They’re at it again. Our state legislators returned to work last Monday after a nearly three month summer break – and will only be in session through next week, before adjourning again for several weeks for the election season. That means Governor Corbett only has a few days to get some of his top priorities through both the House and Senate. And by all accounts, charter “reform” legislation is at the top of his list.
We indeed need charter reform in Pennsylvania. A broken funding formula is currently sucking resources away from traditional public schools and allowing some charter schools – especially cyber charter schools – to line the pockets of their corporate directors with wads of taxpayer cash. But what Gov. Corbett has in mind is not reform at all: it’s a sly new way to hand more power to the state. He wants a “state authorizer,” creating a new state commission that would take away local control over establishing new charter schools, sidestepping the elected school boards who now make those decisions.
In June, our grassroots movement scored a real victory, making enough noise that we prevented Gov. Corbett from pushing through his state authorizer during the last minutes of the budget debate. The Governor acknowledged recently, “We came very, very, very close to getting charter reform,” and added what should be a warning to those of us in the grassroots, “now, we need to get that done.” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (a Republican from Delaware County), boasted that, “leaders from both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have used the summer to iron out differences,” and said, “I don’t see any reason why we should not be able to resolve them.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-24-12]
Apparently, the plan these “leaders” hatched over the summer involved hijacking a bill that was meant to reform special education funding, by adding the charter school amendment. This special-ed bill actually has broad bi-partisan support and is desperately needed. Right now, the state gives every school district a set fee for each student who needs special education services, regardless of what that service is (some disabilities require extensive and expensive interventions while others do not). The current state law also caps payments to districts at 16% of their enrollment, while many school districts have 20 or event 25% special-need populations. The proposed special-ed bill would solve many of these problems and create far more equity in school funding across the state. Yet, as state Rep. Michael Sturla (a Democrat from Lancaster) put it, the bill “is being held hostage,” to twist the arms of legislators who might not want to vote for Gov. Corbett’s charter authorizer scheme. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-29-12]
State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis explained the attempted hijacking saying the administration “thought it would be faster.” [CBS Philadelphia, 9-27-12] Sure. It’s always faster to bully and use strong-arm tactics. But we’re talking about legislation that will take away the voices of local communities by cutting out their elected representatives. By handing control over charter authorization and oversight to a state board appointed by Gov. Corbett, our legislators will be handing the fox the keys to our henhouse. [Look no further than who the Governor has put in charge of struggling school districts: see “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”]
And to add insult to injury – and to cover the trail – the proposed charter amendment will exempt records of charter school “vendors” from our Right to Know Law. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-28-12] In this case, that means that for-profit, corporate charter school operators will not have to reveal the very basic facts we expect all schools to make public – such as the salaries of their top operators. Remember Vahan Gureghian, who runs the state’s largest charter school through his management company? Gureghian is Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor – and a 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”.]
We can expect more of this nonsense, and worse, if we do not prevent the current charter “reform” bill from going through. As Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters PA explains, “Charter schools are part of the public education landscape and we need high quality reform in order to help ensure that good charters can thrive and that we address the problems that have occurred.” Ed Voters proposes that good charter reform legislation would:
- Fix the funding formula that hurts ALL kids: we need to address the reality that current law means that funding charter schools siphons funds from community schools. A good funding formula would help both charter schools and traditional community schools,
- Address the financial and quality problems with virtual charter schools,
- Ensure that communities continue to have a say in how all public schools function in their community, and
- Improve fiscal and operational transparency, protecting the rights of students and taxpayers.
Please call your legislators today and let them know you are paying attention to this issue. [Look here to Find Your State Legislator] There is no state-wide “call in day” for this action as we did last spring several times for the budget process – we are hoping you will pick up the phone and call them now, or send an email while you are on the computer. Governor Corbett and his allies are counting on this flying under the radar. This is really in the policy weeds and there are only a few of us paying attention: but we are paying attention, aren’t we? If you’ve read this far, you are the one who is going to make a difference. So please, use your voice and tell your legislators: We need real charter reform.