School Choice: Trick or Treat?

Boo! Halloween is a scary time of year, so I suppose it’s an appropriate week to talk about “school choice.” Tomorrow evening, A+ Schools is sponsoring a panel discussion with Dr. Howard Fuller, a well-known advocate of charter schools, vouchers, and tax-credit programs. Dr. Fuller will also be the keynote speaker at a full-day seminar sponsored by the Heinz Endowments at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure if anyone will be handing out chocolate, but as we consider whether these programs actually work for students I hope folks will ask: is school choice a trick or a treat?

A former civil rights activist and superintendent of the Milwaukee Public School district, Dr. Fuller is now a professor of education at Marquette University. He serves on the Milwaukee Region Board of Teach for America, and the Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, and is an Advisory Board member of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the National Association for Charter School Authorizers. His Black Alliance for Education Options is funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, Betsy DeVos of the American Federation for Children, and many others who like to talk about school choice as a way to “rescue” poor black and brown children from “failing public schools.” [See “Big $” for a rundown on many of these organizations.]

Let’s start with charter schools. As I have argued before, there are a handful of “good” charter schools, but most are not serving Pennsylvania students well at all. [See “12 Problems with Charter Schools”] The state considers a score of 70 or above on its new School Performance Profile (SPP) system to be in the acceptable academic range. (I have also argued that the SPP system is highly flawed, but let’s go with the state’s own data here.) Pennsylvania’s public schools average 77.1, but charter schools lag more than ten points behind, with an average of 66.4.

Here in Pittsburgh, only 4 of the 9 charter schools authorized by the district received an SPP score above 70 last year. And crucially, not one of those schools is serving the same population as the Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) district. For instance, 18.1% of PPS students have special needs, but none of the top ranked charter schools comes close to serving that proportion of kids with special needs. Two of the four also do not educate the same proportion of students living in poverty or African-American students. (This includes City Charter High School, whose founder, Richard Wertheimer, will be speaking on the A+ panel with Dr. Fuller.)

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The situation is much the same in Dr. Fuller’s Milwaukee: the charter schools there are not educating the same students as the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). One recent report found that “MPS educated three times as many students learning English and twice as many students with special needs, compared with independent charters. The charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of white students and lower percentage of students in poverty than MPS.” What’s more, the two Milwaukee charter schools with the lowest grade “were Milwaukee Math and Science Academy and Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, formerly called CEO Leadership Academy and connected to voucher school advocate Howard Fuller.” [Journal Sentinel, 9-23-13]

In addition to those charter schools listed in the chart above, Pittsburgh pays to send students to another 13 charter schools (authorized by other school districts and not accountable to the city’s school board) as well as 9 cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] Not one of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters schools scored over 70 on the SPP system; in fact, eight of those schools had scores below 50! And over half of all Pennsylvania brick and mortar charter schools (55%) also scored below 50. [Rep. Roebuck Charter Update, 4-14] These dismal numbers are backed up by recent research: a national study last year concluded that Pennsylvania’s charter schools are the third worst in the entire country. It found that charter students here cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013]

This evidence strongly suggests that charter schools are far more “trick” than “treat” for our students. Yet Dr. Fuller argues that poor students, and especially students of color, need access to more charter schools. Presumably he means the “good” ones. But remember, even the “good” ones in Pittsburgh are not educating the same students as the public school system. Let me be clear: schools like the Environmental Charter School are gorgeous and all of our students deserve the small classes and other opportunities offered there. I want all of our children to have theater training with someone as amazing as my friend Hallie Donner at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School.

Will Dr. Fuller talk about how to (finally) feed innovative ideas from charter schools back into traditional public schools so that all students can benefit? Will he talk about how to get rid of the under-performing charter schools that are costing our district a fortune and preventing us from spending desperately needed dollars on student programs? Will he suggest specifically which public schools we should close if we open more charter schools (because that is, in fact, what we will actually have to do)?

