Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Academic Adjustment: Faced with charter and online competition, local public schools are changing, adapting.

A young girl sits pointing to a school lesson on a computer screen, showing her mother. Both are smiling and engaged.

You may have seen this advertisement, or one like it, many times and thought nothing of it.
However, these ads for Pennsylvania charter schools represent the changing face of our educational landscape, as they look to attract students from area public schools.

Students today can choose to attend their district school or opt for a tuition-free cyber or brick-and-mortar charter school, privately owned and operated but publicly funded. This concept, known as “school choice,” was implemented two decades ago as Pennsylvania began looking to charter schools as a means of education reform.

This reform, however well meaning, led to an unsettling consequence. Children now had a value placed on them, as each student who left the traditional public school meant more public tax money for the charter school and less money for the school district. Some refer to that as “backpack funding.”

“Every child has a certain amount of money attached to them for education,” explained Dr. Sarah Cordes, assistant professor of educational leadership at Temple University. “Think of that money as being placed in a school backpack. Each child takes that backpack to the school of their choice.”

Harrisburg-area public schools have responded by seeking ways to reinvent themselves to meet the changing needs of students. School days are no longer necessarily spent sitting in a classroom eight hours a day, five days a week, from September to June. School choice has led districts to offer more program options and educational pathways.


Not Equal

Dr. Fred Withum, superintendent of the quickly growing, 9,400-student Cumberland Valley School District (CVSD), puts the problem facing many public schools in a nutshell.

“[Education] still reflects much of what we did 50 to 100 years ago and is working on an agrarian calendar, but expecting 21st- and 22nd-century results,” he said.

Withum has been trying to battle this tough problem as part of his district’s innovation strategy.

Three years ago, CVSD started offering a summer class program known as “Term Three,” in which students attend full courses during the summer. Withum said that the program was designed to provide students with the flexibility to alter traditional school year schedules and include college courses, job shadows and even early graduation.

CVSD also partners with Harrisburg University in a program called NuPaths, based on an HU information technology start-up program, as another pioneering workforce development program.

When it comes to competing with charter schools, Withum said that the “playing field” is not equal. He pointed out that charter schools do not have libraries to fund and staff, offer no free breakfast or lunch programs and have little transparency in spending.

In his previous position at another Pennsylvania school district, Rob Schultz, superintendent of the 3,800-student Lower Dauphin School District (LDSD), wrote an article on the topic of spending.

“My concern, based on my research, surrounds how the taxpayer dollars are used by the cyber charter school,” Schultz wrote in an October 2016 issue of the Reading Eagle.

According to Schultz, the months of August and December are often marked with a spike in charter school advertisements. He said that he believes students are heavily marketed to then as an alternative to returning after breaks to any school issues they may be facing.

Regardless of the timing, Schultz believes that more emphasis should be placed on individual assessments to ensure online learning is a good fit for the student.

“It’s the first thing we do at LDSD before one of our students opts for CAOLA (Capital Area Online Learning Association) as a strictly online option,” he said.

He added that some students are better suited to face-to-face learning or a hybrid option. He has seen many charter students returning to public school after a few years, finding online learning not to be a good fit.

Like CVSD, LDSD is partnering with HU, offering 10 college courses this year taught by certified teachers. They have also designed their own STEM program.


Ebb and Flow

The challenges facing public schools aren’t just academic; they’re social and developmental, as well.

“Some people see charter schools as the great hope for education,” said Dr. Carol Johnson, superintendent of Central Dauphin School District, the area’s largest at 13,013 students. “But schools are tasked with more than just education. We offer social services, counseling, and teach kids cooperation and to be good citizens.”

Johnson also pointed out the importance of helping children handle the “daily ebb and flow of emotions.”

According to Johnson, although the changes taking place in public education may have been nudged along with the advent of charter schools, many are occurring “because it’s the right thing to do for our students.”

Johnson said that blended learning options through public school partnerships like CAOLA, a consortium-based approach, provide viable solutions. Through CAOLA programming, students take a schedule of solely online courses, like charter schools offer, or a blend of online and classroom courses, providing scheduling flexibility.

Johnson also pointed to new classroom programs like their drone course, where students learn to build and fly a drone and take a Federal Aviation Administration test, and a first responders course, which is offered in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.

Students at smaller districts, like the Camp Hill School District, with 1,337 students, also have several internship, mentorship and work-study opportunities to choose from, with more in the pipeline.

“Programs offered in conjunction with HU and Harrisburg Area Community College provide students with creative, goal-oriented options, especially senior year,” said Superintendent Patricia Craig.

Despite the different challenges each district faces, local superintendents seem to agree on three elements in a public education transformation: a blended learning model of online and classroom courses that meet individual needs; partnerships with higher education and businesses and industry; and scheduling flexibility.

In this way, public school districts are both competing more effectively with charter schools and better preparing their students for 21st-century careers.


School District         Student Body       2018-19 Budget      Amt f/charter school students

Central Dauphin       13,013                      $190 million                        $6.9 million

Cumberland Valley    9,400                       $140 million                        $1.9 million

Lower Dauphin          3,900                       $64.7 million                       $1.2 million

Camp Hill                  1,337                        $23 million                           $347,000

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