12 Problems with Charter Schools

Are there good charter schools? You might be surprised to hear my short answer to this question, which is “yes.” Many people I talk to these days assume that I am entirely anti-charter. That’s not true. However, I do have some concerns about the way that charters currently operate in Pennsylvania and their outcomes for students. Twelve concerns, to be precise, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, the good news: Southwest Pennsylvania has several high-quality charter schools, six of which were just named in a report by Rep. James Roebuck as “high performing.” (Although the study uses the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) scores to make that determination, which I have argued is a poor way to understand school quality.) The report separates the high-performing charter schools into two groups based on how many students they serve who are living in poverty. [Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update, April 2014]

Those on the high-performing list from our area enrolling more than 50% students from economically disadvantaged families are: City Charter High School, Pittsburgh; Propel Charter School, McKeesport; Propel Charter School, Montour; and Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. Two other local schools, with less than half their enrolled students living in poverty, made the list: Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Pittsburgh; and Baden Academy Charter School, Beaver County.

I believe high-quality charter schools can be a part of a great public education system. I also think that all students deserve the benefits offered by the best charter schools: smaller class sizes, rich curricula, full art and music offerings, a focus on learning not testing, and support for families and communities. To me the important question is not, “are there good charter schools?” but rather, “how do we make sure that all students, and not just a select few, are getting these benefits?” For the record, my definition of a “good charter school” is one that:

  • Offers innovative programs and a full, rich curriculum;
  • Serves a student population at least as diverse as its surrounding area (with similar or greater proportions of students living in poverty, students of color, students with special education plans, and English language learners);
  • Does not use skimming and weed-out strategies to alter student enrollment;
  • Operates as a non-profit with a local board of directors;
  • Compensates its staff fairly and includes teachers as experts in planning and decision making about curriculum, testing, and other pedagogical issues;
  • Partners with its local public school district to share best practices and ideas.

Not all of Rep. Roebuck’s “high-performing” charters meet all of the criteria on my list (for instance, none of them enroll the proportion of students with special needs as Pittsburgh Public Schools), though each could certainly contribute to the larger conversation about improving public education for all students. Unfortunately, these six are the exceptions to the rule in Pennsylvania, which has one of the poorest track records in the country for charter schools. Which leads me to my list of 12 concerns with charter schools in our state:

1. Most are not helping kids. Rep. Roebuck’s new report shows that for the 2012-23 academic year, “the average SPP score for traditional public schools was 77.1,” but for charter schools it was 66.4, and cyber charter schools came in at a low 46.8. What’s more, “none of the 14 cyber charter schools had SPP scores over 70, considered the minimal level of academic success and 8 cyber charter schools had SPP scores below 50.” [Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update, April 2014] The latest national research found that charter students in Pennsylvania cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts us in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] If we’re going to have charter schools, shouldn’t they be helping students?

2. Some are actually hurting kids. In a new report out last week, Dr. Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon, reviewed the growing low-budget-charter sector in Milwaukee, which has the oldest charter system in the country, and found startling results with national implications. Cost-cutting charters such as the Rocketship chain offer a narrow curriculum focused on little more than reading and math test prep, inexperienced teachers with high turnover, and “blended learning” products designed to enrich charter school board members’ investment portfolios. Dr. Lafer “questions why an educational model deemed substandard for more privileged suburban children is being so vigorously promoted—perhaps even forced—on poor children…” [Economic Policy Institute, 4-24-14] Others have pointed out significant problems with zero-tolerance, strict discipline charters made famous by the “no excuses” KIPP chain of schools. [EdWeek, 2-20-13]

3. Far too many are cash cows. When Pennsylvania is seen by hedge fund managers as prime ground for “investment opportunities” in charter schools, you know something is terribly wrong. And when four of the top political campaign donors in the entire state are connected to charter schools, you have to start asking why. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”] Publicly funded schools should not be serving to line the pockets of private companies and individuals.

4. The industry is rife with fraud and corruption. Who can forget the scheme by PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta, right here in Beaver County, to steal $1 million in public dollars? Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case. [Post-Gazette, 8-24-13] And then there is the Urban Pathways Charter School in downtown Pittsburgh under FBI scrutiny for trying to spend Pennsylvania taxpayer money to build a school in Ohio. A related investigation by the state auditor general revealed a history of expensive restaurant meals, a posh staff retreat at Nemacolin Woodlands resort, and payments for mobile phones belonging to the spouses of board members. [Trib, 11-11-13] Not to be left out, Philadelphia just had its eighth charter school official plead guilty to federal fraud charges. [Philly.com, 2-10-14]

5. Lack of transparency and accountability. Charter schools are publicly funded, but often act like private entities. Here in Pennsylvania, the largest charter school operator has been fighting a right-to-know request for years in the courts so that he doesn’t have to reveal his publicly funded salary (data that is publicly available for traditional public schools). In 2012, Gov. Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature tried to introduce a bill that would have exempted all charters from the state’s sunshine laws. [See “Where are the Real Republicans?”] In California, charter school operators have even argued in court that they are a private entity and should not be treated as a public institution. [Ed Week, 10-7-13] We desperately need charter reform legislation that emphasizes accountability and transparency, just as we demand from traditional public schools. [See the top 5 reasons the current proposed legislation fails to do both.]

