Our Amicus Brief in the State Funding Lawsuit

Did you know that there is a current lawsuit against the state to fund our schools? The Education Law Center (ELC) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia brought the suit last fall on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations accusing the state of failing to uphold Pennsylvania’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The state is arguing that the case should be thrown out and there is a key court date coming up on March 11th.

Yinzercation has joined with other grassroots organizations to submit an amicus (meaning “friend of the court”) brief demonstrating the reasons this case ought to move forward. I will include the full Statement of Harm we were asked to file in support of the brief below. (Click here for the full amicus brief, which was delivered on Tuesday.) For more information about the lawsuit, including an easy-to-read FAQ, visit the Pennsylvania School Funding Litigation website.

If you would like to attend the oral arguments in the case, you are invited to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg (601 Commonwealth Avenue, Courtroom 5001) on Wednesday, March 11th at 9:30AM. As the ELC explains, “this is a historic case challenging the legislature’s failure to adequately support and maintain Pennsylvania’s public school system.” The suit “asks the Court to ensure that all students — including those living in low-wealth districts — have the basic resources they need to meet state academic standards. We ask the court to hear this case and enforce the rights of our children to a “thorough and efficient” system of public education as guaranteed to them by our state constitution.” If you plan to attend or have questions, please contact Spencer Malloy at smalloy@elc-pa.org.

Here is the information Yinzercation submitted to support the arguments in this important case:

Statement of Harm

Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five of all states in the proportion of funding provided by the state to public schools. This under-funding, combined with four years of de-funding in the 2011-2015 fiscal budgets, has pushed responsibility for supporting public education down on local municipalities, which have been forced to cut programs and staff. In its most recent survey of the state’s 500 school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) found that:[i]

  • 90% of school districts have cut staff, and more than 40% of districts have already, or plan to, cut more teachers.
  • 64% of districts have increased class size since the historic budget cuts in 2010-11, with the elementary grades hit the hardest.
  • Over half the districts will eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. The most frequently cited cuts will come from field trips (51% schools will eliminate); summer school (37%); world languages (34%); music and theater (31%); and physical education (24%).
  • Students will lose extra-curricular and athletic programs, or have to pay a fee, in over a third of the districts.
  • The vast majority of school districts report that their costs are going up because of un-funded state mandates (such as the administration of high-stakes testing).
  • In nearly every part of the state, districts are relying on local revenues (property taxes) to pay for a growing majority of school budgets. Over 75% of school districts will increase property taxes next year (that’s more than any in the past five years).

The over-reliance on local resources such as property taxes to support education exacerbates inequity in school funding as poor districts struggle to meet basic needs. In addition, because the state’s budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts, Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children have been harmed the most. For example, class sizes have increased more in high poverty districts while reading and math scores have declined the most for students living in poverty.[ii]

Graph-AverageFundingChangePerStudent201011-201415

[Source: PSEA analysis, 8-25-14]

Yinzercation’s analysis of data for Allegheny County supports the finding that on a per-student basis, the poorest school districts have been impacted the most by state budget cuts. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a list of nine other high-poverty school districts. Race is a crucial factor, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Those districts harmed the least by state budgets cuts in the county include those in the wealthiest suburban areas, including Upper St. Clair, which actually gained $4 on a per-student basis during this time period.

MostHarmedDistricts

LeastHarmedDistricts

In order to deal with the under-funding of their schools, poor districts have been forced to slash line items directly affecting students and their classrooms. For example, in 2012, Pittsburgh furloughed 285 teachers and educators. To put this in context, in total between 2008 and 2013, Pittsburgh students lost:

  • 17 percent of their teachers,
  • 45 percent of their librarians,
  • 35 percent of their paraprofessionals and support staff, and
  • 20 percent of their guidance counselors and psychological personnel.[iii]

Similarly, this school year, Wilkinsburg – a predominantly low-income, African-American school district adjacent to Pittsburgh – eliminated 18 teachers, amounting to a full 14% of its faculty. This was in addition to the 13 teachers and staff members who were furloughed last year.[iv]

