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State appeals board to soon decide on cyber charter for Lehigh Valley charter school

File photo
Executive Education Academy Charter School.

  • A local charter school is gearing up to appeal a denial to operate a cyber charter
  • Who is on the Charter School Appeals Board could make the difference between yes and no
  • Senate Education Committee is accepting names

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Executive Education Academy Charter School in Allentown is preparing to go before the State Charter School Appeals Board in hopes of opening up a cyber charter school.

Many of the board’s seats are up for grabs. The decision on Executive’s cyber charter school application could have financial implications for neighboring public school districts in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

The Charter School Appeals Board reviews decisions by school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Charter schools are publicly funded through public school districts, but privately run. Districts decide whether to grant schools a charter and whether to renew or close them. The Department of Education controls whether a cyber school can open, which can enroll students statewide. Appeals from the decisions by the district and the state are heard by the appeals board.

Executive Education Academy applied in September 2020 to add a cyber charter school to the existing physical charter school. CEO Robert Lysek said he saw the value of an online learning model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I see the growth of the cybers throughout the state of Pennsylvania, as well as traditional publics who now have cyber schools and programs,” he said. “We thought we could serve more students by doing our own.”

Executive’s first application was denied by the state in January 2021 for having various deficiencies, including an insufficient budget, a lack of professional development plans and no clear understanding of federal academic requirements. Their revised application was also denied in June.

At that same time, former Gov. Tom Wolf was able to appoint four members of the six-member board, leaving two vacant seats. The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, confirms the governor’s appointments. The current members are Belmont Charter Schools CEO Jennifer Faustman, former Delaware County Republican State Sen. Tom Killion, Lancaster County teacher Stacey Marten and former Central Bucks County School Board Director Jodi Schwartz. All board members' terms on the board except Faustman’s have expired; however, the board continues to meet and make decisions. The secretary of education is a permanent member.

There are signs that Gov. Josh Shapiro and Senate Republicans may be negotiating on potential nominees. Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said the Senate Education Committee asked her to submit two names for the board. Clark said they submitted someone with a background in higher education and a current school board member.

The spokeswoman for the Republican Senate Caucus did not respond to a request for comment. The governor’s office also did not respond to a request for comment.

Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Children First, said Wolf’s appointment of those members in 2021 stabilized a dysfunctional board. She wants Shapiro to keep them where they are.

“They have created a functioning charter appeals board that makes balanced decisions, looking at the law and the cases before them,” she said. “And so I think, first of all, it would be really smart for Gov. Shapiro to reappoint all of the people who are on the board, because they will offer some stability and some consistency in the leadership that's there.”

"This board has enormous power, and people really need to have faith that it is acting in an impartial way.”
Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First

Cooper said she was concerned that Shapiro may appoint people who may have a political agenda if he has cut a deal with Senate Republicans.

“And that is a really scary thing for Pennsylvanians, because this board has enormous power, and people really need to have faith that it is acting in an impartial way,” she said. “And that the decisions that are being made are based on the law, and not based on a political agenda that the appointees have.”

Clark disagrees that the board is functional or acting impartially.

“We can tell you right now that fair decisions have not come down in the last several years,” she said. “And that's mainly because there's not enough members on the board. In addition to that, I think there's only one member who really had a clear understanding of what charter schools are and maybe even what the role is.”

Clark said charter school advocates want board members who will support more charter school applications being approved.

"There's so much money being wasted here that could be spent educating children.”
Anne Clark, CEO of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools

“You cannot tell me that every charter school that came the [Charter Appeals Board] in the last five years was not a good charter school,” she said. “And we know for sure that many of those decisions that turned down charter schools at CAB later were overturned by our state court. There's so much money being wasted here that could be spent educating children.”

Lysek said they’re still unsure when the hearing before the appeals board will occur. They just recently submitted briefs to the board. But he said he believes Shapiro is more open to school choice than the past administration.

“I have heard rumors within the charter school network that the appointees will be bipartisan or will be favorable,” he said. “Maybe not even bipartisan, but favorable-type candidates or board members towards the movement.”

Lysek said a cyber charter school could help them reduce their existing charter school waiting list, which he said stands at about 1,600 families. Money follows the student, so any student in the Lehigh Valley or across the state who would leave public school to enroll in Executive’s cyber charter would bring that money with them. Some advocate groups like PA Families for Education Choice say that students need more options to find the best education style, while some organizations, such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, say the way cyber charter schools are funded is flawed and takes resources away from public schools.