Where are the Real Republicans?

Real Republicans don’t vote to take away local control. Real Republicans don’t try to concentrate power in the hands of the state and with small groups of political appointees. Real Republicans don’t thumb their noses at public accountability. Yet this is exactly what Governor Corbett and the legislature are trying to do with the latest charter school “reform” bill that goes before the Senate Rules Committee today. [Senate Bill 1115]

This deeply flawed bill was Gov. Corbett’s latest attempt to ram through a statewide authorizer, which would take control away from local, democratically elected school board representatives and permit only a state commission of political appointees the right to open new charter schools and to supervise them. [See “Real Charter Reform” and “Now That’s More Like It” for details.] It now appears that the governor’s office and legislative leaders have agreed to set aside the authorizer portion of the bill so they can focus on other pieces of the legislation. That is a partial victory for our grassroots movement, which has made a big noise about this issue. But a spokesman for Senate Republicans said there is still “broad support for a statewide authorizer among Senate Republicans.” A spokesman for House Republicans said views were more “far-ranging” in that chamber. [Post-Gazette, 10-15-12] We know this issue will be coming back.

Meanwhile, the bill retains equally terrible measures that should have all citizens up in arms, liberal, moderate, and conservative alike. Perhaps most egregious, SB 1115 will exempt charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law. We taxpayers are supporting charter and cyber charter schools to the tune of $1 billion. As the Delco Times editorial board wrote yesterday, “Given the growing influence – and cost – of charter schools, you would think the public would want to know as much as we possibly can about their operation and their financial dealings, given the increasing amount of public dollars flowing into their coffers.” They also noted, “Make no mistake, the charter school explosion in Pennsylvania has become a big business, a very lucrative business.” [Delco Times, 10-14-12] Since when do good Republicans want less accountability for taxpayer dollars?

Let’s remember charter school management corporation owner Vahan Gureghian, who was Governor Corbett’s single largest individual campaign donor and a member of his Education Transition Team. In the first ten years after Gureghian started his charter operation in 1999, he had already collected $60.6 MILLION from the public coffers. While salary data for public school administrators is public information, we don’t know what Gureghian is paid – or his wife, who is general counsel for their company. The Philadelphia Inquirer originally filed a right-to-know request all the way back in 2006 asking for salary figures: the Commonwealth Court ruled they had to disclose that information, but the Gureghians have appealed and six years later the case is still bouncing around. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009-06-11] Meanwhile, last fall Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18]

And on this side of the state, PA Cyber Charter School is under federal investigation for what appear to be far ranging financial misdeeds. Just Friday, the Post-Gazette reported that the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta, bought a Florida condo for $933,000, and then sold it “to a business created by one of the school’s former executives for just $10.” [Post-Gazette, 10-12-12] These are the people raking in millions and millions of public dollars, yet fighting tooth and nail to keep their business dealings away from public scrutiny. When was the last time your local school administrator bought a Florida condo for close to a million dollars? Why should the public not have the same access to the financial records of charter school operators as they do to traditional schools? What happened to Republicans’ fiscal conservatism?

The proposed bill also contains a measure that would allow the state to pay charter schools directly. While this seems benign, the Keystone State Education Coalition (KSEC) points out that this would effectively “deny local school districts any ability to monitor the validity of charges and payments of taxpayer funds before they are paid.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] In other words, this is another way to remove local control from democratically elected school boards who represent the interests of their communities and taxpayers. Conscientious Republicans value real oversight.

And last but not least, SB1115 would create a statewide charter funding advisory commission. Again, boring sounding bureaucratic details – until you realize that three quarters of the members of the commissions would be charter school and cyber charter operators in addition to the Governor’s political appointees. KSEC notes that, “Of 17 members, only 3 would represent school districts.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] Where’s the accountability to taxpayers in that plan?

The real Republicans I know would not be in favor of SB1115. It’s far from fiscally conservative, eliminates accountability and oversight, and strips away local control. In fact, this bill is fairly radical and it’s time our legislators see it for what it is. They also need to know that here in the grassroots we are paying attention to those details. Would Pennsylvania’s real Republicans please stand up?

