My Dissertation Study

My dissertation examines the enrollment and organizational influence of cyber charter schools on Pennsylvania traditional public school districts. Specifically, it examines the demographic composition of school districts most likely to lose students to cyber charters and how this changes over time, the prevalence of the school district response of creating a fulltime online school, and the effectiveness of this response in recapturing students. The methods used were mainly quantitative (OLS Regression, Logistic regression, Cox Proportional Hazard Modeling) with qualitative (interviews of school district administrators) supplements to inform patterns seen in the quantitative data.

There are three major findings. First, early in the cyber charter movement there was no pattern in the demographic composition of districts that lost students to cyber charters, but over time as the reputation of quality of cyber charter schools skewed negative, it was the disadvantaged districts (low levels of education, low income, low statewide test scores) that were most likely to lose students to cyber charter schools. The moves of students were overwhelmingly into programs that had lower academic growth rates than the traditional schools they left. Second, based on a random sample of school districts, the majority of districts in Pennsylvania (more than 80%) created an in-district fulltime learning option in unison with the cyber charter movement. The first adoption of school districts is explained both by market and institutional patterns. Third, when analyzing trends of leavers before and after a school district created an in-district online school, the strategy tended not to decrease the number of students leaving.

There are a number of implications for these findings. When a new educational reform or program is perceived as an inadequate option in a choice-based system, based on the findings here it is advantaged populations who will first refuse it, perpetuating their advantage. Additionally, loss of student enrollment and institutional pressures both seem to impact district adoption of a new program, even if this program is perceived of not being of high quality. Further, these strategies may not achieve their goals as students may leave regardless of if a district provides the same option the students get upon leaving. These trends have placed Pennsylvania in a situation where districts lose millions of dollars per year to cyber charter schools and use strategies that have not recaptured students or improved educational quality in their own settings. My dissertation concludes with leadership and policy concerns related to these implications.