Rejected cyber charter tries a workaround

A proposed cyber charter school that was rejected three times by the state Department of Education has turned to the courts in its bid to open.

Insight PA Cyber Charter School, which has partnered with for-profit K12 Inc., has filed a petition in Commonwealth Court challenging the Charter Appeal Board's decision to deny its appeal.

The board on Aug. 31 upheld the Education Department's finding that K12 would be effectively running the school rather than Insight's nonprofit board.

Alan C. Kessler, Insight's lead attorney, declined to comment Tuesday. But in the Commonwealth Court filing, Insight challenged the appeals board's findings, contending it had "capriciously disregarded the department's arbitrary treatment" of Insight's prior applications.

Insight also alleged that the Education Department had engaged in an "effective moratorium" on the approval of new cybers since 2012.

The department has turned down all new cyber applications in the last three years, in part because most of the 14 cybers are among the lowest performing schools in the state. Cybers enroll more than 35,000 students in Pennsylvania.

Although state law permits cyber schools to contract with for-profit companies to provide management, curriculum, and technology services, cybers must be overseen by independent trustees.

The appeals board said Insight's organizational chart showed that only the school's chief executive officer and chief financial officer would report to the nonprofit board.

All other administrators would be K12 employees and would report to K12's executive director. Insight's teachers and counselors would be hired by K12 and report to K12 principals.

In the Aug. 31 opinion, the appeals board said cyber trustees must have authority over staff and finances "to ensure a comprehensive learning experience for students."

In addition, the board said, Insight's service agreement with K12 violated state law because it would limit the cyber's ability to purchase materials and services from other vendors even if their prices were lower.

Insight, which first applied in 2012, is seeking to operate an online school for students in grades 6-12. The school would admit students with all types of abilities, but Insight said it would focus on "at-risk students who are struggling with their education."

K12, based in Herndon, Va., reported revenue of $948 million in the last fiscal year. Its annual report said 90 percent of the revenues came from public-school programs, including 75 management contracts for schools in 32 states and Washington, D.C.

The company was a partner in launching two other cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania several years ago: Pennsylvania Virtual and Agora Cyber.

While both cybers still use K12 curriculum, their boards ended the management agreements with K12 and provide those services themselves.

martha.woodall@philly

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