The Manchester Miracle

Look what you did. Yes you. All of you here in Yinzer Nation have created a miracle on the Northside. Just three weeks ago, the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 had only forty books in its fiction section. Sheila May-Stein, newly hired by the District to rotate through several buildings to rebuild their libraries, snapped the now-iconic photo of those empty shelves.

As you know, our call to fill those shelves went completely viral and literally thousands of people around the world shared this story. Celebrities were tweeting and blogging about it; we were on the news; we were on the front page of the paper. As of today, you have purchased over 850 brand new books for the library from an Amazon wish list. By the end of that first week, boxes had started pouring in from as far away as England, Canada, and Australia. People near and far dropped off literally thousands of donated books. [See “Library Books and Equity” for the original story and “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books” for an explanation of how this situation occurred in the first place.]

But even more important than all of those wonderful books, is the way that this Manchester Miracle has pulled together the entire community. School libraries have become one of the canaries in the coalmine of public education: rather than accept their demise, Southwest Pennsylvania has stepped up to pump oxygen back into the system. Most importantly, the local neighborhood has embraced the Manchester library and is shaping this action to meet its own needs. That’s what real community empowerment looks like.

Get out your tissues, because the following list (and slideshow at the end) might just make you cry with happiness. And as you read, please look for further volunteer opportunities! We still need lots of help coordinating this Manchester Miracle:

  • Through her foundation Educating Teens, Inc. (which does HIV Awareness and community uplift), Manchester neighborhood resident Kezia Ellison approached Sam’s Club and got them to commit to completely refurbishing the library. They will repaint, install new lights, carpeting, shelves, furniture, and a circulation desk. And they will donate a bank of computers for the students to use. The Pittsburgh school board approved this last night and the work will be done in just two weeks! (That’s a miracle right there.)
  • Perlora has donated two designers who will work to transform the space.
  • Kezia Ellison is also working with the school’s #1 amazing community volunteer, Mr. Wallace Sapp, who is in the school almost every day, on a new project they’re calling Manchester Reads. They have big ideas for getting local celebrities on posters with books in their hands, and for using the school library as a local community resource.
  • The students and staff at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Bethel Park raised over $234 to buy books. They used buckets and signs to advertise, then voted on which books on the Amazon wish list they wanted to donate.
  • The Literary Guild book club at Baldwin High School in the South Hills is sponsoring a book drive.
  • A second grader at Pittsburgh Colfax held a bake sale at his family’s yard sale, and decided to split the money between his school library and Manchester’s. When Sheila picked up his little card, $20 slid out, and she said, “If 7- or 8-year old boys can go to this much effort to heal the world, surely the rest of us can. Thank you, darling boy!”
  • A mom from Mt. Lebanon brought a flatbed of book donations to Manchester that her 8-year old daughter and her daughter’s friends had collected.
  • Amy Boardley Watson, Kristie Orchard-Lindblom, and Jen Primack are making large pillows for children to lounge on while reading books – especially helpful for children in the school’s autism program.
  • Famous children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson not only blogged and tweeted about us, she sent a huge package including her picture books, books unique to the African American experience, her novels, and a gorgeous audio book collection.
  • Katha Pollitt, author and award-winning The Nation columnist, sent a huge box of books and a personal note.
  • The PPG corporate librarians are working on setting up a two-year grant for the school.
  • Students in the University of Pittsburgh’s Library Information Science (MLIS) program want to volunteer to help catalogue all the new books.
  • Bridget Belardi-Creath (a Pitt MLIS graduate with Sheila) typed out 2,000 labels for books and sent them in.
  • Teresa Smith, a mother and teacher at Manchester, bought a brand new ficus tree for the library.
  • One day recently, Sheila reported that, “A drop-dead movie star of a parent engagement specialist came through the door with a plan to get the community and parents involved.”
  • Rachel Lamory of Animal Nature collected many books to donate.
  • A group of inspiring women from the local Bidwell Church are looking forward to volunteering.
  • Brenda Simpson, a grandmother from the Manchester neighborhood, has been coming in to volunteer for hours before she goes to work in the Post Office.
  • Keturah Wasler, a volunteer from East Liberty, works all day like a whirlwind.
  • Kathie is a mom from Lawrenceville with kids in private schools who is so passionate about public education that she has been volunteering entire days of her time to work in the library.
  • Reading is FUNdamental has volunteered.
  • Bridget Kennedy from the Leadership Program at CORO Pittsburgh has been volunteering. Can you join these folks and volunteer a few hours of your time during the school day?
  • Joe Wos from ToonSeum set up a 20% discount program on any graphic novels (a favorite among kinds) purchased for donation to the cause at the museum. They will also be sending over a slew of new graphic novels and comics and have offered a free cartooning workshop for the kids. Who can follow up with them?
  • Beginning with Books co-founder donated a large number of books and then wrote to her book club and two writing groups to help spread the word
  • Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild offered to have a book drive and get involved with the school. They would be a terrific partner for a followup celebration. Who would like to coordinate?
  • A local Usborne Books representative would like to set up an online book fair. Anyone like to coordinate with her?
  • Phat Man Dee, a local jazz band, is interested in doing a fundraiser. Who wants to speak with them?
  • The Allegheny Library branch wants to help, but we need someone to coordinate with them.
  • The boys in the Pittsburgh Colfax middle level “Guys Read” club plan to organize joint field trips with the middle level Manchester students to talk about some of their favorite books together.
  • Carnegie Mellon University reached out to the District and offered to connect local corporations with individual school’s Amazon wish lists. It’s possible that other schools will be using the Manchester model and this will help fill the shelves at the remaining schools without libraries.
  • A national group of writers was so inspired by our work that they started a project, “Fill The Shelves,” that is using our model around the country. They have already helped several school libraries.
  • Deborah El, children’s librarian in the Carnegie Library system, helped build the Amazon wish list, and is keeping it populated. Haven’t bought a book yet? The list is still open for business.
  • Katherine Becker Laney, librarian at Sewickley Academy, picked through their collection for duplicates and sent them over to Manchester.
  • Jonathan Mayo got in his truck and drove thousands of donated books from Sheila’s house to the school. Then he got the Pirates to donate some sports books.
  • Joe Starkey, a local sports writer for the Trib and radio personality, came into the school this week with lots of donated sports books and read to the students.