Maybe he would like to comment on the recent report released by 27 (!) Pennsylvania school superintendents from five different counties in the Lehigh Valley area calling for desperately needed charter reform. Explaining the need for a revised charter funding formula, one superintendent noted, “The charter school concept is a caterpillar that never became a butterfly … In this story, the caterpillar eats the green leaves of taxpayer dollars and deprives the larger community of children from receiving valuable supplies and interventions.” [Morning Call, 10-17-14]

Perhaps Dr. Fuller will comment on the situation in Hazelwood, where the district created an education desert when it closed all the local public schools. It shifted the neighborhood’s students to Pittsburgh Minadeo in Squirrel Hill and then sold the former Burgwin school to Propel, which opened it as a charter school this year. Now Propel Hazelwood has 123 students paid for by Pittsburgh – almost exactly the number of students (113) that Minadeo lost in enrollment this year, causing it to lose teachers and leading to increased class size. [Post-Gazette, 10-14-14] How does Dr. Fuller want to account for this constant churn and displacement, and the consequences (such as larger class size and fewer resources) for those “left behind” in the public school system?

I suspect Dr. Fuller will also talk about vouchers, which Milwaukee has had since 1990. In her book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (2013), journalist Barbara Miner explains, “After more than 20 years, one of the clearest lessons from Milwaukee is that vouchers, above all, are a way to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools. Vouchers, at their core, are an abandonment of public education.” Wisconsin state test scores show that poor children are not performing any better in voucher schools than in traditional schools (and actually had worse math scores in voucher schools).

The people of Pennsylvania have joined citizens in numerous other states rejecting voucher systems. In a nutshell, vouchers are unconstitutional, expensive, not supported by research, and funnel money away from public schools to private institutions that lack accountability, both fiscally and academically. [See “Vouchers, Coming Again Soon”] So would vouchers really be like candy for our children, or a nasty trick?

Finally, Dr. Fuller promotes tax credit programs, such as those initiated in recent years in Pennsylvania. These programs are actually tax cuts for corporations that cost us $150 million per year by funneling revenue that should have gone to the state for our budget needs into the hands of private and religious schools instead, with zero accountability to the public. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”; Keystone Research Center, “No Accountability,” 4-7-11]. Yet Dr. Fuller’s Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO) actually boasts about its role in creating those programs here in our state.

Even more shocking, the BAEO claims it was “instrumental in passing the law that led to the state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia, which has led to an increase in quality educational options for poor families.”  That’s right — the BAEO is proud of the state takeover of Philly, which has mercilessly defunded that school system and created horrific conditions there. It’s even worse than that Halloween when you thought you would get a full sized Hershey’s bar from the house down the street and wound up getting a toothbrush, instead.

Tomorrow’s A+ event is being co-sponsored by PennCAN, which will be giving away copies of Dr. Fuller’s new book, No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, to the first 100 people in the door (costumes are apparently not required). PennCAN is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, founded by hedge fund managers with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs). These are not educators, they are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios, and view schools as investment opportunities. [See “Can or Con?”] Here in Pennsylvania, PennCAN promotes charter expansion, a statewide authorizer of charter schools (that would remove control and accountability from democratically elected local school boards), vouchers, funding for early childhood (something we agree on), the elimination of teachers’ seniority, and teacher evaluation based on high-stakes student testing.

Are these the answers we are looking for to help all of our children? Why aren’t they talking about things like smaller class sizes, libraries for all students, the restoration of art and music, tutoring programs, and wrap-around services? Charter expansion, vouchers, and tax credit programs don’t get us great public schools for all our kids. So you decide: is school choice a trick, or a treat?

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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.

Salt in Schenley’s Wounds

Is Pittsburgh seriously going to consider handing over the beautiful old Schenley High School to a charter school operator? Closing that building back in 2008 raised many concerns in the community about dismantling a thriving urban high school. More recently, Schenley alumns and supporters have raised serious questions about the rationale for the closing, which was based in large part on the estimated costs of asbestos remediation. It now appears those costs may have been vastly overstated and that the School Board may not have had important data on which to base their decision. Protestors have gathered over 1,000 signatures on a petition these past couple of weeks asking the School Board to take its time and investigate these significant charges. [Concerned Citizens Petition]

Meanwhile, however, the School Board has received proposals from four groups wishing to purchase the historic Schenley building in Oakland. And two of them would turn the space back into a school. Most heart wrenching to me is the proposal from a group of Schenley alumns who are trying to raise money to create a private school for visual and performing arts named after a fellow alumnus, Andy Warhol.

