Where’s the Money?

Governor Corbett seems to be having trouble finding the money to pay for our children’s education. So we’ve put together this helpful list of potential state revenue sources to help him out. Because there is money that could help us restore the devastating budget cuts to our schools (now totaling $2.3 billion), but it’s just not going to our kids.

Possible State Revenue Sources

  • Close tax loopholes: the Delaware loophole costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed it. The “89-11″ real estate transfer scheme cost Pittsburgh schools alone millions of dollars before it was tightened last year. What other loopholes can be closed right now? [See “Corporate Grinches”]
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax, not just a mere impact fee. This could yield $334 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: the Corbett administration adopted this federal tax incentive in 2011 and it quickly cost far more than the $200 million it was anticipated to drain from the public and now could cost up to $700 million. [See “We Have a Priority Problem”; PBPC, “Revenue Tracker” report, 3-9-12]
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Gov. Corbett wants to eliminate these by next year as a gift to corporations. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million. [PBPC, “Budget Analysis,” 5-29-13]
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions for millionaires: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. [PBPC, “Kids or Tax Breaks,” 3-19-13]
  • Tax cigars, chewing tobacco, and loose tobacco: unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not tax these products. Doing so could generate $56 million per year. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Cap discount to businesses that remit state sales tax: a Post-Gazette analysis suggests that “big stores like Wal-mart, Target and other would be most affected” and would save the state $44 million. [Post-Gazette, 12-27-13]
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: it solves no actual problem in the state, has been declared unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania judge, will be expensive to legally defend, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 million to implement. [PBPC report, 5-10-11]
  • Fix the cyber-charter funding formula: Taxpayers and school districts could be saving $365 million per year – that’s $1million per day – if cyber charter schools received funding based on what they actually spent per student. [PA Auditor General, “Charter School Funding Special Report,” 6-20-12]
  • Shut down the EITC programs: they cost us $150 million per year by funneling corporate tax money that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]
  • Reduce high-stakes-testing: The new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract Pennsylvania made with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [PennLive.com, 12-1-11]
  • Stop the charter-school “double dip”: due to an administrative loophole in the law, all charter schools are paid twice for the same pension costs – once by local school districts and again by the state: by 2016 this double dipping will cost taxpayers $510 million. [Reform PA Charter Schools]
  • Stop handing money to international giants. The new sweetheart deal with international giant Dutch Royal Shell will cost taxpayers $1.675 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” [Post-Gazette, 6-4-12]
  • Make choices to fund schools, not prisons. While the state has slashed funding for public schools in 2011 and 2012, it has not done so for prisons, and has actually increased the 2013 Department of Corrections budget by $75.2 million ($63 million of which is for correctional institutions). [PBPC, “Final Budget Analysis,” 7-9-13]

There you go. I think we just found hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to adequately, equitably, and sustainably pay for public education. You’re welcome.

Reason #1 to Oppose SB 1085

This week, Susan Spicka has given us five compelling reasons that our state senators ought to oppose the charter “reform” bill now in front of them. Her arguments are strong and sensible. Putting the needs of public school students first, she has explained how misguided legislation like SB 1085 will actually harm public schools, tie the hands of local school boards to make the best decisions for their communities, and wind up costing more taxpayer dollars. Is your senator listening? Have you emailed, called, or tweeted these messages out yet? To recap:

Reason #1 Our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085
The policies in SB 1085 will not strengthen the public education system in PA, improve the performance of public schools (charter or traditional), or create efficiencies for taxpayers. SB 1085 will, however, open the door for the unfettered expansion of charter schools (even poorly performing ones) into communities throughout Pennsylvania, whether taxpayers can afford to pay for them or not.

It is difficult to see why SB 1085 has such strong support in the PA Senate.

Many legislators who support SB 1085 point to adjustments in charter school finances as their main reason for supporting this bill. SB 1085 will provide the PA legislature with some additional cash to spend as it pleases by eliminating part of the state’s share of mandated pension payments. Charter school tuition rates for school districts will also be slightly reduced.