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Are you sniffling yet? I hope you are feeling inspired by this incredible action. And I also hope we remember the underlying problems of equity and funding that we must work to address head-on. If anything, this list ought to remind us of the incredible amount of work it takes to operate and maintain a school library – work that cannot be sustainably provided by volunteers and that cannot happen when our schools only have a librarian one day per week.

Pittsburgh’s new equity plan calls for a library in every school, but does not place a full time librarian in each. In fact, only 14 out of 51 schools currently have a full time librarian and most of the district’s librarians have five schools assigned to them. Some schools that used to have a full time professional have lost those services, which is really a step away from equity for all. Through staff reductions, the District also lost its head librarian, an essential position for coordinating efforts throughout the city, planning collection development, and capitalizing on economies of scale when purchasing books – none of which now seems to be happening.

Pittsburgh alone has lost over $28 MILLION in the past two years of draconian state budget cuts. [See newly revised PSEA Budget Calculator] We need to be asking serious questions of both the District and our state legislators and holding them accountable for adequate and equitable funding for our schools. But if our grassroots movement can pull off the Manchester Miracle, surely it’s up to the task.

A Liar and a Cheat

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just got caught telling a whopper. He claimed that cheating caused the drop in standardized test scores all across Pennsylvania. Those scores, released a few weeks ago, show a steep decline and mean that 665 fewer schools in the state met education targets. Sec. Tomalis refused to admit that massive budget cuts could possibly have anything to do with the decline, and laid the blame on 100 teachers who remain under investigation for things such as unusual marking patterns on their students’ exams.

Ah yes. One hundred teachers – out of 148,500 education professionals in the state last year – caused scores to drop. The math here doesn’t even make sense. And if teachers helped their students cheat, wouldn’t their test scores have gone up? Never mind. This isn’t about logic. This is about denying that unprecedented state budget cuts have hurt students.