Here I have to agree with Post-Gazette letter writer Anna Watt-Morse, who said that this plan strikes her “as out of touch with the current realities of our city and its schools.” She reminds us that “Pittsburgh already has a wonderful school for the arts, CAPA … that has had to cut art departments and eliminate vital private music lessons because of reduced funding” and that “arts education at other city schools … is drastically underfunded.” What’s more, “A new, tuition-based Schenley would … benefit only the students who can afford private education.” Watt-Morse concludes, “A gift in the name of Andy Warhol should provide opportunity for all students of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, not a select few.” [Post-Gazette, 1-17-13]

The second proposal the School Board is considering that would turn the building into a school would actually mean handing it over to a charter school operator. Kossman Development Co. plans to convert the space into housing for college students and young professionals as well as the Provident Charter School for dyslexic children. [Post-Gazette, 1-23-13] If students are not having their learning needs met in their neighborhood schools, this is a serious equity issue that we must address. But I am not a big fan of creating segregated learning ghettos, especially since this model does not address the needs of all our students, just those who might gain access to the school.

And the last thing we need is another charter school draining resources from our already struggling public schools. Among other things, the Kossman/Provident Charter School proposal depends on $5.2 million in federal and state tax credits – those are our public dollars that will not be available for other public needs, including public education. Last week the Tribune Review reported that public schools are now having to spend thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns to “compete” with charter schools. Penn Hills school district will spend $84,000 over the next two years and Woodland Hills just awarded a $13,000 contract to develop infomercials. [Tribune Review, 1-17-13] Corporate-style-reformers love to talk about the benefits of “competition” – but what a great example of the waste this creates. As taxpayers and parents we ought to be incensed that our public schools are now forced to spend valuable resources on TV spots when students are losing art, music, and history. My 6th grader is sitting in a math class with 39 students because of budget cuts. The last thing I want is my school district spending money on internet pop-up ads.

But that is just what districts across the state are being forced to do as charter schools take painful bites out of dwindling resources. The Tribune Review recently surveyed 50 school districts in our area and found that some have seen their student enrollment in charters double, or even quadruple in the past four years. Others have stemmed the tide, and are seeing a reverse flow, with fewer students enrolled in charters than four years ago. Most of those districts surveyed had between 1-3% of their students enrolled in charters; but eight schools have more than 10% attending charters this year. These include 37.5% of all students in Duquesne; 35% in Wilkinsburg; 29% in Woodland Hills; almost 23% in Sto-Rox; and nearly 20% in Penn Hills. [These are my calculations based on the Trib’s report: see all the data here.]

Notice anything? These are districts with high poverty rates, some suffering from the worst effects of post-industrial decline. They are also districts with large African American populations. The state-imposed recovery officer in Duquesne is talking about closing the elementary school there, which would essentially dismantle the entire school district. Something is seriously wrong with our funding mechanisms when a community can no longer educate its own children.

This year, the 49 school districts that responded to the Trib’s survey will spend a whopping $118 million on charter school reimbursements. And that’s only 49 districts out of the 125 here in Southwest Pennsylvania. $118 million.

For all that money, we ought to be getting a great return. But the fact is that while some charter schools perform well, the majority do not. The Corbett administration tried to mislead the public last fall by using different criteria to judge charter school performance on standardized tests than for traditional public schools. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”] The Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call published an investigation today revealing that, “The number of charter schools hitting testing benchmarks plummeted after the federal government said the state Education Department graded them too leniently.” [The Morning Call, 1-23-13] Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis initially claimed that almost half of charter schools had made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under federal guidelines, but that number dropped to only 28% of the state’s 156 charter schools. By comparison, 49% of the state’s public schools made AYP.