Many senators who support this bill, especially those who live in districts that currently have few or no brick-and-mortar charter schools, appear to think that the damaging policies in SB 1085 will not have any negative impact on the traditional schools or taxpayers in their home districts.

Their thinking could not be more misguided.

When more than 100 private entities can authorize charter schools without the approval of local taxpayers, charter school operators will have the ability to expand into markets that had previous been off limits to them.

If SB 1085 passes, Pennsylvanians can expect to see new brick-and-mortar charter schools popping up in every county in Pennsylvania, as charter school operators take advantage of brand new opportunities to siphon public dollars into their private pockets.

A single new charter school in a county would wipe out all of the savings provided to school districts by SB 1085 and replace these savings with brand-new, enormous tuition bills that taxpayers will be mandated to pay.

As school districts will be stripped of the ability to control the growth of charter schools (even poorly performing ones) in their communities, tuition bills will skyrocket.

School districts throughout PA coping with massive increases in charter school expenses will have no choice but to raise property taxes and cut even more programs and services from traditional public schools in order to pay these new bills. This is something Pennsylvania’s taxpayers and children simply cannot afford.

Please contact your senator today and urge him/her to oppose SB 1085. The policies in SB 1085 are so damaging, so far-reaching, and so costly that they will weaken public schools and communities in every corner of Pennsylvania.

We most strongly urge our all of our state senators to oppose SB 1085 and to work on REAL charter school reform that will create efficiencies in school funding for taxpayers and strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire public school system.

 

Reason #2 to Oppose SB 1085

When we talk about “local control,” we’re not talking about petty turf-wars over charter school decisions. We’re talking about protecting the interests of local communities, local resources, and democracy itself. Here Susan Spicka explains what is at stake if the state strips our local school boards of their responsibilities.

Reason #2 Our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085
SB 1085 is fiscally irresponsible and guts local control of our public schools

First, the private authorizer we already discussed will allow charter schools to set up shop and send us the bill, whether our communities can afford to pay for the schools or not.

Adding insult to injury, SB 1085 removes the ability of authorizing school districts to negotiate enrollment caps on charter schools. This extreme policy will prevent school districts from being able control expenses (and property tax increases to pay for these expenses) by planning responsibly for for new charter school tuition payments. SB 1085 will also allow for the unfettered expansion of charter schools in districts that are already struggling to remain solvent and  provide even basic educational opportunities to students in traditional schools.

Finally, a system of direct payment to charter schools from the state included in the bill will eliminate the current check and balance system that helps ensure taxpayers are not making improper tuition payments for students who have moved out of their district or who are no longer enrolled in charter or cyber charter schools.

Under current law, our school district business officials are able to verify student enrollment in charter and cyber charter schools each month before they make payments to charter schools. If they find that their school district is being charged improperly, the school district is able to withhold the improper payment from the charter school and the enrollment error is fixed. In even small school districts, eliminating improper payments saves thousands of precious taxpayer dollars each year.

Direct payment by the state, especially since SB 1085 shifts the evidentiary burden of funding disputes onto school districts, will result in the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on improper tuition payments to charter schools. PDE simply will not have the capacity to do the work of hundreds of business officials and verify the enrollment of more than 100,000 charter school students. As a result, state funding that should be directed to our local school districts will inevitably be used to make improper payments to charter schools instead. 

The first goal of good charter school legislation should be to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education. Instead, SB 1085 strips local communities of control over their tax dollars, removes important measures that help eliminate the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on improper charter school payments, and mandates that taxpayers fund charter schools they simply cannot afford.

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085 because it is fiscally irresponsible and guts local control of our schools.

SB 1085 removes the ability of school districts to negotiate enrollment caps on charter schools and prevents school districts from being able to plan responsibly for charter school payments. It also provides for the direct payment to charter schools by the state and lays the  burden of proof for enrollment errors on school districts.

