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.

The Competition Fallacy

We love competition in this country. From early on, we are taught that competition in the capitalist marketplace allows the best ideas to emerge, the best-run companies to rise to the top, the best products to reach consumers. That’s a lovely thought, although the U.S. has never practiced pure capitalism (we decided long ago some government regulations were a good idea) and the rise of the 99% has highlighted the staggering problems of income inequality produced by our current system. Yet we love the idea of competition and continue to believe in its simplicity as a guiding principle. It’s part of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American narrative of individualism; part of our moral fiber.

But the concept of competition does not apply equally to all things. Take public K-12 education. Those promoting privatization efforts such as vouchers and charter schools love to say that public schools will benefit from competition. Monica Allison, the Philadelphia based president of PA Families for Public Cyber Schools, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor today that, “Schools need to be competitive. Choice in education is very good and it breeds competition. Competition in education makes every school step up and provide a quality education.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] Oh if only that were true.

We need only look at charter school performance to see the fallacy of “competition.” Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) 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. Pennsylvania introduced charter schools back in the 1990s – if competition was so good for them, would we not be seeing positive results by now?

The point is that competition as a philosophy doesn’t work when you are talking about our public goods. Let’s consider our public park system as an analogy. Would anyone suggest that we hand half of our public parks over to private corporations to run them as good little capitalist enterprises (think Budwesier signs on the fountain at the Point, oil derricks in North Park, casinos in Gettysburg); then siphon off state funding meant for the parks and hand the money over to those companies; and then tell the remaining public parks they need to manage with fewer resources and “compete” in order to attract visitors?

Actually, some people have suggested just this. But most people realize that our beautiful natural resources are not about increasing someone’s bottom line. They are not even necessarily about attracting visitors (we value remote wilderness for reasons other than its ability to pack in a crowd). We ask our government to own and manage green spaces for us because those places belong to all of us – they exist for the public good – whereas private companies are legally obligated to answer to their shareholders.

Public schools exist for the public good. They benefit not only individual students, but also society as a whole, which requires an educated citizenry in order to function. They are mandated to educate every child in every corner of the state and with every learning need. We are right to insist that our public schools deliver a quality education and work to fix problems where they exist. But the problem is not that our public schools lack competition. It’s that they are being systematically starved of funding.

Last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced they would start their own cyber charter school. The district figures its per pupil cost will be $3,500 compared to the nearly $14,000 on average that it is forced (by state law) to send to other cyber charter school operators. Since Governor Corbett cut reimbursements to districts for their charter school payments, right now Pittsburgh is losing $45 million per year for the 3,125 students it must pay to send to those schools. That includes $11 million for 798 students in cyber charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 6-13-12]

In a district with about 25,000 students, charter schools have sucked away a small percentage of overall enrollment, but a very large chunk of cash. It is the equivalent of having one or two students leave a classroom of 25, yet the district still has to pay all the costs of educating those remaining 23 kids, with the same teacher’s salary and the same light bill.

Ms. Allison of the PA Families for Public Cyber Schools claims that, “districts need to look at where they can do better and compete for students.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] We always want our public schools looking at what they can do better, but asking them to compete for students will not make them better. In fact, competition is the wrong guiding principle for public education.

We need to adequately, equitably, and sustainably resource our public schools so they can meet the needs of all our students. Because good public schools are a public good. They benefit all of us.

Butterflies and Stinkbugs

It’s been a beautiful June week and the insects, both good and bad, are out in full force. For our Friday news wrap-up, we present some virtual awards complete with small flying critters.

Butterflies to Yinzer Nation residents Amanda Godley and Betsy Magley: nominated by Education Voters PA as citizen advocates for education, they were recognized last night by the Keystone Research Center / Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center at their annual awards dinner in Philadelphia.

Stinkbugs to the Gateway school board, which voted last week against a resolution that would have asked the state for adequate funding for public education, despite its own financial crisis. Six of the nine board members said that local municipalities should tax residents for schools instead – the least equitable or efficient means of funding schools. (See “A Shameful Betrayal.”) Yet the district is furloughing 27 teachers, increasing class sizes up to 30, and eliminating K-8 field trips, activity buses, band uniforms, the Latin program, middle school athletics, and the high school math lab and writing center. [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12] We sentence the school board to a remedial history class for summer school to learn lessons from Pennsylvania’s own sorry history.