The report found that “Tomalis initiated [the new grading system] without federal approval and at the behest of a charter school lobbying group.” He made it “easier for charter schools to reach federal standards” by classifying “charters, no matter their size, as school districts, which are measured on a broader scale than individual schools.” Again, to compare: 61% of Pennsylvania’s 499 school districts made AYP. [The Morning Call, 1-23-13]

This deception matters on another level, too: besides misleading us about the success of charter schools, Governor Corbett and Secretary Tomalis would now have us treat charter schools as their own school districts. This is a new development, since brick and mortar charter schools have always claimed to be public schools operating under the auspices of local districts and their democratically elected school boards. (Cyber charter schools are already chartered by and operating only under the supervision of the state, which poses other issues of centralizing power with political appointees.) If charter schools are in fact districts, where are their locally elected school directors who answer to the public that put them in office?

This feels like another way of taking the public out of public education. It’s time to put the brakes on authorizing yet more charter schools. The Pittsburgh school board needs to take a close look at the money it is being forced to spend on charter school tuition – $52 million this year alone – before it sells Schenley to another charter operator. That would be like rubbing salt in the deep wounds of a community already reeling from the effects of a painful and disruptive school closure.

Talking Turkey about Charters

Pennsylvania’s education secretary Ron Tomalis may not have been feeling very thankful last week. The feds just slapped down his blatant attempt to change the reporting rules for charter schools that would have made their student achievement rates look better. As you may recall, earlier this fall Tomalis had just been caught lying about the supposed impact of teachers on falling student test scores, when an investigative piece by the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call revealed that he was also trying to cheat the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, making it easier for charter schools to meet those student-testing benchmarks than traditional public schools. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]

Secretary Tomalis made the change without first getting federal approval, allowing him to report that dozens more charter schools had made AYP this year. Using Tomalis’ new math, charter school proponents could claim that 59% of charter schools made AYP in 2012, compared to 50% of traditional public schools. But the federal Department of Education rejected the scheme and ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools using the same process applied to other public schools. That means that only 37% of charter schools will now make AYP this year. [Post-Gazette, 11-24-12] Obviously that is significantly worse than traditional public schools.

Assistant U.S. education secretary Deborah S. Delisle nailed it on the head when she made the order, noting, “Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards.” [The Morning Call, 11-21-12] But Sec. Tomalis was clearly trying to distort the playing field and inflate the appearance of charter school performance at a crucial political moment, just as charter schools are being promoted as the “solution” to “failing” public schools.

The timing of the announcement also reeks of political motivations. The U.S. Department of Education issued its order on Monday, November 19th, but Sec. Tomalis waited until Wednesday, November 21st – the day before Thanksgiving – to release it, clearly hoping that the news would be buried on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Perhaps Sec. Tomalis also hoped that the news would not leak out before the public hearings scheduled to begin today on applications for eight new cyber charter schools. Despite their dismal performance, Pennsylvania has 16 cyber charter schools – more than any other state in the country – including four it approved just this past summer. And now it wants to consider eight more? That’s crazy.

Pennsylvania law actually requires the state to review cyber charter schools every year and revoke those charters when they fail to meet student performance standards. [See PA state law: 24 P.S. §Section 17-1741-A (3) and 17-1742-A(2)] Only one cyber charter school made AYP this year and abundant research has demonstrated their dismal track record for students. [See “Dueling Rallies” for summary of the data.] In calling for a state moratorium on approving any new cyber charters, Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, noted, “Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania have longstanding problems with poor academic outcomes for students, and the Department does not appear to have the current capacity to handle its legally mandated and critical oversight and accountability functions for these taxpayer-funded schools.” [ELC Release, 11-21-12]

The Education Law Center will be testifying today at the public hearing in Harrisburg. We here in the grassroots ought to lend our voices to this highly reasonable call for a moratorium on new cyber charter schools. When only 37% of all charter schools are making AYP and cyber charters are performing even worse, we must ask why the state would even contemplate opening more schools that fail our kids. Holiday weekend or not, we were paying attention – and now it’s time to talk turkey about what really works in education.