By providing direct payment to charter schools and eliminating the ability of school districts to verify student enrollment, this policy will remove an important check and balance from the system that helps ensure improper payments are not made to charter schools. As a result, state funding that should be directed to our local school districts will inevitably be used to make improper payments to charter schools instead. 

The first goal of good charter school legislation should be to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education. SB 1085 fails miserably to accomplish both of these goals.

Reason #3 to Oppose SB 1085

Susan Spicka is co-founder of our sister group, Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley. This week, they have been publishing her top-five list of reasons our state senators need to be paying close attention to the current charter “reform” bill, SB 1085. If we citizens do not take the time to contact our senators and educate them about this bill, it will very likely pass. Why? As Susan explains, SB 1085 appears to offer school districts some short-term savings in pension payments and cyber charter tuition. We desperately need real reform in these two areas, but the proposed savings in this bill are truly minimal and will not begin to offset the increased costs to districts if the state allows dramatic charter expansion. It’s our job to help our Senators see that the policy failures in SB 1085 far outweigh any savings.

Reason #3 Our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085

The Charter School Funding Advisory Commission considers ONLY charter school needs.

The proposed Charter School Funding Advisory Commission is heavily stacked in favor of charter schools and is prohibited by law from considering the fiscal impact of charter school growth on local communities. (ELC_CharterBillAnalysis_SB1085_10_29_13)

This is an insult to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers.

Charter schools are not “tuition-free” as ubiquitous Internet ads proclaim. In fact, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $1 billion on charter school tuition payments every year.

Increased charter school growth will necessarily result in increased education costs in our local communities. Average charter school tuition is very roughly $10,000 per student per year. A new charter school with 400 students will create a brand new $4 million per year cost for taxpayers in that community. The new cost will be in addition to what taxpayers are already spending to support their traditional public schools. This is something that taxpayers in most communities, frankly, cannot afford right now.

Legislators who are willing to consider only the needs of charter schools demonstrate a complete disregard for Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, who are already struggling to pay ever-increasing property tax bills.

Any charter school funding commission MUST be charged with finding the best, most efficient way to use precious taxpayer dollars to pay for and strengthen our entire public school system. It must not consider only the needs of charter schools.

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085 because the Charter School Funding Advisory Commission in the bill is prohibited by law from considering the impact of charter school growth on the communities that you represent.

The taxpayers you represent will be responsible for paying the charter school tuition bills of students in our communities who attend these schools. It is irresponsible for our state government to pass a law that completely disregards the financial impact charter school growth will have on taxpayers, who are already struggling to pay property tax bills to support the schools we have now.

Any charter school funding advisory group MUST be charged with finding the best, most efficient way to use precious taxpayer dollars to pay for and strengthen our entire public school system. It must not consider only the needs of charter schools.

Reason #4 to Oppose SB 1085

We continue with Susan Spicka’s excellent list of top-five reasons our state senators should oppose the current charter “reform” bill before them. Susan has been speaking with many legislators about this bill and tells us that there is very little understanding of its policy failures, even among its supporters, as she points out below. It’s up to us to take action now, or watch as this thing sails into law.

Reason #4 our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085

Language that charter schools be models of innovation has been inexplicably stripped from SB 1085

SB 1085 eliminates longstanding requirements that charter schools be models of innovation for other public schools.

Removal of this key language from the legislation begs the question, If the purpose of charter schools is not to provide something different and better than the traditional public schools, what is their purpose?

As Pennsylvanians certainly cannot afford to fund a second, parallel, costly, and completely duplicative system of public education, it is essential that any charter school reform legislation retain language that requires charter schools to be models of innovation for our public schools.

It is not clear why this language was removed from the bill in the first place. Strangely enough, even Senator Smucker, the prime sponsor of SB 1085, was surprised to learn that it had been stripped from his own bill. (Smucker p. 21)

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085 because language requiring charter schools to be models of innovation for public schools has been stripped from the bill.

