Write to the President

Here’s a quick thing you can do today that could have a big impact. We’ve had a state level call-to-action this week with the charter reform bill, which is being voted on by the PA House today. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?”) We’ve had a local call-to-action for the PIIN public meeting tomorrow. (See “Please Come Thursday”) Now here’s a federal level call-to-action to help put the battle for public education in full context:

Eminent education historian Diane Ravitch has launched a letter writing campaign urging us to write to President Obama today. Ravitch explains, “Our campaign is meant to include everyone who cares about public education: students, parents, teachers, principals, school board members, and concerned citizens. We want everyone to write the President and tell him what needs to change in his education policies.” She is hoping for thousands of letters from across the country to really make a statement to the White House today.

Ravitch has written a model letter for teachers to send. I have revised this slightly for parents and others in our grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania and pasted below. Please feel free to use this letter or change how you wish. Here are the instructions:

  1. Email your letters to anthony_cody@hotmail.com. Or you can submit your letter as a comment to Ravitch’s blog post about this campaign. All letters collected through these two channels will be compiled into a single document, which will be sent to the White House.
  2. If you want, you can also mail copies of your letters through US mail to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 20500
  3. You can also send them by email to the White House. If you choose to write or email the White House, please send a copy to Cody or Ravitch so they can keep track of how many letters were sent to the President.

Ravitch says, “Let’s raise our voices NOW against privatization, against high-stakes testing, against teacher bashing, against profiteering. Let’s advocate for policies that are good for students, that truly improve education, that respect the education profession, and that strengthen our democratic system of public education. Let’s act. Start here. Start now. Join our campaign. Speak out. Enough is enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

——————–

Sample letter:

Dear President Obama:

I am part of Yinzercation, a grassroots movement battling to save public education in Pennsylvania. You have invited our representatives to the White House twice this year to meet with your senior policy advisor, Roberto Rodriguez. But when you continue to tout Race to the Top, as you did in last night’s debate, we don’t think you are listening to us parents, teachers, students, and concerned community members who are fighting on the front lines for our schools. Our governor has used your policies – which label our public schools as “failures” – as convenient cover to slash $1 billion from public education.

Given the choice between you and Mitt Romney, who seems to view public education with contempt, we want to help you win back the hearts and minds of the grassroots in this country. Here are ways to do that.

Please, Mr. President, stop encouraging the privatization of public education. Many studies demonstrate that charters don’t get better results than public schools unless they exclude low-performing children. Public schools educate all children. The proliferation of charter and cyber charter schools will lead to a dual system in many of our big-city districts and tear our communities apart. Please support public education.

Please speak out against the spread of for-profit schools. These for-profit schools steal precious tax dollars to pay off investors. Those resources belong in the classroom. The for-profit virtual schools get uniformly bad reviews from everyone but Wall Street.

Please stop talking about rewarding and punishing teachers. Teachers are professionals, not toddlers. Teachers don’t work harder for bonuses. The teachers I know want to teach, they’re not expecting to win a prize for producing higher scores.

Please withdraw your support from the failed effort to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students. The American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education issued a joint paper saying that such methods are inaccurate and unstable. Teachers get high ratings if they teach the easiest students, and low ratings if they teach the most challenging students.

Please stop closing schools and firing staffs because of low scores. Low scores are a reflection of high poverty, not an indicator of bad schools or bad teachers. Insist that schools enrolling large numbers of poor and minority students get the resources they need to succeed.

Please, President Obama, recognize that your policies are demoralizing teachers and undermining the public’s confidence in our schools. President Obama, we want to support you on November 6. Please give us reason to believe in you again.

I am a public school parent.

/signed,

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?

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.

Advertising Public Education

Does your local public school have money to make slick commercials ready for prime time? Can it put up billboards along all our major highways and on the sides of buses advertising for students? Does its name pop up at the top of your Google searches? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Yet charter schools are allowed to take our public taxpayer dollars and use them to advertise. Around here, PA Cyber Charter is one of the biggest spenders on this kind of publicity (they are also the largest cyber charter in the state, which speaks to their recruiting prowess).

But one local teacher decided he would like to share the good things going on in his public school system: have you seen this commercial that just started airing last week? [Click here or on photo below to go to page with the video.]

Sto-Rox High School chemistry teacher Josh Lucas raised $2,600 from the community, including parents and teachers, to produce the commercial, which is now showing on KDKA-TV and WPCW. The Post-Gazette reports that the Sto-Rox district “has struggled academically and financially for years and faces a significant threat from the Propel charter school organization, which has a pending charter application to open a K-12 school in McKees Rocks that would eventually serve 800 students.” [Post-Gazette, 9-11-12]

With only 1,400 students in the district currently, that strikes me as a charter school literally threatening to take over an entire public system of education in one of our communities. Last year, the Sto-Rox board rejected Propel’s charter proposal, but Propel appealed and now the two groups must negotiate an agreement by this Thursday. Does anyone really think the district can survive with just a few hundred students left?