Yet we now have extensive evidence of just how bad Gov. Corbett’s gutting of the education budget has been for our kids. All across the state school districts have been forced to increase class sizes, eliminate tutoring and summer school programs, and lay off teachers. In the past two years, Pennsylvania school children have lost over 18,000 of their teachers and educational staff. (See “Cuts Have Consequences” for all the details.) And we’re supposed to pretend this has had no impact on their learning?

Sec. Tomalis boldly proclaimed that the state’s technical advisory committee reviewed the test scores and was asked, “Could budgets have impacted them? They said no.” In fact, Marianne Perie, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H. who facilitated that committee, said no such thing happened. They apparently talked about funding briefly but did not analyze its impact on test scores. “We walked out of there not feeling satisfied we had come up with a solid explanation for the drop,” she said. “As a technical advisory committee, we do not typically comment on policy issues. Funding is a policy issue. We had no data with which to make any analysis of the relationship between the decrease in funding and the drop in scores.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12]

Perie later told the Post-Gazette, “I wouldn’t say we ruled it out … I would say we had no comment on it.” [Post-Gazette, 10-8-12] That’s a far cry from concluding that 100 teachers caused test scores to drop in the entire state. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Education Department’s spokesman Tim Eller refused to provide a copy of the committee’s report saying, it’s “under review to determine what portions can be publicly shared.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12] Yes, wouldn’t want any of that pesky truth to misinform the public.

It’s bad enough that the state’s education secretary is lying about teachers and our students to cover up the devastatingly obvious effects of budget cuts. But now he seems bent on cheating to boost the appearance of charter school performance, too. You see, too many charter schools are not making education benchmarks, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), set under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Granted, NCLB is probably some of the worst education policy our country has ever passed. It has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by these highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing, prompted cheating scandals across the country, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

In Pennsylvania only 60.9% of school districts made AYP this year, compared to 94% last year. This was the result of both falling test scores, but also a big step up in proficiency targets: this year 78% of students had to be proficient or advanced in math and 81% had to be proficient or advanced in reading in order to make AYP. [Post-Gazette, 9-21-12] Apparently the Corbett administration was not pleased with the way charter schools were stacking up, so Sec. Tomalis simply changed the rules so that it would be easier for charter schools to make AYP than traditional public schools.

Sec. Tomalis made the change without federal approval, which is required. The U.S. Department of Education says that Pennsylvania’s request to amend the rules is being considered, but that a state is not permitted to make changes without final approval. An investigation by the Lehigh Valley Morning Call revealed that Sec. Tomalis’ change “might have skewed the results of the 2011-12 PSSA scores to make it appear charter schools were outperforming traditional public schools.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

The paper found that “a higher percentage of charter schools made AYP in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, including 52 that had one or more grade spans that did not hit testing benchmarks. In addition, 14 charter schools that had failing grades last year moved into the passing category this year.” Traditional public schools are not allowed to have a single grade span miss testing benchmarks. But these new rules clearly favor charter schools. For instance, 21st Century Cyber Charter School was allowed to make AYP even though its 11th graders failed to meet benchmarks. And Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia made AYP even though its middle school failed on five of six reading targets and four of six math targets. [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

This is absurd. Stuart Knade, chief legal counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, also points out that “the change might give the Legislature the false impression that charter schools outperform traditional public schools.” That could have real consequences as our legislators “consider bills supported by Corbett to expand the number of charter schools and change how they are authorized in Pennsylvania.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12] The state already approved four new cyber charter schools this summer, despite massive evidence that cyber charters suck up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students and that they deliver far worse learning outcomes than traditional public schools. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Knade correctly asserts, “The General Assembly needs to ask what is real and why are we being fed this kind of façade.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

So now we have Sec. Tomalis caught fibbing about the impact of 100 accused teachers on statewide test scores, denying that budget cuts have anything to do with those test score declines, and changing the rules so that charter schools look better. From where I sit, that makes him both a liar and a cheat. And what he’s really doing is cheating millions of Pennsylvania school children out of the adequately and equitably funded educations they deserve.