Removal of this key language from the legislation begs the question –If the purpose of charter schools is not to provide something different and better than the traditional public schools what is their purpose?  

As Pennsylvanians certainly cannot afford to fund a second, parallel, costly, and completely duplicative system of public education, it is essential that any charter school reform legislation retain language requiring charter schools to be models of innovation for our public schools.

Top 5 Reasons State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085

New year, old bill. Today’s post comes to us from our colleague, Susan Spicka, a public education advocate from the middle part of the state who has been tracking the progress of SB1085. As you may recall, that is the Senate bill that proposes to “reform” charter schools, but will actually cause more harm than good. We desperately need charter reform, but SB1085 is not it. [See “Stop This Bill” and “Killer Weeds”] Spicka has identified five reasons our state senators should oppose this bill. In a series of guest spots this week, we will share them with you.

Susan explains, “The PA Senate is poised to vote on SB 1085 … Now is the time for Pennsylvanians who care about our public schools to contact our state senators and urge them to oppose this legislation. … Please take a few minutes, contact your senator each day this week to share your concerns about these flawed policies, urge him/her to oppose SB 1085, and share this information far and wide! If our senators don’t hear from voters, they will likely pass this bill.”

Reason #5 our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085
The Private Authorizer System

SB 1085 creates a private authorizer system for charter schools in PA. More than 100 institutions of higher education, including institutions with no experience, capacity, or faculty in education, would be allowed to authorize an unlimited number of charter schools without input from local communities.  Charter schools will be able to set up shop without community approval, and send us the bill—whether we can afford it or not.

In addition, SB 1085 would allow even more taxpayer dollars intended for educating public school children to be siphoned off to private entities. Institutions of higher education would be permitted to receive public dollars for being unaccountable authorizers of charter schools. Good charter school policy should keep more taxpayer dollars in classrooms educating our children, not allow more taxpayer dollars to be siphoned into private pockets.

SB 1085 supporters often cite the university authorizer system in New York as the reason that PA should have a university authorizer. However, New York has exactly ONE university authorizer, NOT more than 100. SB 1085 would create a Wild West scenario in charter school authorization in PA. A single school district will potentially have more charter school authorizers than almost any other state, and more than all neighboring states combined! (Charter Schools and Higher Education Authorizers)

The bottom line is that the private authorizer system in SB 1085 will not increase the quality of charter schools in PA. The private authorizer system WILL, however, give charter school operators an item at the top of their wish list ­– the ability to open charter schools in communities throughout Pennsylvania without the approval of the taxpayers who will have to pay the bills.

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085 because of the deeply flawed private authorizer system. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085, which would create a private authorizer system for charter schools in PA. SB 1085 would strip local control from taxpayers and allow more than 100  institutions of higher education, including institutions with no experience, capacity, or faculty in education, to authorize charter schools without input from local communities.

Charter schools are public institutions that are paid for by the communities in which they are located. SB 1085 creates a system of taxation without representation where a private entity can authorize an unlimited number of charter schools in our communities without regard for the impact on local taxpayers, who will be required by law to foot the bill.

I most strongly urge you to oppose SB 1085 and to work on real charter school reform in PA that will craft a sustainable charter school funding formula to create efficiencies for taxpayers, relieve the overwhelming financial burden on our school districts, and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education.

Stop This Bill

The charter school reform bill SB1085 is on the PA Senate’s calendar today. This bill does not provide the reform that we need and will actually cause more harm to public schools. [Please see “Killer Weeds” for all the gory details.] Have you called your state senator yet about this legislation? Did you just mutter “no” to yourself? Would it help if I begged?