Look at what is happening to the Duquesne school district, which is on the verge of total collapse thanks to years of under-funding from the state, compounded by other problems. The state sent all of its 7th through 12th graders to neighboring school districts (then paid them less per student than it actually costs to educate them, fanning the flames of resentment in those communities and resulting in nasty counter-charges of racism). Now the state is literally taking away local control from the residents of Duquesne: State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis made a preliminary declaration placing the district in financial recovery. The district has until today to request a hearing, but if it doesn’t, the declaration becomes final and the state will name a Chief Recovery Officer (CRO). [Post-Gazette, 9-15-12]

Remember how Sec. Tomalis put the fox in charge of the henhouse when he named Joe Watkins to oversee Chester Uplands school district? (See “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”) That could easily happen here. And even without one of Governor Corbett’s top cronies in the position of CRO, the state will have the power to convert what remains of the district to a charter school or to bring in an educational management company. Either way, that’s more public money going to private corporations. Not to mention the loss of another public school system.

What are communities without strong public schools? It doesn’t have to be this way. This is really about priorities. We have a voice and we can make a difference. Some of us can even make great commercials and raise enough community support to put them on the air.

A Vampiric Budget

Debated deep in the chambers of the Capitol Building, and signed by Governor Corbett into law near midnight on June 30th, the 2012-2013 Pennsylvania state budget has emerged into the sunlight over the past six weeks where the details sparkle. And not in a good way.

The implications of this budget – plus the Governor’s associated educational “reform” policies introduced this summer – are now quite clear. They threaten to continue sucking the lifeblood out of public schools. Yet there’s good news for our movement too: turns out our grassroots were planted in a patch of strong garlic and we’ve held some of the worst policies at bay. Here’s where we stand:

Flat funding = less funding. The new budget “level funds” K-12 education, essentially providing the same funding as last year’s budget. Our statewide outrage over Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts to early childhood and Kindergarten preserved the $100 million block grant program. This is a major victory, but the flat funding effectively locks in the devastating $1 billion cuts the legislature made in 2011. And due to natural inflation, flat funding really means less funding, since school district costs for everything from electricity to toilet paper continue to go up.

16 districts get a little help. The legislature approved an additional $40 million to help 16 school districts in financial distress. The irony here, of course, is that many of those districts reached “distressed” status precisely because of state budget cuts. In Southwest Pennsylvania, the following three school districts will receive a total of $1.25 million in aid: Steel Valley ($559,026) and Sto-Rox ($440,974) in Allegheny County, and Jeannette City ($250,000) in Westmoreland County. I won’t sneeze at $1.25 million for those struggling schools, but to put it in perspective: the Governor and his allies in the legislature have slashed $172 million from school districts in this part of the state. So we’re still about $170.75 million short.

Cruel cuts elsewhere. Governor Corbett wanted to slash human services by 20%, but got away with 10% cuts to mental health, help for the homeless, and programs for people with intellectual disabilities. And he did nothing for public transit. These programs affect many families, their students, and ultimately our schools.

Corporations get more. What’s worse, these cuts come at the same time that the Governor and his allies continue to give away our public funds – our commonwealth – to private corporations. As expected, the legislature refused to halt the ongoing phase-out of the capital stock and franchise tax, costing us taxpayers another $275 million over two years. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center explains that this “is part of a decade-long pattern that will see the commonwealth spending $2.4 billion on corporate tax breaks in the new budget. That amount has tripled over the last 10 years and does not count the hundreds of millions of dollars lost annually to corporate tax loopholes.” And it’s mostly giant corporations that benefit from these tax giveaways, without any obligation to actually create jobs. [PBPC 2012-2013 Budget Analysis]

EITC gives away even more. The worst news by far is the “voucher in disguise” package that passed with this budget. Governor Corbett has succeeded in expanding the horribly misnamed “Educational Improvement Tax Credit” program, benefiting businesses that make donations to organizations that, in turn, make scholarships for students attending private schools. The giveaway funnels $100 million (up from $75 million) in public money to private and religious schools. And it creates a new $50 million program for students living in the attendance boundaries of “low-achieving schools,” as defined by the state. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] Even more depressing, the state has made sure there is scant public accountability for these giveaway programs with a 2005 law preventing the collection of any meaningful data on expenditures or student outcomes. And we’ve just learned that state Representative Jim Christiana, the Republican from Beaver who introduced the new EITC program, has received $170,000 from “school choice” super-PACs. [BeaverCountian.com, 7-30-12] We’ll be hearing a lot more about the influence of big money on our educational policies this fall for sure.