Butterflies to the parents, children, teachers, and administrators in the Highlands school district who held a candlelight vigil for public education last week, inspiring Pittsburgh families to plan a similar event. School board President Debbie Beale criticized the drastic cuts in state funding, quoting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “The fierce urgency of now.” State Representative Frank Dermody, a Democrat from Oakmont, supported the vigil, calling Gov. Corbett’s budget an “attack on public education.” [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12]

Stinkbugs to the House Republican leaders who are wasting valuable time this week advocating for the expansion of tax credits to businesses sending money to private schools when they should be finding real solutions to the state’s education funding crisis. (See “EITC: No Credit to PA.”) Now they are talking about giving away even more of our taxpayer dollars to corporations by increasing the EITC program and adding another, similar, scholarship program. A plague of stinkbugs on the PA House if they let this go forward.

Butterflies to Canon-McMillan (down in Washington County) school board member Joe Zupancic and middle school Principal Greg Taranto for speaking out against taxpayer-funded billboards advertising the PA Cyber Charter School. Current billboards on the turnpike and along I-79 cost thousands of dollars to rent – all money coming from our taxes that no public school district could possibly afford to spend. [Canon-McMillan Patch, 6-6-12]

Stinkbugs to Gov. Corbett and his allies who continue to defend his $1 BILLION cuts to public education while blaming school districts for the crisis. Here’s what is happening in a typical suburban district in our area: Baldwin-Whitehall (in the South Hills) is being forced to raise local taxes for the first time in five years in order to maintain its educational programs. The district is doing reasonably well, but said that state cuts and the unfunded expense of cyber and charter schools, which cost the district $1 million a year, leave them no choice. [Post-Gazette, 6-7-12] May Gov. Corbett open the windows of the governor’s mansion to let all those pesky, infiltrating critters out – deep-pocketed donors looking to privatize education and stinkbugs alike.

Butterflies to the 26 House Republicans and 11 Democrats who have signed on as sponsors of a new bill that will change the charter school funding formula. Introduced by Rep. Mike Fleck, a Republican from Huntington, the legislation will help to fix many of the problems with the way charter schools receive funding from their local public school districts. For instance, school districts would no longer have to include the cost of athletics and charter school tuition payments when calculating their average per-pupil costs – a figure then used to determine their payments to charter schools. [Post-Gazette, 6-5-12]

Pizza and Silver Bullets

This governor is full of metaphors. He’s very fond of comparing the state budget to pizza, saying helpful things like, “we had an 8-inch pizza and now we’re down to a 6-inch pie, but we … have an increase in demands.” [Delco Times, 5-30-12] Back in March, he explained to an unhappy audience of University of Pittsburgh students that public education accounts for 40% of the state budget: “Pennsylvania looks at education as its No. 1 priority … When the pizza pie goes from an 8-inch pie to a 6-inch pie, you still have that percentage, but not enough money.” [Pitt News, 5-31-12]

And in perhaps the most ironic twist on his folksy analogy, Gov. Corbett stood in front of a Porsche at a Lehigh Valley facility and repeated the gastronomic comparison. The Morning Call reported, “Corbett said the recession has reduced the size of the state’s economy from and 8-inch to a 6-inch pie, making less revenue available for the growing needs of its citizens, devoting larger and larger slices of the state budget to education and social welfare programs.” [Morning Call, 5-15-12]

I don’t know where Gov. Corbett buys his dainty pizza, but here in Yinzer Nation our standard pizza is a good extra-large 12-slice with a couple toppings. Preferably washed down with a beer in front of a Steelers game. And if we had a Porsche, we would not be eating pizza in it.

But Gov. Corbett chose his 8-inch to 6-inch analogy, so we’ll stick with that for a moment. By his cheesy logic, Pennsylvania’s economy shrank by a full 44% in the recession [see math note below]. Now there’s a number you don’t hear him – or anyone else – tossing around. Really? Almost half?

There’s no denying that our state revenues are down. But what the governor is trying to do with his incredible-shrinking-pizza metaphor is to make this solely a problem of existing revenues while refusing to look at alternatives – some of which don’t involve raising a single dime in taxes. We’ve got extra toppings we could be throwing on this pizza to feed the needs of all of our citizens, yet Gov. Corbett won’t even talk pepperoni. Here are some ideas for rolling the crust back out to a real size pizza:

  • Close the Delaware Loophole: costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed this loophole.
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax and not having one has cost Pennsylvania over $314 million since October 2009 alone.
  • Get rid of the new bonus depreciation rule: The state itself estimates that more than half of the current budget gap is due to a huge shortfall in corporate tax revenues – to the tune of $260 million. (See “We Have a Priority Problem.”)
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Corbett wants to eliminate these as a gift to corporations, costing the state $200 million in revenue every year.
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions. And what about smokeless tobacco?
  • Rescind the new Voter ID bill: it solves no actual problem in the state, will most certainly face expensive legal challenge, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 MILLION to implement. (See “There Goes $11-million for Our Schools.”)
  • Fix the cyber-charter funding formula: Taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 if cyber charter schools received funding based on what they actually spent per student. (See “Trouble Seeing the Money.”)
  • Shut down the EITC program: it costs us $75 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. (See “EITC: No Credit to PA.”)