Pleeeeeease????? Seriously, we need you to call your state senator and urge them to vote no on SB1085, which will remove local control over your tax dollars. Click here now to find contact information for your state senator. Here’s what SB1085 would do [from Keystone State Education Coalition]:

  • allow colleges and universities to authorize new charter schools without local approval, even though they have no financial stake or accountability to the public for the school’s performance.
  • eliminate enrollment caps on charter schools, allowing for the unfettered expansion of charter schools in PA.
  • increase the initial term of a charter from 3 years to 5 years, and allow a charter school to be granted a 10 year renewal, which would slice accountability in half.
  • allow two or more charters to consolidate and transfer oversight to the PA Department of Education, while local taxpayers would still pay the tuition.
  • remove the provision that requires charter applications to be evaluated based on the extent to which the school may serve as a model for other public schools (which was the original purpose of charter schools).

All of this matters because the state is actively foisting new charter schools on Pittsburgh, even after our school board has voted against them. This is adding millions to the district’s budget deficit just as we are being told we must close more schools in our communities in order to address that deficit. We have a looming $46 million budget gap, but we are currently spending $53 million to send 10% of the district’s kids to charter schools. [See “When Charter Cause Harm and Leaders Fail to Lead”] I am not suggesting that we simply close charter schools – that’s not legally possible and it’s not as simple as that. But we ought to be asking what our students are getting from charter schools.

While there are certainly exceptions, on the whole Pennsylvania’s charter schools have a terrible track record of student performance. The latest national research found that charter students in our state cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts Pennsylvania in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance] And don’t forget that the state Auditor General last year found that cyber charter schools are over-charging school districts $1 million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”]

We desperately need charter reform. But SB1085 is not it. Please call your state senator now! And if you have a few minutes more to spare, please consider calling any or all of these Senate officers:

Majority Leader Senator Dominic Pileggi 
(717) 787-4712  dpileggi@pasen.gov

Majority Whip Senator Patrick Browne 
(717) 787-1349  pbrowne@pasen.gov

Majority Caucus Chair Senator Michael Waugh 
(717) 787-3817  mwaugh@pasen.gov

Majority Caucus Secretary Senator Robert Robbins 
(717) 787-1322  rrobbins@pasen.gov

Majority Appropriations Chair Senator Jake Corman 
(717) 787-1377  jcorman@pasen.gov

Majority Caucus Administrator Senator John Gordner 
(717) 787-8928  jgordner@pasen.gov

Majority Policy Committee Chair Senator Edwin Erickson 
(717) 787-1350  eerickson@pasen.gov

Thankful Top Ten

A lot of my Facebook friends are posting a message every day this month detailing the things for which they are grateful. It occurred to me how easy it would be for me to fill a month’s worth of posts just noting the many things I am thankful for in our public schools.

But I’ve been distracted from writing those posts since we’ve had such a busy month: with actions ranging from the PIIN Town Hall meeting to greeting Gov. Corbett on his campaign launch to hosting a forum for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia students [“A Week of Action,” “Calling All Students”]; battling the terrible charter reform bill barreling our way [“Killer Weeds”]; raising important questions about a potential contract with Teach for America [“Six Questions for Teach for America,” “Too Few Answers”]; and drafting an education platform with our grassroots colleagues around the state for the Democratic candidates for governor [“What They Should be Saying”]. I’m worn out and ready to eat pie!

But I’m still feeling the spirit, so here just in time for Thanksgiving, I offer my top ten education justice gratitude list. I am thankful for:

