Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just picked Joe Watkins to be the Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) for the struggling school district in Chester Uplands. Under new laws passed with the budget this summer, the state can now appoint a CRO to develop a “financial recovery plan” for districts like Chester Upland over in Eastern PA and Duquesne, right here in the heart of Yinzer Nation.
The CRO has enormous power to close schools and convert them to charters, to cancel contracts with vendors, and to renegotiate teachers’ contracts. He can even force local school boards to raise property taxes. And if school board members don’t go along with the plan, the state actually now has the ability to prevent individuals from resigning their posts! In an op-ed piece today, state representative Marc Gergely, a local Democrat from White Oak, points out that this is a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and calls it “utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.” (See Gergely’s excellent piece, reprinted below, about why local taxpayers should care.)
Handing Joe Watkins this kind of power was just what Governor Corbett had in mind when he pushed these educational “reform” bills through the state legislature at the last minute back in June. Watkins has been the chairman of the super PAC, Students First PA, backed by the fortunes of mega-billionaire “school choice” activist, Betsy DeVos, and her national organization, the American Federation for Children (AFC). (See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for more on DeVos, the AFC and her Pennsylvania super PAC.) Over the past three years, DeVos and her colleagues, who include the ultra-right-wing Koch brothers, have funneled $2.5 million into Pennsylvania politics through this PAC alone.
Their investment has paid off big time. Governor Corbett appointed Joel Greenberg, an AFC board member and hedge fund trader from Philadelphia, to be on his education transition team. Greenberg is also one of the principle donors to the Students First PA super PAC, which spent this past spring handing out huge contributions to pro-voucher candidates. And now Corbett’s education secretary has tapped the PAC’s chairman to raid, er, watch the henhouse.
Watkins will oversee a school district where almost half the students already attend charter schools. In fact, Chester Uplands is home to the state’s largest charter school, Chester Community Charter, run by Vahan Gureghian’s management company. Remember him? Gureghian is Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor – and another member of his education transition team – who has collected over $60 million in public taxpayer dollars through his charter management company, but has been fighting a right-to-know lawsuit for the past six years to prevent the public from learning his actual salary. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian recently purchased two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [See “Soaking the Public”.]
Watkins, in his new role as Chester Uplands CRO, will have plenty of opportunity to charterize more of the district’s public schools and there will be little the local school board can do to stop him. State Sen. Daylin Leach, a member of the Senate’s education committee, called Watkins an ideologue and the wrong choice to rebuild a strong public school system, saying, “It would have been hard to come up with a nominee who is more publicly associated with the effort to undermine public education.” [Newsworks.org 8-20-12]
I’ll point out again that not all charter schools are necessarily bad – especially those run by nonprofits, with locally controlled boards accountable to the public, and who hire accredited teachers and pay them fair wages. But student achievement at charter schools has been a mixed bag, despite years of promises that they would revolutionize education. In Chester Upland, some charter schools performed better and some performed worse than their traditional school peers, though Vahan Gureghian’s Chester Community Charter is on the state’s short list under investigation for possible cheating on the PSSAs.
As Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in Haverford Township in Delaware County, aptly explains: “After 20 years there is no clear evidence demonstrating that charters or vouchers are systematically more effective than traditional public schools in improving student performance for students in high-poverty schools. What is clear is that charters can be extremely lucrative for owners and management companies.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 8-21-12]
Watkins is now in a powerful position to force public funding into private hands. And other districts across the state – including Duquesne, York, and Harrisburg – will soon be getting their own CROs. Those of us who care about our public schools are going to have to fight hard to keep the public in public education.
State Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak [Post-Gazette Op-Ed, 8-22-12]
The financial crisis in the Duquesne City School District should have been a wake-up call to state government that comprehensive education reform is needed immediately. Instead, Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a new law written by legislative Republicans that stomps on the local rights of financially distressed school districts, like Duquesne and possibly Clairton and Jeannette in the future.
Property taxpayers in neighboring school districts should be worried, too. You could be on the hook for thousands of dollars for every student transferring into your district.
The bill passed with the state budget, which locked in last year’s unprecedented $1 billion in cuts to public schools and provided $49 million for the state’s 16 distressed school districts. But the extra money came with a huge catch. It’s now much easier for the state to take over a school district.
The bill narrowly passed the House despite strong opposition from some legislators, including me, in communities that will be harmed.
This school year, the state Education Department, will spend $6 million to appoint a chief recovery officer to replace boards of control in Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg and York. Eventually the state could take control of up to nine school districts at one time.
Each CRO will have enormous power to develop and implement a financial recovery plan. Regardless of what’s in the best educational interests of students, the CRO can close schools or convert traditional public schools into nonprofit or for-profit charter schools. For Duquesne, that’s a huge obstacle. It’s so underfunded that charter schools avoid coming here. There’s no profit to earn.
However, changes are coming for Duquesne students before a CRO is named. After months of refusing to discuss Duquesne’s future, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in early July told the West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts to expect seventh and eighth graders from Duquesne.
Taxpayers in those districts will feel it, too. West Mifflin Area says it gets only about $11,000 to educate each Duquesne student, but the real cost is closer to $14,000. West Mifflin Area’s property taxpayers will pick up the difference.
First, property owners had to endure tax hikes because of massive state funding cuts, now they could be paying to educate students from other school districts.
In the name of saving money, a CRO has even more power, such as cancelling agreements with vendors and renegotiating teachers’ contracts. Most striking of all, the law can force a locally elected school board to vote to raise school property taxes. If it refuses, the state will go to court to appoint a receiver who will force through a tax hike.
The CRO even has the authority to prevent a school board member from resigning, which violates the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.
Schools like Duquesne are struggling financially because communities lack the tax base to support them. Raising taxes makes the situation worse and delays the inevitable and more difficult decisions for a few more years.
That could eventually force other struggling districts like Clairton and Jeannette to send students to Elizabeth Forward, West Jefferson Hills, Penn-Trafford, Hempfield Area or Norwin.
We must do more than this misguided state takeover plan that’s not in the best interest of any school district. Ultimately, it fails to address the real issues, the true cost of educating diverse student populations and the fact that some communities lack the tax base to support quality schools.
We have an obligation to ensure every child in our community has access to a first-class education. Our decisions will affect each student’s education and ultimately the course of many lives. Instead of punishing communities with limited means by forcing a state takeover, we should work toward a fairer funding formula to allow all schools to be successful, regardless of their ZIP code.