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Why Care About State Politics?

Why should we here in Southwest Pennsylvania care about what happens in state politics? That’s the question put to me by the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper last week during an interview for a forthcoming story they are doing on our old friends at the Students First PA super PAC. It’s a good question, and the answer has everything to do with how we are going to save our public schools.

As we have learned, the state plays an enormous role in what happens inside our local schools, through both funding and policy. When Governor Corbett cut nearly $1 BILLION from public education last year (and then carried those cuts forward into this year’s budget as well), we saw the direct and immediate impact: our children lost teachers, tutoring programs, textbooks, librarians, arts, custodians, sports, and so much more.

State-level education policies are just as significant when it comes to equitable funding for our schools: for instance, Governor Corbett’s administration decided to stop reimbursing school districts for charter school tuition payments. Pittsburgh Public Schools estimates that decision alone will cost $14.8 million by 2014. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12] When our legislature adjourned a few weeks ago without summoning the courage to address the cyber charter school funding formula, they forced our schools to continue over-paying those charters by $1million per day. (See “One Million Per Day”) And sometimes state policies target specific districts, such as the 2007 decision requiring Pittsburgh Public Schools to hand $77.1million over to the city. [Post-Gazette, 11-14-12]

In addition to these state-level funding decisions, the administration and Pennsylvania legislators set policies that directly affect our schools. Consider, for example, the recent bill that would have installed a statewide panel to authorize new charter schools, removing control from local, democratically elected school boards, while centralizing power in the hands of political appointees. The bill would also have exempted charter schools from our state’s right-to-know laws, keeping executive salaries secret among other things. (See “A Victory.”) Charter schools cost districts millions of local taxpayer dollars – Pittsburgh alone is spending $52.4million this year on them – and local boards ought to retain fiscal oversight. [Post-Gazette, 11-19-12] If we are not paying attention to these “policy weeds,” then we will discover that they have grown up to strangle public education.

But you don’t even have to be in the weeds to see the connection between what is happening at the state level and the recent decline in student performance. That makes yesterday’s Post-Gazette editorial about the recent A+Schools report all the more frustrating. (See “Bad Report.”) Without even mentioning state budget cuts, the editors wrote: “Traditionally this city has been the beneficiary of a close-knit community of neighborhoods committed … to maintaining a strong urban school district,” and concluded, “For the sake of Pittsburgh and everyone with a stake in it, let’s keep it that way and make sure the next report card shows marked improvement.” [Post-Gazette, 11-18-12] In effect, the editorial board has reproduced the report’s assumption that all the city’s problems are of its own making – implying that all the answers lie within the city as well. We have got to get past this way of thinking, which not only ignores the immense role of state politics in what is happening locally, but also reinforces the city vs. suburban, us vs. them, mentality that prevents us from seeing how public education connects us all.

We all need to be paying attention to what is happening right here in Duquesne, as that school district collapses under the multiple pressures of post-industrial decline. The state has just announced a new Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) who will be in charge of planning next steps for the district. [Post-Gazette, 11-17-12] Given the administration’s track record with other CRO appointments – remember how they put the fox in charge of the henhouse in Chester Uplands? – we better reserve judgment until we learn more. (See “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”) But already the charter school applicants are circling, with two new proposals, either of which would essentially charterize the entire remains of the Duquesne school district. [Post-Gazette, 11-19-12]

Still don’t think what the state does matters to your kids in your school district? Take a look at Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charter school, PA Cyber Charter, which has made a little boomtown out of Midland over in Beaver County. With 11,000 students enrolled all across the state, PA Cyber now gets payments from home school districts in every corner of Pennsylvania totaling more than $100million a year. That’s $100million of taxpayer money that is not going to local school districts – and coincidentally, the same amount Governor Corbett tried to slash from this year’s state education budget. All that money has led to a cesspool of corruption and unethical behavior (recall that Florida condo exchanging hands to launder payments), with executives resigning and now under investigation by a federal grand jury.