  1. Students who are speaking up about their education and their schools. I love the new Student Bill of Rights [Pittsburgh Courier, 11-22-13] and am grateful to the many students who have testified recently before City Council and the school board.
  2. Teachers and staff who work with our children every day and volunteer countless hours after school and on the weekends. I wrote about “Teacher Heroes” after the Sandy Hook tragedy last year, which has been back in the news this week, and I wish I could send that piece as a thank you note to every one of our teachers.
  3. Our democratically elected school board, which is accountable to the public and has been working in recent years – with urging from A+ Schools, local foundations and others – to make itself more transparent and open. I am grateful we don’t have mayoral-control in Pittsburgh.
  4. Mayor-elect Bill Peduto who believes that the strength of our city is tied to the strength of our public schools. I am grateful that he has appointed a cabinet level education officer and for his commitment to collaborating with the district and community partners to find more holistic, sustainable solutions.
  5. Pittsburgh City Council for recognizing that closing schools harms communities, and ultimately our entire city, and for calling for a moratorium on school closures.  [See “A Moratorium Makes Sense”]
  6. Grassroots colleagues around the state who are working to knit our sometimes-disparate battles into an authentic, inclusive, and strong education justice movement.
  7. Thoughtful critics who disagree with me, who have taken the time to sit down over coffee and talk, and who engage in productive public dialogue. I am grateful for civil discourse.
  8. Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, an unprecedented coalition of parents, students, teachers, community members, faith leaders, local unions, and social justice activists. The work of collaboration is messy and hard, but I am grateful for the power of commitment and strength in working together.
  9. The thousands of people who are getting involved in education justice: just this past week, over 1,300 people signed our petition asking the school board to delay its vote on the contract with Teach for America, closing Woolslair elementary, and selling our property to a charter organization until the public has more information and the four new board members can participate in those decisions.
  10. Parent activists like these who packed the Pittsburgh school board public hearing last night:

PamPresentsPetition11-25-13

  • Pam Harbin (above) presented the school board with the GPS petition containing 1,341 signatures and hundreds of supporting letters.
  • Kathy Newman opposed a contract with Teach for America saying, “I offer my services as a CMU professor-free of charge-to help recruit qualified STEM teachers to teach in our schools.”
  • Michele Boyle asked the board to “stop foreclosing on our student’s second homes. Stop closing schools!”

What are you thankful for in our education justice movement?

What They Should be Saying

It’s a lot of chilly heads as eight Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor have already tossed their hats in the ring. All eight are eager to take on Governor Corbett, whose latest approval rating is so far in the tank that only 20% of registered voters think he deserves re-election. With 61% of those surveyed a few weeks ago saying the state is “on the wrong track,” even Republicans are calling for Corbett to step aside (44% think he should let someone else run). [Franklin & Marshall poll, 10-31-13]

Not surprisingly, that same poll found, “Nearly one in four (22%) registered voters believes unemployment and the economy is the state’s most important problem, followed closely by schools and school funding (21%).” With education consistently rated as Pennsylvania’s #2 concern, right behind jobs and the economy, candidates for the state’s highest office need to be talking about what they will do for our public schools. A few have started, but the conversation needs to get much louder and deeper.

To give them a boost, the education grassroots community has developed this handy guide. Here’s the list of Democratic candidates for Governor and what they should be saying about public education:

John Hanger, former Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection
Jo Ellen Litz, County Commissioner of Lebanon County
Rob McCord, Pennsylvania Treasurer
Kathleen McGinty, former Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection
Max Myers, businessman and former pastor
Ed Pawlowski, Mayor of Allentown
Allyson Schwartz, U.S. Representative
Thomas W. Wolf, businessman and former Secretary of the PA Department of Revenue

What Democratic Candidates for PA Governor Should be Saying about Public Education

Public Education Funding

  • I believe that public education is a public good. Public education is an investment that we as taxpayers make together to benefit students, parents, and communities. Public schools play a vital role in building strong communities throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding of public education will be a top priority of my administration.
  • I will reverse the more than $1 billion in state funding cuts to public K-12 schools and public higher education.
  • I will enact a fair, accurate and transparent formula to allocate state tax dollars to school districts. This formula will take into account the actual number of students living in poverty, students learning English, and students with a disability. It will also take into account the fact that some school districts lack the overall economic ability to raise adequate revenue to fund their schools. State dollars will be allocated based on those differences.
  • I will close tax loopholes that harm our public schools, such as the “89-11” real estate transfer mechanism that diverts desperately needed funds from school districts.