Students in these districts are some of the poorest in the county, yet have lost critical education programs. Some examples illustrate the actual impact on kids:

  • Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, a Title I school with one of the largest achievement gaps in the city, eliminated its after school and Saturday tutoring program.
  • Some classes grew to 39 or more students.
  • This school also cut its middle level choral program and baseball team, and delayed instruction for instrumental students at the elementary level.
  • Pittsburgh Manchester, a Title I school with 94% students of color, has a brand new library built by the community but students cannot check out books because there is no regular librarian.
  • Parents and teachers at Pittsburgh Linden K-5 provide paper for photocopies and other basic supplies.
  • Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, a magnet school for creative and performing arts, eliminated sculpture classes for visual art students and solo lessons for instrumental students (a cornerstone of instruction in those fields).
  • There aren’t enough math textbooks for the students at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school.
  • The historic marching band at Pittsburgh Westinghouse high school was not able to purchase drumsticks or replace 15-year-old uniforms.
  • The district eliminated its Parent Engagement Specialists who worked with the most marginalized students and their families: this position had been especially effective at schools serving children bussed from distant communities (the result of a long pattern of school closures in poor neighborhoods and communities of color).
  • In 2014, Pittsburgh announced plans to cut additional world language classes, with schools eliminating language offerings entirely or seriously reducing courses.
  • The graphic on the following page offers additional impact statements from parents, students, teachers, and community members about the effect of cuts in Pittsburgh’s schools due to inadequate state funding.[v]

Inadequate state funding for school districts also leads to inequities within poorer districts, as some individual schools have access to community resources while others do not. For instance, one school on Pittsburgh’s East End has an active parent organization that annually raises over $60,000 to support educational field trips, student activities, classroom technology, and basic supplies – items that wealthier school districts are able to provide without relying on volunteer donations. Yet parents at other city schools struggle to raise similar donations leading to wide variation in the availability of crucial educational programs and enrichment opportunities for students within the same district. Adequate and equitable state funding for public education is crucial to address such inequities within and between school districts and to eliminate the harmful impacts on our most vulnerable children.

BudgetCutComments

[i] PASA-PASBO report, “Continued Cuts: The Fourth Annual Report on School District Budgets,” June 2014. [http://www.pasa-net.org/BudgetReport6-5-14.pdf]

[ii] PSEA report, “Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence,” August 2014. [http://psea.org/uploadedFiles/LegislationAndPolitics/Key_Issues/Report-BudgetCutsStudentPovertyAndTestScores-August2014.pdf]

[iii] Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, “Financial Statements, Final Budget,” August 2013.

[iv] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 2014. [http://www.post-gazette.com/local/east/2014/06/05/Wilkinsburg-teachers-approve-contract-permitting-furloughs/stories/201406050293]

[v] Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report, “Creating a District of Last Resort,” October 2013. [https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BwHydmYY4leQRVRVREpqd3BxUkE/edit]

New Year Cheer

It may be mid-January, but we have at least four more reasons to keep the New Year party going this week.

First, Governor Corbett is apparently getting ready to propose an increase to state funding for public education. Sources close to his office say that the new budget, which will be announced on February 4th, will include $100 to $200 million more this year. [Philly.com, 1-16-14] That’s a good step in the right direction. But we’re still down $700 million in the annual budget from 2010-2011, with the cumulative loss for our schools now topping $2.4 billion. Any restoration of funds will be a win for our education justice movement, reflecting the enormous effort of grassroots advocates to keep the plight of public schools on the political agenda.