The Post-Gazette ran an excellent investigative report yesterday that is worth reading in its entirety, but to summarize: more administrators now stand accused of setting up a kickback scheme, acting as paid consultants to funnel their own school employees into a graduate program. “In 2011 and 2012,” the reporters note, “PA Cyber paid Franciscan University of Steubenville a total of $1.3 million in tuition for the charter school’s employees” who were getting a master’s degree in on-line education that those administrators helped to establish. That $1.3million in tuition came straight out of taxpayers’ pockets, while the program expected to earn millions in profit. [Post-Gazette, 11-18-12]

By way of comparison, Pittsburgh Public Schools does not offer any tuition assistance for teachers seeking graduate degrees, its administrators are not acting as highly paid consultants for other institutions, and it did not just put taxpayers on the hook for millions paid to an out of state private school. Yet the state has not only allowed PA Cyber Charter to operate this way, it has gone out of its way to change the ground rules for charter schools, to inflate their student performance relative to traditional public schools. (See “A Liar and a Cheat.”)

The bottom line is that state politics matters. This isn’t Las Vegas: what happens in Harrisburg does not stay in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania legislature and the Governor’s education administration make funding decisions and set policies that directly impact our local schools. We here in the grassroots not only have to pay attention, but we must insist that others connect the dots as well.

Charters are Cash Cows

Charter schools are cash cows feeding at the public trough. Oh, there are a few good ones here and there, to be sure. But if there was ever any doubt that charter schools have become Big Business, take a look at the list of the largest campaign contributors in Pennsylvania. Three of the top ten on a new “Power Players” report are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into state politics to gain favorable legislation for charter schools and we need to be asking why. [Public Source, Power Players report]

Weighing in at #5 is Van Gureghian, who founded Charter School Management Inc. back in 1999 to run a school in Chester, PA, a struggling former industrial town near Philadelphia. Today Gureghian’s company operates 150 charter schools in nine states, and that first school now has half of the district’s student enrollment and is the state’s largest charter school. Gureghian was Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor and served on his education transition team. This is the same guy who is fighting the state’s Right to Know laws to keep from disclosing his salary – which is public knowledge for other public school administrators – while he recently bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million. He and his wife, another Charter School Management Inc. employee, plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18; Also see “Soaking the Public”]

At #8 and #10 on the list are Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik. Public Source, which put together the report, notes that these two “act as one when making political contributions,” and that if we “consider them as a contributing team, you must include Jeff Yass,” who would be #11 on this list. Greenberg, Dantchik, and Yass went to college together and are founding partners of Susquehanna International Group, a financial broker-dealer in Philadelphia.

Greenberg is on the board of American Federation for Children, a national group with mega-billionaire backers supporting state vouchers for private school students. Dantchik is on the board of the Institute for Justice, a law firm that promotes school choice and Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to limited government and free markets. [Public Source, Power Players report] In 2010, these three men started Students First PAC to channel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into races of pro-voucher candidates. (For more on the American Federation for Children and the Students First PAC, see “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”.)

For those of you keeping track, that makes four of Pennsylvania’s biggest campaign donors so far this year with school privatization at the top of their to-do lists. Why? Lest you think these men are dabbling in education for the sake of students, take a closer look at the Big Business of charter schools. Back in August, CNBC interviewed the CEO of a major investment company who clearly explained why charter schools are such a great moneymaker. David Brain heads Entertainment Properties Trust, which owns movie theaters, destination recreation sites, and charter schools in 34 states.

When the interviewer asked why people should add charter schools to their investment portfolios, he replied:

“Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer … if you do business with states with solid treasuries, then it’s a very solid business.”