Keeping public education public

  • I oppose vouchers.
  • I oppose parent trigger laws and other efforts to privatize public education.
  • I oppose any expansion of Pennsylvania’s current controversial education tax credit programs (Education Income Tax Credit-EITC and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit-OSTC) and will work with PDE to address serious deficiencies within the programs to bring them more in line with norms in other states.
  • I oppose school closures on the basis of test scores and mass school closings, which have been shown to be enormously disruptive to students’ academic and personal lives. School closings should be approached with prudence and with the end result being an improved academic and quality of life and public options for children.

Charter school reform

  • I recognize that the current way that PA pays for charter and cyber charter schools is structurally flawed, fiscally unsustainable, and weakens traditional public schools. The current law mandates that taxpayers fund two separate and duplicative systems of public education by taking money from one group of children (in traditional public schools) and giving it to another (children in charters).
  • I will work with the legislature to craft a sustainable charter school funding formula that will create efficiencies for taxpayers, relieve the overwhelming financial burden on our school districts, and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education.
  • I believe charter school payment rates are not accurately calculated.  I will work to reform the charter school funding formula for special education so that charter school payments are capped at the actual costs of providing children with services. I will also work with the legislature to revise the funding formula for cyber charters to account for the fact that they do not operate a full brick and mortar school building.
  • I will work with the legislature to pass a charter reform bill that holds all charter and cyber charter schools accountable to the public, ensures transparency in their finances and operations, and holds them subject to Pennsylvania’s existing Right to Know laws.
  • I support the authority of local school districts to authorize charter schools in their own communities. I will not support a law that allows an outside entity to authorize a charter school in a community nor will I support a state-wide authorizer.

Early Childhood Education

  • I will work for good prenatal care for every pregnant woman in Pennsylvania, because the risk of learning disabilities and other challenges to learning begin in the womb.
  • I will increase supplemental funding to Head Start so thousands of low-income children on waiting lists will have the opportunity to receive a high-quality early childhood education that will prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • I will enact mandatory kindergarten that is responsibly funded throughout the state.

Teaching and Learning

  • I value experienced, professional teachers and reject rhetoric that disparages teachers and the craft of teaching.
  • I believe that every public school should offer a full, rich curriculum with the arts, science, history, literature, world languages, and physical education. I will work with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to make sure that our policies, including testing requirements, support this.
  • I support smaller class sizes, especially for low-income, high-poverty districts with high needs.
  • I oppose the expansion of costly high stakes testing in Pennsylvania and in particular the current Keystone exams. I will call for a full review of the impact of Keystone exams on disaggregated student populations within each school district in order to determine whether these exams best serve the needs of students and families as well as improve accountability measures within school districts.
  • I support efforts to build healthy school climates such as evidence-based restorative justice programs and de-criminalizing minor offenses that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • I recognize that poverty and racial segregation are serious social problems and that we must address these root causes that affect the academic performance of far too many of our children.
  • I will seek capital investments in school facilities to improve and modernize Pennsylvania’s school buildings.

Helen Gym, Parents United for Public Education, Philadelphia
Rebecca Poyourow, Ph.D., Parents United for Public Education, Philadelphia
Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D., Yinzercation, Pittsburgh
Susan Spicka, Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Shippensburg

Killer Weeds

The PA General Assembly is back in session today and we need to go wading into the policy weeds for a moment. This is where we pay attention to potentially-lethally-boring policy details around bills such as SB 1085. These are killer weeds all right, but the real threat is to our schools. I promise you’ll be perfectly safe as you read this message: your blood pressure might rise, but then you will click “Take Action” at the bottom of this page, and you will feel much better.

Remember Senate Bill 1085? This is a charter “reform” bill that will actually hurt school districts. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] In a recent analysis of the bill, the Education Law Center concluded, “Ultimately, SB 1085 would gut local control over charter school authorization and growth, encourage unfettered expansion of even poorly-operated charter schools, take already underfunded school districts to the brink of financial collapse, and remove important accountability tools that school districts can use to ensure that charter schools are performing well and equitably serving all kinds of students.” [Education Law Center SB1085] Those are very strong words coming from our lawyer friends.

