better than what can be had in public schools. Moreover, according to Stanford’s researchers, subpar cyber charter schools are dragging down all the state’s charter schools.

The study found that the average student attending a cyber charter school lost 106 days in reading and 118 days in math compared to equivalent students in public schools. Supporters of cyber charter schools have long contended that the academic performance of its students is woeful because they accept students who have struggled in traditional classrooms, and if it weren’t for the cyber alternative, they would more than likely just drop out of school altogether. But the Stanford study controlled for that, “so this effect is not being driven by student composition in online charter schools,” according to the report.

It continued, “This report found overwhelming negative results found from online charter schools; any potential benefits of online schooling, such as student mobility and flexibility in curriculum, are drowned out by the negative impacts on academic growth of students enrolled in such schools.”

The report recommends assessing students who attend cyber charters and see if their educational needs are being met, which is obvious enough, but it also says policy makers “need to determine if current oversight policies or practices for online charter schools are sufficient to assure adequate performance.”

Right now, at least, the answer might well be no.

As it stands, school districts must pick up the full per-pupil cost of a student attending a cyber charter school, even though online schools do not have to pay for building upkeep, transportation or food. Earlier this year, the advocacy group Education Voters of PA issued a study calling for online schools to receive a flat fee of $5,000 per student, with a bump up for special education students. The group estimates that charging a flat fee would save Pennsylvania school districts about $250 million per year.

Also, bills are pending in the state House and Senate that would require a parent or guardian to pay for a student’s enrollment in an online school if the student’s home district offers its own full-time cyber education program. These are necessary steps to ease the burden on school districts and taxpayers.

It has sometimes seemed that the operators of cyber charter schools have been happy to take tax money, but not so happy to endure the kind of scrutiny that’s par for the course for public schools. Policy makers should insist that if cyber charter schools want to draw from the public well, they should be held accountable for how tax dollars are spent and how well they educate their students.

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