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Questions and Answers
Cyber Charter Schools and the Use of Physical Facilities

Is PDE trying to close cyber charter schools?

Answer: No; the letter sent to all cyber charter schools on August 18, 2015 was not sent for the purpose of closing or revoking the charter of any cyber charter school.

Why did PDE send the so-called cease and desist letter (the August Letter) to cyber charter schools regarding the use of physical facilities?

Answer: This letter was sent to all cyber charter schools reminding them of the appropriate uses of physical facilities by cyber charters as set forth in Pennsylvania law governing cyber charter schools. [1] In addition, PDE issued specific guidance on the issue of cyber charter schools use of physical locations in a Basic Education Circular issued in July 2013 (the BEC).[2] The letter was sent following complaints from several school districts that some cyber schools were using physical facilities in the education of their students beyond the scope of the cyber charter laws, PDE guidance, and their own charters.

What are the rules about the use of physical locations by cyber charter schools?  

Answer: Cyber charter schools may use physical locations ONLY for (1) standardized testing and or/other testing; (2) tutoring; and (3) supplemental services related to special education, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy. Students may be at physical locations only for the time needed to participate in these services and activities.

Did the August Letter contain new rules, mandates, or directives to cyber schools regarding use of physical locations?

Answer: No, the August Letter does NOT describe any new mandate or directive from PDE to cyber charters regarding permitted use of physical facilities. The August Letter reminds cyber schools of the guidance originally set forth in state law and in the BEC.

What is a cyber-charter school?

Answer: As noted in the BEC, a cyber-charter school is a charter school authorized by PDE pursuant to statute to "offer a structured education program in which the school utilizes technology in order to provide a significant portion of its curriculum and instruction through the Internet or other electronic means without a school-established requirement that the student be present at a supervised physical facility designated by the school, except on a very limited basis, such as for standardized tests."

What is the difference between a cyber-charter and any other kind of charter?

Answer: A non-cyber charter school, sometimes called a brick-and-mortar charter, is physically located within the boundaries of a school district and the local school board (or School Reform Commission in Philadelphia) grants the charter to the charter school's board of trustees to operate a public charter school. The charter is an agreement between the school district and an incorporated entity, known as a charter school. As noted in the BEC, brick and mortar charter schools "focus on teacher-led discussion and teacher knowledge imparted to students through face-to-face interaction at the schools' physical facilities.

As noted above, a cyber charter school is a charter school that provides instruction through the internet or other digital means. PDE is responsible for the oversight of cyber charter schools which includes approval of the initial charter.   

Face-to-face instruction on a regular basis is a feature of a brick and mortar charter school and specifically NOT a feature of a cyber-charter school.  

Why has PDE told cyber-charter schools that they cannot operate physical learning centers?

Answer: PDE has NOT told any cyber charter that the cyber charter may not operate physical learning centers. In the August Letter and in the BEC, PDE reminded cyber charters of the proper use of physical locations by cyber-charter schools, e.g., for tutoring, for testing, or for supplemental services for special education students.

Why doesn't PDE support what appears to be a successful program of "blended learning" (online and face-to-face learning opportunities) offered by cyber charter schools that seem to be benefiting students?

Answer: PDE supports many successful blended learning programs. However, the "blended learning" program offered by some cyber-charter schools are not authorized by the cyber charter law, or PDE guidance.

Can charter schools offer blended learning opportunities?

Answer: Yes, but since cyber-charter schools are to provide a significant portion of their curriculum and instruction through the internet or other electronic means without the need for students to be present at any physical facility, the appropriate strategy for a charter school to offer blended learning is to seek authorization for a brick-and-mortar charter school from a school district.

Why are cyber-charter schools and parents just being told now about this rule that cyber-charter schools can't have physical locations?

Answer: Cyber-charter schools have been told about the limitation on the use of physical facilities for a number of years, including through the BEC issued in 2013. Additionally, PDE advises new cyber charter school applicants of the limitations on the use of physical facilities.

[1] Pennsylvania law governing cyber charter schools.

[2] Cyber Charter School Operations and Proper Use of Physical Facilities