In opposing passage of SB 1085 in its current state, the ELC explains that the bill would:

  • Permit any charter school, good or bad, to grow without permission from any authority.
  • Permit charter schools to unilaterally amend the terms of their charter, at any time, for any reason.
  • Double the length of a charter from five to ten years, which would slice accountability in half.
  • Permit institutions of higher education to authorize new charters, even though they have no financial stake or accountability to the public for the school’s performance.
  • Permit “multiple charter school organizations” to avoid accountability to the communities they serve by electing to be authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
  • Create a funding commission that is stacked in favor of charter schools and not permitted to consider the fiscal impact of charter expansion on their local communities.

Why does this matter? Why should you spend another minute in these uncomfortable policy weeds that are scratching your legs and harboring who-knows-what slithering creatures? Just stand still for a minute and you’ll be fine. We need to go into these weeds once in a while to hold our legislators accountable for making policies that will help, not hurt, our schools. Right now, we desperately need good charter legislation.

Just take a look at the news that broke over the weekend about an FBI probe of another charter school here in Pittsburgh. [KDKA 11-8-13] The state Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale, found “potentially criminal” spending at the Urban Pathways charter school. The charter school spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy restaurants, retreats at elite resorts including Nemacolin Woodlands, and even paid for the mobile phones of board members’ spouses. DePasquale said these expenses are “a waste of taxpayer money” and is particularly concerned that Urban Pathways is also using Pennsylvania tax dollars to pay for a new school it is starting in Youngstown, Ohio. He’s turned the investigation over to the FBI. [Tribune Review, 11-11-13]

Larry Feinberg, a public school director from the other side of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, reminds us, “Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation.” Instead, he says, “In Pennsylvania, they have been laboratories of fraud, waste, abuse and lack of transparency.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 11-11-13] Now watch your blood pressure as you read Feinberg’s list:

  • In Pittsburgh, Nick Trombetta, founder of the state’s largest cyber charter, is on trial under a 41 count federal indictment for allegedly stealing $1 million.
  • In Philly, June Brown is on trial, accused of defrauding the four charters she founded of $6.7 million. Joan Woods Chalker, 75, a top lieutenant in Brown’s school network who worked with Brown for more than 20 years and served as a chief executive at one of her charters, has pleaded guilty to three counts of obstruction of justice. She stood accused of conspiring with Brown and the others in a scheme to defraud four charter schools of $6.7 million, then staging a cover-up.
  • In Wayne, PA, K12, Inc.’s Agora Cyber Charter used tax dollars to pay for more than 19,000 local TV commercials. Agora has never made AYP, but Business Week reported that it had made over $31 million for K12, Inc. in one academic year.  K12’s CEO was paid $5 million in 2011.
  • In Harrisburg, PA Office of Open Records executive director Terry Mutchler said her office had received 239 appeals in cases in which charter schools either rejected or failed to answer requests from the public for information such as budgets, payrolls, or student rosters. She said her office ruled in favor of the schools on just six of those appeals. “They don’t feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you,” Mutchler told senators on the state government committee, which is considering legislation to amend the five-year-old law. “They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy right-to- know-law.”
  • In Palm Beach Florida, the Governor’s largest individual campaign donor is building a new 20,000 square foot mansion on a $29 million beachfront lot. He has been fighting a right-to-know request for over 6 years regarding financial details of his management company’s operation of the state’s largest brick and mortar charter school. Standardized-test scores dropped precipitously at that Chester Community Charter School after an investigation of possible past cheating brought new scrutiny to the school’s testing practices. Results for 2012 state tests show that, schoolwide, scores fell about 30 percentage points in math and reading, with double-digit drops in every grade. Some fell more than 40 percentage points.

Now see why the policy weeds matter? We need real charter reform, but SB 1085 is more like a snake in the grass. Please TAKE ACTION – yes, click on those words to visit our colleagues at the PA School Board Association where you can send an email to your senator asking her or him to oppose SB 1085. Really. You will feel so much better. And then you can walk on out of these killer weeds.