Cuts Have Consequences

This should come as no surprise. When you cut close to a billion dollars from public education, there are going to be consequences. Just so we’re all clear on exactly why we’re in this fight for our schools, let’s take a closer look at what has happened to them this year.

Last week the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) released the findings from a survey of the state’s 500 school districts. [PASBO/PASA survey, 10-1-12] The results are not pretty. With a 53% response rate, the survey clearly shows that our schools are struggling to deal with massive budget cuts by increasing class size, cutting programs, and eliminating teaching staff. Here are the highlights:

  • 51% increased class size. This is on top of larger class sizes imposed by 70% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 43% cut electives such as foreign languages, arts, music, physical education and even some courses in math, science, English and the social studies. Elective courses were already reduced in the prior school year by 44% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 40% delayed textbook purchases. This is on top of the 41% who did so last year.
  • 32% reduced or eliminated tutoring or other programs for struggling students. 35% of districts statewide said they had already decreased tutoring/additional instruction time in 2011-12.
  • 21% eliminated summer school programs. (Summer school allows students to make up the necessary credits to allow them stay on grade level and to graduate on time.)
  • 4% reduced or eliminated early childhood education (pre-kindergarten). This is in addition to the 6% of school districts that reduced or eliminated pre-K in 2011- 12.
  • 2% reduced or eliminated full-day kindergarten. That’s on top of the 5% who cut full-day kindergarten in 2011-12.
  • 43% reduced or eliminated student field trips.
  • 30% cut extra-curricular activities, including establishing or increasing fees for participation in activities.
  • 20% delayed their planned building or school renovation projects.
  • 30% furloughed teachers and staff, with teachers making up almost half (47%) of the cuts.
  • If extrapolated to the state as a whole, respondents have eliminated or left vacant nearly 4,200 positions. PASBO-PASA had estimated in August 2011 that school districts eliminated or left vacant 14,590 positions in school year 2011-12: that’s 18,790 lost educator jobs in two years.

Jay Himes, who has been executive director of PASBO for 17 years, said “I can’t think of anything even close” to the education cuts we’ve seen these past two years. And Jim Buckheit, executive director of PASA, commented, “It’s important to note the cumulative impact of these reductions.” [Post-Gazette, 10-2-12]

Indeed. Just looking at those numbers above makes it hard to stomach the response from our very own state Education Department. Spokesman Tim Eller looked at the survey and had the nerve to claim that funding is not hurting schools, saying, “This is the typical rhetoric that these organizations have been spewing for more than a year and quite frankly, they continue to misinform the public.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] These organizations? Spewing? We’re talking about those crazy school business officials who probably get together at their meetings to discuss how to save money when ordering pencils. These are not extremists with a political agenda. The radicals in this story are those currently inhabiting the Governor’s mansion and the Education Department appointees who claim that sharing this survey data is somehow misinforming the public.

Even more outrageous, Spokesman Eller went on, “All fingers should point to the Obama administration and how its one-time stimulus program created the funding cliff that Gov. Corbett, as well as school districts across the state, faced during his first year in office.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] Here we go again. We’re back to this sorry strategy: blame it on the stimulus. Talk about spewing rhetoric in a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.

Governor Corbett and his Education Department appointees have been using the federal stimulus program as a convenient cover story for the past year as they have actually made deeper cuts to public education. They claim that the state is simply reverting to 2009 education funding levels. (See why this is actually “A Shameful Betrayal” of Pennsylvania’s commitment to equity through a bi-partisan plan that was years in the making and well underway before Gov. Corbett’s draconian cuts gutted the effort.) The fact is, this governor actually spent $372 million less last year on public preK-12 education than the state spent before it started using federal stimulus money. (See our full analysis in “The Numbers Game.”)

These radicals are slashing public funding for one of our most cherished public goods: our children’s future. Just look at the increased class sizes; the cuts to arts, languages, and even core subjects; the loss of tutoring; and the number of school districts that have resorted to eliminating early childhood education and Kindergarten. And you tell us schools are not hurting because of funding cuts? Look at that survey data again. These are the real consequences of unprecedented cuts to public education.

