The PA General Assembly is back in session today and we need to go wading into the policy weeds for a moment. This is where we pay attention to potentially-lethally-boring policy details around bills such as SB 1085. These are killer weeds all right, but the real threat is to our schools. I promise you’ll be perfectly safe as you read this message: your blood pressure might rise, but then you will click “Take Action” at the bottom of this page, and you will feel much better.
Remember Senate Bill 1085? This is a charter “reform” bill that will actually hurt school districts. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] In a recent analysis of the bill, the Education Law Center concluded, “Ultimately, SB 1085 would gut local control over charter school authorization and growth, encourage unfettered expansion of even poorly-operated charter schools, take already underfunded school districts to the brink of financial collapse, and remove important accountability tools that school districts can use to ensure that charter schools are performing well and equitably serving all kinds of students.” [Education Law Center SB1085] Those are very strong words coming from our lawyer friends.
In opposing passage of SB 1085 in its current state, the ELC explains that the bill would:
- Permit any charter school, good or bad, to grow without permission from any authority.
- Permit charter schools to unilaterally amend the terms of their charter, at any time, for any reason.
- Double the length of a charter from five to ten years, which would slice accountability in half.
- Permit institutions of higher education to authorize new charters, even though they have no financial stake or accountability to the public for the school’s performance.
- Permit “multiple charter school organizations” to avoid accountability to the communities they serve by electing to be authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
- Create a funding commission that is stacked in favor of charter schools and not permitted to consider the fiscal impact of charter expansion on their local communities.
Why does this matter? Why should you spend another minute in these uncomfortable policy weeds that are scratching your legs and harboring who-knows-what slithering creatures? Just stand still for a minute and you’ll be fine. We need to go into these weeds once in a while to hold our legislators accountable for making policies that will help, not hurt, our schools. Right now, we desperately need good charter legislation.
Just take a look at the news that broke over the weekend about an FBI probe of another charter school here in Pittsburgh. [KDKA 11-8-13] The state Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale, found “potentially criminal” spending at the Urban Pathways charter school. The charter school spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy restaurants, retreats at elite resorts including Nemacolin Woodlands, and even paid for the mobile phones of board members’ spouses. DePasquale said these expenses are “a waste of taxpayer money” and is particularly concerned that Urban Pathways is also using Pennsylvania tax dollars to pay for a new school it is starting in Youngstown, Ohio. He’s turned the investigation over to the FBI. [Tribune Review, 11-11-13]
Larry Feinberg, a public school director from the other side of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, reminds us, “Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation.” Instead, he says, “In Pennsylvania, they have been laboratories of fraud, waste, abuse and lack of transparency.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 11-11-13] Now watch your blood pressure as you read Feinberg’s list:
- In Pittsburgh, Nick Trombetta, founder of the state’s largest cyber charter, is on trial under a 41 count federal indictment for allegedly stealing $1 million.
- In Philly, June Brown is on trial, accused of defrauding the four charters she founded of $6.7 million. Joan Woods Chalker, 75, a top lieutenant in Brown’s school network who worked with Brown for more than 20 years and served as a chief executive at one of her charters, has pleaded guilty to three counts of obstruction of justice. She stood accused of conspiring with Brown and the others in a scheme to defraud four charter schools of $6.7 million, then staging a cover-up.
- In Wayne, PA, K12, Inc.’s Agora Cyber Charter used tax dollars to pay for more than 19,000 local TV commercials. Agora has never made AYP, but Business Week reported that it had made over $31 million for K12, Inc. in one academic year. K12’s CEO was paid $5 million in 2011.
- In Harrisburg, PA Office of Open Records executive director Terry Mutchler said her office had received 239 appeals in cases in which charter schools either rejected or failed to answer requests from the public for information such as budgets, payrolls, or student rosters. She said her office ruled in favor of the schools on just six of those appeals. “They don’t feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you,” Mutchler told senators on the state government committee, which is considering legislation to amend the five-year-old law. “They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy right-to- know-law.”
- In Palm Beach Florida, the Governor’s largest individual campaign donor is building a new 20,000 square foot mansion on a $29 million beachfront lot. He has been fighting a right-to-know request for over 6 years regarding financial details of his management company’s operation of the state’s largest brick and mortar charter school. Standardized-test scores dropped precipitously at that Chester Community Charter School after an investigation of possible past cheating brought new scrutiny to the school’s testing practices. Results for 2012 state tests show that, schoolwide, scores fell about 30 percentage points in math and reading, with double-digit drops in every grade. Some fell more than 40 percentage points.
Now see why the policy weeds matter? We need real charter reform, but SB 1085 is more like a snake in the grass. Please TAKE ACTION – yes, click on those words to visit our colleagues at the PA School Board Association where you can send an email to your senator asking her or him to oppose SB 1085. Really. You will feel so much better. And then you can walk on out of these killer weeds.