The anchor also asked if he could buy one type of real estate asset right now, what would it be, and Brain answered:

“Well, probably the charter school business. We said it’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most high in demand, it’s the most recession-resistant. And a great opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set in rough measure annually.” [CNBC, 8-15-12]

Brain also told a nice whopper when the anchor asked him if there was any investment risk due to some public backlash against using taxpayer money to pay for charter schools. He claimed, “Most of the studies have charter schools at even or better than district public education.” Actually, most of the studies have shown the opposite: charter schools consistently rank at even or worse – sometimes much worse – than traditional public schools. For example, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] That’s a 100% failure rate. (See “Dueling Rallies” for complete details on charter school performance research.)

With such dismal results, investors really ought to be asking why Gov. Corbett’s administration keeps approving new charter school applications. Cyber charters in particular are charging taxpayers far more per student than it actually costs to educate them – to the tune of one million dollars per day sucked from our public coffers into the pockets of charter school operators. (See “One Million Per Day”) Pennsylvania already has 16 cyber charter schools – including four approved just this past summer – giving us one of the highest concentrations in the country. Yet the Department of Education just scheduled hearings on eight new cyber charter school applications. [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter schools, told the Post-Gazette, “Pennsylvania, as far as I know, has the most lucrative funding for virtual schools. It’s very favorable. It doesn’t surprise me more companies and entities want to come there for virtual schooling.” [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Indeed. This is not about doing what is best for students. Charter schools have become investment opportunities for the wealthy and their portfolio managers, businesses that must be protected with favorable legislation bought by strategic campaign contributions. As these charter school operators feed at the public trough, they strip our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s time to fight back. Public education is a public good, not a cash cow.

A Victory

Put this down as a victory for our grassroots movement! The proposed charter “reform” that Governor Corbett tried to ram through the legislature this week had died, in no small part because of the loud protest we mounted. The bill passed through the Senate last week and appeared to be ready to sail through the House this week, until public education advocates all over the state raised serious questions about many of its pieces. Most egregiously, the bill in its original form would have exempted charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law, taken away local control and accountability, and concentrated power in a state committee stacked with political appointees. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?” for all the details.)

Remember the story about the boiled frog? If a frog jumped into hot water, he’d hop right back out again, but a frog sitting in a pot slowly brought to a boil doesn’t realize until it’s too late that he’s cooked. The devil is in the details of these bills, and it’s these incremental legislative changes that will slowly boil our frog (and our schools). That’s why it was so important that we pay attention to those policy details and take action, like we did this week.

By Wednesday night, legislators in the House were working overtime before going into recess until after the election – and it was becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have the votes to pass Senate Bill 1115. Many of our legislators agree that the charter funding formula in particular needs to be fixed. The state Auditor General estimates we are currently over-paying charter school operators $1million every day – that’s a huge pile of public taxpayer dollars going to line some very deep, private pockets. (See “One Million Per Day.”)

But rather than tackle this problem directly, this ill-fated bill would have formed a commission to study the problem, and loaded it with charter school operators. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican from our neck of the woods, admitted that, “the funding for cyber charters, in particular, is an issue that has to be addressed,” but the proposed “commission wasn’t going to satisfy a lot of members [of the House].” [Post-Gazette, 10-19-12] Representative Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County who chairs the House Education Committee, said legislators “felt there were ways in which the bill was more favorable to the charters and cyber charters than to [traditional] public schools,” and that the commission “was too stacked with pro-charter people.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10-19-12]

What’s most disappointing is the way that the Corbett administration tacked these charter “reform” measures onto a much needed special-education funding bill that had previously gained wide bi-partisan support. Shooting down SB1115 also meant tanking efforts to get more money to children with the most severe disabilities and those districts with large numbers of those students. When the legislature returns to this issue in January, which everyone expects they will do, our representatives ought to look to House Bill 2661 for guidance. Introduced by James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia and Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, this bill would a big step forward in really reforming the rules governing charter and cyber charter schools. (See “Now That’s More Like It”) But we’ll have our work cut out for us, since many of our state Senators – including a surprisingly number from Yinzer Nation – voted for SB1115 before the bill died in the House. (See Senate Roll Call.)

Meanwhile, it’s time for a little celebration in the grassroots. We have to recognize these achievements for what they are – real victories in saving public education from the fate of the boiled frog.