Now that’s a lot of dough! But in a meeting Wednesday night with newspaper editors in the Eastern part of the state, Gov. Corbett insisted his number one priority is serving up smaller and smaller slices of pizza. In a sign of how effective our movement has become, the Delco Times commented, “Perhaps no place is that priority being debated more hotly than in the education arena.” After repeating his pizza metaphor, Gov. Corbett explained, “I don’t want to be doing this to school districts. I don’t want to have to do this every year, but we can’t give them money we don’t have.” [Delco Times, 5-30-12]

At least in this conversation, he didn’t try to blame school districts for the problem or suggest they spend their emergency reserves. (See “Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible.”) It would seem the governor’s office has backed off that tactic after our massive statewide protests last week, which garnered national media attention. But he returned to an old trick, trying to pit some needs against others, saying, “So if I’m going to propose increasing money for education, who do we take it from?” We call this “The Old Divide and Conquer Tactic” and we’ll have none of it, thank you very much.

Then the Governor pulled out another metaphor. Responding to a question about the possibility of increasing taxes on Marcellus shale drillers, he huffed, “everybody wants the silver bullet, the thing that will solve everything.” Actually, Governor Corbett, there are at least eight bullet points on my list above, and none of them is silver. Realistically, we expect you to use a combination of these strategies to address the current funding crisis in our public schools.

We don’t need extra topping pizzas or silver bullets. We need a political commitment from Republicans and Democrats alike to support our public goods. Here’s a tiny start: in one hallelujah moment, Gov. Corbett admitted to the editors, “We also need to look at charter schools, particularly cyber-charter schools, and how that money is spent.” Now see? That’s one of the (non-silver) bullet points we’ve been talking about.

———–

Math note: Area of an 8 inch circle = 50.27. Area of a 6 inch circle = 28.28. The difference is 21.99, or 44%. In my original post I fell prey to the common misconception that the drop from 8 inches to 6 inches was a simple 25% reduction, forgetting that we are talking about the area of a circle. Many thanks to John Zimmerman for pointing this out. Governor Corbett and I can both attend a remedial math course at our local Community Colleges, assuming they survive these latest state budget cuts.

It’s Not an Image Problem

We’re making him squirm. The Governor has been taking it on the chin this week from people in every corner of the state fed up with his devastation of public education. Yesterday he announced a major shakeup in his office with the departure of his chief of staff, William F. Ward. Apparently a small group of Republican heavyweights, known as the Governor’s “kitchen cabinet,” have become worried that Corbett has a “growing image problem.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-24-12]

Actually, what he has is an ideological problem. Governor Corbett stubbornly sticks to a “no new taxes” mantra, while slashing essential public services and refusing to consider alternative revenue sources – even those that would not require a dime in new taxes. Take for example, the $86 million in overpayments our school districts have been forced to make to cyber charter schools: those dollars alone would go a long way towards plugging the hole in the block grant program that Corbett wants to cut, which will eliminate full-day Kindergarten in many places. [“Trouble Seeing the Money”]

Corbett’s proposed budget is an ideological budget, aimed at privatizing many of our public goods – especially public education – under the guise of austerity. Pennsylvania isn’t buying it, leaving the governor’s top advisors worried that “the administration [has] not effectively sold Corbett’s agenda to the public, and that the governor [has] paid a price in popularity.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-25-12] No kidding.

The poor man can’t even get his story straight. Gov. Corbett repeatedly claims on the one hand that school districts must make severe cuts now that federal stimulus money is gone, even spending their emergency reserve accounts to pay for core educational programs. On the other hand, he loves to claim that he has increased state spending, by slyly referring to the Basic Education line item in the budget – which has gone up, while the overall budget has been drastically slashed. Pennsylvanians can see right through this doublespeak.