Won’t Be Silent

The new film, “Won’t Back Down,” is a thinly-veiled propaganda piece produced by ultra-right ideologues bent on privatizing one of our most cherished public goods. It’s a blatant attempt to inject “parent trigger laws” into the national conversation on education, laws pretending to give parents and teachers control over struggling schools that in reality strip away local control and hand schools over to private corporations. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from the panel discussion after a private screening of the movie held Wednesday night.

Hosted by A+Schools along with the Pittsburgh Public School district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the film screening played to a packed theater of parents, teachers, and community members. Perhaps sensing the mood of the audience, we were told not to boo during opening remarks by Randy Testa (Vice President of Education at Walden Media which produced the film) who was inexplicably invited to this event. Despite essentially having a two-hour infomercial to tell his story, complete with Hollywood stars and a tear-jerking soundtrack, Testa was also infuriatingly given the majority of microphone time.

We were also told not to boo during the movie or panel discussion: presumably sniffling during the correct dramatic moments or cheering would have been acceptable. But this audience was not cheering. And at several points when characters spouted particularly egregious misinformation, there was loud groaning and a few shouts of “liars!” when folks could not contain their anger any longer. Yet our voices were silenced again when the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) moderated the panel “discussion” by selecting only a few written questions solicited from the audience.

And so we did not get to talk about who made this movie and why. We did not hear about the private corporate interests behind parent trigger laws or how they have been used to trick parents into signing over their schools, only to have all control taken away from them. While one question did ask about the film in the context of our recent devastating state budget cuts, none of the panelists took the opportunity to connect the consequences of those cuts – and years of inequitable and chronic under-funding of public schools – to the real problems facing our District. And so we did not hear about how struggling schools like the one portrayed in the film actually get to be that way in the first place.

Instead, the audience was left with shallow platitudes – “we can all agree that kids come first.” Yeah, we love kids. I think we can all agree. And “we need to put students before grownups,” which makes my head explode every time I hear it, since it’s actually a pat little phrase used to silence teachers and parents trying to speak up for students. Worse, the audience was told we simply need parents and teachers to “work together” and all our problems will go away. As if we don’t have incredible parents and teachers working together right now, doing amazing things. (I point you to the Manchester Miracle library project, if you need a quick example of what this grassroots movement is doing this very minute: “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books.”)

After the event, organizers even handed out a slick little “pocket guide for doing what’s best for kids in school” produced by Walden Media and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its 17 pages are full of photos from the movie along with suggestions for how to hold better parent-teacher conferences. Give me a break. Obviously, parent-teacher communication is important – and for some families, that’s a starting point to meaningful engagement with their schools – but that’s not what this is about. Oh wait: there it is on page 16 under “Know Your Rights”: Walden Media and Harvard helpfully remind us that “Parent Trigger laws have been enacted or considered in 20 states and are endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. These laws allow parents to reconfigure or shut down a school in which 51 percent or more of the families agree and are dissatisfied with the school’s performance.”

We have hundreds of new blog subscribers following our Manchester library work that went viral, so let’s quickly recap what this movie and these “parent tricker” laws are really about. The film was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox (we are well aware of their conservative credentials) and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making huge contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools, promote hatred and fight against gay rights, oppose environmental regulations, and work to eliminate unions. [Parents Across America alert, 8-12] Anschutz also funds ALEC, which is behind much of the blatantly corporate legislation being introduced in our state legislatures, including trigger laws. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

Parent trigger laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator. Walden Media’s snazzy little pocket guide lists Parent Revolution as one of their recommended “Resources” for parents (along with edreform.com, a blatantly radical-corporate-reform site promoting school privatization, vouchers, etc.).

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets. Closing down public schools and handing them over to private charter companies destroys a public good, forever (while enriching those corporations at tax-payer expense).

The law is not even about real parent engagement: all parents are doing is signing a petition, and then real control is taken away from them. Yet parents have real control over their schools right now. Most fundamentally, we elect school board members to represent us. We can also speak up at school board meetings. We can work with our school districts. We can work with our principals and teachers.