6. Skimming and weed-out strategies. Dr. Kevin Welner, professor of education policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has found that charter schools “can shape their student enrollment in surprising ways.” He has identified a “Dirty Dozen” methods used by charter schools “that often decrease the likelihood of students enrolling with a disfavored set of characteristics, such as students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty.” [NEPC Brief, 5-5-13] Think it’s not happening in Pennsylvania? Consider the Green Woods charter school in Philadelphia that made its application available to prospective families only one day per year, in hard copy form only, at a suburban country club not accessible by public transportation. [Newsworks, 9-12-12] When charter schools overtly, or even unconsciously, urge students to leave – for instance, by not offering services for special education students or English language learners – they send those students back to traditional public schools.

7. Contribute to the re-segregation of U.S. education. For a number of years, researchers have noted the trend towards re-segregation in public education and the role that charters may be playing in that process. A recent report warns, “the proliferation of charter schools risks increasing current levels of segregation based on race, ethnicity, and income.” [Phi Delta Kappan, 2-2014] Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, of University of Texas at Austin, writes about some charter schools that claim they would like to be more diverse, but that it’s “hard to do.” He explains, “Charters have a choice whether they want to be racially and economically diverse schools that serve ELL, Special Education and low-SES kids. Based on the various admissions and management policies … charters choose their students, rather than families choosing their schools— in essence, school choice is charter schools choose.” [Cloaking Inequality, 11-11-13]

A pointed article in the Jacobin last summer took liberals to task for supporting charter schools while failing to fight underlying racism embedded in education: “Advocating charter schools to boost academic outcomes for poor, minority kids presumes that we can provide equal educational opportunity and simultaneously maintain a status quo of segregated housing and schooling. If you are unwilling to wage the unpopular fight for residential and school integration and equalized (and adequate) school funding, charter schools can seem a “good enough” compromise.” [Jacobin, 7-31-13]

8. Drain resources from struggling districts. Charter tuition payments are causing a huge financial drain for many districts – $53 million in Pittsburgh this academic year alone. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Governor Corbett slashed reimbursement to districts for charter school tuition payments: that cost Pittsburgh $14.8 million in 2012 and continues to cause mounting financial harm. [See “Charter Reform Now”] And remember, when a couple students leave a classroom to attend a charter school, that classroom still has to keep the lights on, and pay the teacher and the heating bill: the math is not a simple moving of dollars from one place to another. What’s more, there is evidence that charters, especially cyber charters, are enrolling more students who were previously home-schooled, thus increasing costs for school districts. [NCSPE Brief on Cyber and Home School Charter Schools]

9. Closing traditional public schools. Some of the biggest charter school supporters are simultaneously working to close traditional public schools. For instance, a New York Times article this week on the Walton Family Foundation reported that it “gave $478,380 to a fund affiliated with the Chicago public schools to help officials conduct community meetings to discuss their plan to close more than 50 schools at a time when charters were expanding in the city.” [New York Times, 4-26-14] In Philadelphia, charter school proponents have succeeded in getting new charter schools opened while waves of traditional public schools have closed. This year, parents in some schools are being forced to choose between conversion to a charter school, with additional resources for their kids, or staying a traditional public school and losing resources. [Philly.com, 3-13-14]

While Pittsburgh has resisted any large scale opening of new charter schools, the state is now forcing the district to approve new charters, even as it is slashing the budget and promising more school closures. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] Under state law, districts are not permitted to take into account their own financial situation when approving new charter schools, which means that charter expansion cannot be a rational part of an overall strategic plan.

10. Lack of innovation. Charter schools were meant to be “innovation labs” to test out new ideas and introduce those ideas into the traditional public school system. But that is not happening. We’ve had charter schools in Pennsylvania for 15 years, so where is all this innovation that should be showing up in all of our schools by now? Supporters of the highly problematic Senate Bill 1085 wish to strip the innovation clause out of state law, which is the last thing we should be doing. [See “Top 5 Reasons to Oppose SB 1085”] We need to find ways for the best charter schools to work collaboratively with school districts so that all students benefit.

11. Hard to get rid of the bad ones. Poor performing charter schools do not just go away. Half of all brick-and-mortar charter schools have been around now for over ten years. But Rep. Roebuck’s new report finds that “their results do not significantly improve the longer that a charter school has been open. … Unfortunately, for 2012 – 2013, a majority, 51%, of the charter school open 10 years or more have SPP scores below 70 [considered the minimal acceptable score].” The report concludes, “these results are not encouraging and it raises concerns about renewing many charters with poor performance over so many years.” [Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update, April 2014]

12. Charters promote “choice” as solution. I’m not convinced we simply need more “choices” in public education. We do need great public schools in every community (that doesn’t mean in every single neighborhood), that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option. The idea of “choice” is very American, but it’s also at the heart of modern neo-liberalism; free market ideology has turned parents into consumers, rather than public citizens participating in a common good. Markets do a fine job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. [See “The Problem with Choice”] Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge any family that makes the personal choice to send their child to any school, whether private, religious, charter, or magnet. I’m not advocating getting rid of choices. But I’d be a lot happier if charter advocates stopped using “choice” to promote these schools. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality and it hasn’t solved the larger problems facing public education.


How will the region’s six high-performing charter schools identified in Rep. Roebuck’s report help to address these 12 concerns? How can we make their noteworthy work a part of the conversation about improving public education for all students?

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:


  • 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