Perhaps the Governor’s kitchen cabinet ought to show him the new report out this week from the PA Association of School Administrators and the PA Association of School Business Officials. This study concluded, “School districts are being forced to cut deeper into instructional programs that will hurt student-learning opportunities and create fear that nearly half of districts surveyed will be in financial distress within three years if state and local funding does not improve.” [PASA/PASBO May 2012] The survey of Pennsylvania school districts found that:

  • 60% will increase class sizes again
  • 58% will face reduced instruction in art and music, reduced physical education classes, fewer elective course offerings and advanced placement course offerings
  • 49% are delaying textbook purchases
  • 46% are trimming or eliminating extra-curricular programs, including sports and field trips
  • 37% are cutting tutoring programs
  • 34% are eliminating summer school
  • 19% will eliminate full-day Kindergarten
  • 75% will furlough or not fill vacancies in their district; more than 50% have a wage freeze in place now (an increase from 16% last year)

I don’t need a kitchen cabinet to tell me that we have a real crisis in public education. And it’s not an image problem, it’s a funding problem.

Trouble Seeing the Money

Does anyone have 253 pairs of eyeglasses they could send to our legislators? Maybe throw in a pair for Gov. Corbett and Education Secretary Tomalis, too, since they are all apparently having trouble seeing money. A couple weeks ago, Pennsylvania’s Deputy Auditor General Thomas Marks told the House Education Committee we could have saved $86 million in the 2009-2010 school year alone if cyber charter schools had received funding based on what they actually spent per student. And this week, the state announced that revenues for March were up $95 million above what the administration had expected for the month.

$86 million + $95 million = a whole lot of money for public education that Governor Corbett keeps saying we don’t have.

As we reported in “Soaking the Public,” school districts are sometimes forced to pay charter schools far more per-student than it actually costs to educate them. This is especially true with cyber charter schools, which lack brick-and-mortar infrastructure costs. For example, in East Penn school district in Lehigh County, superintendent Thomas Seidenberger said that “his district pays $8,800 for each student who attends a cyber school … despite ‘dismal’ test scores,” while the district’s own cyber charter school costs only $4,400 per student. [Education Week, 2012-2-21] Pedro Rivera, superintendent of the Lancaster school district, told the White House last month that his district runs its own cyber charter school for half what he is forced to pay to private companies.

In his testimony before the House on March 20th, Deputy Auditor General Marks told legislators:

  • During the 2009-2010 school year, school districts paid nearly $800 million to charter and cyber charter schools. Cyber charter schools received over one-third of this money.
  • Cybers continue to receive the same funding as brick and mortar charters even though they spend approximately $3,000 less per student.
  • Taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 if cybers received funding based on what they spent per student.
  • Cyber enrollment has more than doubled over the last five years, which has resulted in school district tuition payments to cybers tripling from $70 million in 2004-2005 to over $250 million in 2009-2010.
  • The amount of required tuition payments from school districts are expected to climb even faster and higher due to the addition of two new cybers over the past two years, and seven new cybers projected to open in September 2012.

And this is not unexpected news. Two years ago, the Auditor General released a special report that concluded, “charter school funding formulas resulted in tuition inequities that were unfavorable to school districts, charter schools, and taxpayers.” For legislators who might have been having trouble with their eyesight at that time, the Auditor General helpfully named that report, The Commonwealth Should Revise its Charter and Cyber Charter School Funding Mechanisms. The point was hard to miss. Yet since the release of that report, no action has been taken. “In fact,” Marks just reminded our legislators, “eliminating the state reimbursement [to school districts for charter school payments, as the Governor has done] without changing the funding formula only worsened the funding inequities and created a $224 million local funding gap for school districts and taxpayers to fill.”

Despite the name DAG (Department of the Auditor General), which sounds like the next crime-fighting TV series, the department can actually do little to enforce its recommendations. As the Education Policy and Leadership Center reports, when DAG auditors uncover problems in other areas, “the department can withhold state funds from an agency. However this is not the case with regard to school audits … [since] DAG cannot withhold state dollars from local education agencies.”

That means our legislators need to put on their glasses and re-read Deputy Auditor General Marks’ testimony and that 2010 report. There’s 86-million-dollars waiting to be saved there. And while they’re at it, they could peek at the report out this week from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center showing that March was the biggest tax collection month of the year, far exceeding estimates. The General Fund collected “$4.06 billion, which was $95 million, or 2.4%, higher than Corbett administration targets for the month.”

Governor Corbett built his budget around an anticipated revenue shortfall of $719 million, which now looks like it will be closer to $387 million. We’re still in the red, but as the report concludes, “Healthy collections in March likely mean that the year-end shortfall will not be as severe. This could help reduce some of the painful cuts proposed for 2012-13.” This also means that we need to keep reminding legislators that funding for public education is a matter of priorities.

It’s time to stop claiming, “we have no money” and start looking for those $86-million savings opportunities. Then think about other revenue possibilities. The new glasses should help.