Charter schools expand. In another victory for our grassroots movement, we prevented Governor Corbett from pushing through his “state authorizer,” which would have wrested control from local school districts and allowed the state alone to authorize the formation of new charter schools. For now. The Governor has made it clear that this is a top priority for him this fall, so we can be sure to see it again. [Philly.com, 7-4-12] Corbett said he will also try again for legislation stripping the ability of local people to prevent the conversion of public schools into charter schools. [Delco Times, 7-1-12] And despite massive evidence that cyber-charter schools in particular are sucking up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students, the legislature put off addressing the seriously flawed funding formula. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Yet within days of passing the budget, the state approved four new cyber charter schools, all with offices in Philadelphia, bringing the total number in Pennsylvania to sixteen. [Post-Gazette, 7-9-12]

Lax charter school regulations.  Meanwhile, the FBI has been busy investigating the Beaver County based PA Cyber School the past few weeks, as we’ve learned about millions in public dollars flowing to a network of businesses run by colleagues of the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta. [Post-Gazette, 7-15-12] To its credit, the state did tighten up charter school ethics rules, so that board members and employees are now covered by state Ethics Laws, and the charters will be required to make their annual audits public. [PBPC Education Policy Changes] But it also exempted charter school teachers from new mandates that will require various measurements of student achievement to be taken into consideration when evaluating teacher effectiveness. [Post-Gazette, 7-5-12] And the current Charter School Appeals Board is being replaced with an administrative staff that will oversee charter schools; this means that charter schools denied a charter by local school districts can now appeal to the administration and, if successful, remain under the oversight of this state entity.

In addition, the House passed, but the Senate rejected, an amendment that would have excluded companies doing business with charter schools from our Right-To-Know laws. [Philly.com, 7-5-12] Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition explains, “That means that taxpayers would not have the right to see the budgets, check registers, payroll records or other financial records for facilities that they are paying for. [We] would not have the right to know the salaries of teachers, administrators, superintendents, or, for that matter, CEOs paid by a management company.  In contrast, these are all things that traditional school districts are required to provide by law.” [“Shameless…” 7-6-12] These are clearly efforts to do an end-run around real public accountability.

We have our work cut out for us. But we’ve built an incredible grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania dedicated to great public schools for all students, with adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding. We will keep fighting the demons of school privatization. Now if we could just enlist a few friendly werewolves…

One Million Per Day

One million. Every day. That’s how much Pennsylvania taxpayers are losing on over-payments to charter and cyber charter schools. Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report Wednesday explaining that our state is spending “substantially more” than the national average on a “flawed and overly generous funding formula.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]

That eye-popping number comes to $365 MILLION wasted dollars every year. And a nice chunk of that money is going to line the pockets of wealthy, for-profit school owners who just happen to be some of Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donors. (See “Soaking the Public” for stomach-turning details.) This latest report echoes testimony Deputy Auditor General Thomas Marks gave the House Education Committee back in March when he told them cyber charters in particular were being drastically overpaid. He noted that taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 alone if cyber charter schools had received funding based on what they actually spent per student. (See “Trouble Seeing the Money.”)

Representative Mike Fleck, a Republican from Dauphin County, has introduced a bill (HB 2364) that would start to fix this problem. It has received bi-partisan support and been endorsed by both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania School Employees Association, which is saying something. Auditor General Wagner calls this a “good first step” though he would still like to see legislation setting average payments for charter and cyber charter schools. He targeted cyber charter schools in particular, which are spending large amounts of money on billboards and other advertising, and often wind up with large cash reserves. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]

That $365 million would save a lot of Kindergarten programs, tutoring, and librarians in our public schools. Instead, our legislators are ready to hand over even more of our taxpayer money to private and parochial schools. The latest voucher-in-disguise effort comes from Rep. Jim Christiana right here in Southwest PA, who has proposed expanding the current educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. Right now EITC gives away $75 in revenues from corporations that would otherwise be supporting the public good, and legislators have reached a “tentative agreement” to give away another $25 million in the current budget plan. [Post-Gazette, 6-22-12] Where are lawmakers finding millions of taxpayer dollars to send to private schools when our public schools are cutting Kindergarten?

But it gets worse. Playing right into the national narrative of “failing public schools,” our legislators are also planning to give away an additional $50 million that would be available to students attending the state’s bottom fifteen percent of schools. I wonder if they realize that some of the lowest-achieving schools are actually charter and private schools?

Last year, Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition used student reading and math data from the PSSAs (the state’s standardized tests), and found 30 charter schools in the bottom fifteen percent. Religious schools may optionally administer and report their PSSA scores, but he also found 7 of them at the bottom. [KSEC, “Questions About 144 Failing Schools.”] And there are surely many more. Only two of twelve Pennsylvania cyber charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For more on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) Should we be giving EITC “scholarships” (which are really vouchers) so that students can attend these failing charter and private schools?

Maybe we should be giving vouchers to send students from failing charter and private schools back to public schools. Oh wait. That would mean funding public schools. Well that one-million-per-day would sure help.