We need to be having a real conversation about who is behind parent trigger laws and other privatization schemes. We need to be talking about Pennsylvania’s massive budget cuts and legislation that Gov. Corbett is trying to ram through at this very moment to benefit his wealthy charter-school-owning friends that will drain more resources from our public schools and eliminate local control by democratically elected school boards. (See “Real Charter Reform.”) These are the critical issues of funding, equity, and public education as a public good that we must all be speaking about. And, no, we won’t be silent.

Now That’s More Like It

See, it can be done. Yesterday, state representative James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia and Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, announced a new bill that would represent a big step forward in really reforming the rules governing charter and cyber charter schools. [For an explanation of Gov. Corbett’s current attempt to impose anti-reforms, overriding local elected officials, and hiding the actions of his friends operating some of the state’s largest charter schools, see “Real Charter Reform.”]

House Bill 2661 would subject charter school fund balances to the same regulations that traditional public schools must follow (so they can’t keep huge sums of public taxpayer dollars essentially as profit). It would also tighten up pension funding rules that are allowing charters to “double dip” right now and limit special-education payments to charter schools to the actual amounts spent by the school district on special ed (currently, special-ed can be a cash cow for some charters). Significantly, this bill would not exempt charter operators from our Right to Know Laws. (H.B. 2661)

What’s more, Rep. Roebuck wants to see results this school year. Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, he explained, “If we are overfunding some charter and cyber charter schools, as appears to be the case, that money needs to be returned to the school districts this school year, not held until 2013-14 or later.” [PA House.com 10-2-12] In a press, release, Roebuck laid out some of the details, explaining that the bipartisan bill would:

  • Limit unassigned fund balances for charter and cyber charter schools, consistent with the limits already in effect for traditional public schools. In 2010, the auditor general reported that charter schools had $108 million in reserve funds. Nearly half of charter schools had a cumulative reserve fund balance above traditional public schools’ limit of 12 percent of their annual spending. The charter school balances ranged as high as 95 percent.
  • Remove the “double dip” for pension costs by charter and cyber charter schools. Presently, a school district’s cost for retirement expenditure is not subtracted from expenditures in the tuition calculation that determines funding for charters. This sets up a “double dip” since state law guarantees charter schools reimbursement for their retirement costs. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials estimates that between 2011-12 and 2016-17, eliminating the “double dip” would save school districts $510 million, including $45.8 million in savings for 2012-13.
  • Limit the amount of special education funding that a charter or cyber charter school receives per student to the school district’s total per-pupil spending for special education services. The state funding formula’s 16 percent cap on school district special education population does not apply to charter schools. An official of Bensalem Township High School in Bucks County testified last year that this results in paying $3,425 more per charter school special education student than Bensalem is paying for its own special education students.
  • Require year-end audits by the state Department of Education to determine the actual costs of education services of charter and cyber charter schools, followed by an annual year-end final reconciliation process of tuition payments from school districts against those actual costs. Any overpayments would be returned to the school districts. In the 2010-11 school year, non-special education tuition rates per student ranged from $4,478 to $16,915.
  • Increase transparency for contractors that provide management, educational or administrative services to charter and cyber charter schools by requiring disclosure of a financial relationship with for-profit providers. [PA House.com 10-2-12]

This is exactly the kind of bill that our grassroots movement should get behind. Five of the bill’s 39 sponsors are from Southwest PA: we applaud Rep. Dan Frankel (Allegheny County), Rep. Frank Dermody (Allegheny County), Rep. R. Ted Harhai (Fayette and Westmoreland Counties), Rep. Tim Mahoney (Fayette County), and Rep. Harry Readshaw (Allegheny County).

However, we need to see more legislators from the ten counties here in the heart of Yinzer Nation standing up for public education. If your legislator is one of these five, by all means, please let them know you support their stand on charter reform. But if your legislator is missing from this list, your voice is all the more important! Please contact your state Representatives and Senators to let them know that H.B. 2661 is the kind of real reform we need in Pennsylvania, moving us closer to adequate and equitable funding for all our public schools. [Look here to Find Your State Legislator]

Real Charter Reform

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.