The governor is reportedly hoping to find at least some of the proposed money in pension reform, which is also desperately needed. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been putting off that uncomfortable task for far too long. [See “Pension History 101”] However, reform needs to respect the educators who work with our children – which is clearly not the aim of those on the far right trying to make teachers and their unions public enemy #1. For example, last spring Senator Pat Toomey and the Commonwealth Foundation launched “Project Goliath” to “slay Pennsylvania’s Big Labor” – starting with teachers and their pensions. [The Nation, 4-23-13]

Fortunately, staff members familiar with the budget plan report, “It is unlikely that Corbett will link the funding increase for public schools to another policy item” that does not have widespread support. [Philly.com, 1-16-14] He tried that last year with the privatization of liquor stores. [See “Kids or Booze”]

In addition to a possible budget increase, public school advocates have reason to cheer a House bill that passed this week. After contentious debate on the house floor, legislators overwhelmingly approved HB 1738, which would create a commission to recommend a fair funding formula for the state. [Pennlive, 1-15-14] As you will recall, we already had such a formula, put in place by the legislature after its own 2006 costing-out study documented vast inequities in school funding across the state. But Governor Corbett eliminated that formula when he cut the budget. [“A Shameful Betrayal”] While any new spending formula would only apply to increases in the state budget, the House vote is also a step in the right direction.

A third reason to keep celebrating: in a ruling filed this morning, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley struck down the state’s new Voter ID law. Judge McGinley said the law poses “a substantial threat” to hundreds of thousands of qualified voters, explaining, “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.” [Daily Kos, 1-17-14] Not only did that law fail to address any actual problem in the state, while interfering with a fundamental right, it was estimated to cost taxpayers $11 million to fully implement. [“There Goes $11 Million for Our Schools”] Rather than challenging this ruling, let’s hope Governor Corbett reallocates that money to public education.

Last but not least, three cheers for the hundreds of parents, students, teachers, and community members who gathered early this morning outside a Philadelphia high school where the governor was scheduled to make an appearance. It would have been his very first visit to a Philadelphia school since his budget slashing had such devastating effects in that district, and folks were none too pleased to have Gov. Corbett there to take credit for Central High School’s high rankings on the state’s new school performance profile system. But Gov. Corbett decided at the last minute to dodge the kids carrying signs, ditch the auditorium full of people waiting to hear him speak, and fled downtown to the Chamber of Commerce for a private press conference. [City Paper, 1-17-14]

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, now would be a good time to remember his words:

“…we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” [1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail]

Let’s hear it for our grassroots movement and education justice advocates everywhere. It is a new year and we have reasons to cheer!

Budget Talk

As we get closer to the end-of-June deadline, our legislators are finally talking about the state budget. Yesterday, the Republicans in the PA House proposed their own budget in response to Governor Corbett’s plan, announced in February. [See “Budget with a But”] Their version adds $10 million more for education, bringing the total increase to $100 million. [PA House GOP Proposed 2013-14 Budget] After two devastating years of cuts, any increase is good – but $100 million doesn’t get us close to the nearly $2 billion our kids have lost.

Perhaps most telling, the Republican plan counts on $85 million in “savings” from all the teachers who lost their jobs last year (since the state now won’t have to pay their portion of Social Security and pensions). However, rather than putting those “savings” fully back into education, the House GOP shifts $75 million over to other line items. Yet overall, this Republican budget spends $100 million less than even Gov. Corbett proposed, so there are plenty of cuts all around – including $32 million less for the Department of Public Welfare and a $3 million cut to child care services for the working poor. Meanwhile, the legislature would receive a $4 million increase for itself under this plan. [Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center analysis, 5-29-13]

The House GOP budget also fails to grapple with desperately needed pension reform. Gov. Corbett proposed some pension changes earlier this year, but this plan does not include any savings from those proposed changes. It also fails to take advantage of savings that Pennsylvania would see under the Affordable Care Act. By refusing to expand our Medicaid program using available federal aid, Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature are refusing crucial funds that could free up other dollars to help school districts crippled by their own budget cuts. Is it any surprise that Corbett’s disapproval rating just ranked him as the 5th worst Governor in the nation? [FiveThirtyEight at the NYT, 5-28-13]

At least his crazy plan to tie school funding to liquor privatization seems to be off the table for now. [See “Kids or Booze”] And the PA Budget and Policy Center reports that, “some lawmakers—and even the Corbett administration—are considering a delay in the phaseout of the capital stock and franchise tax.” The state has been rolling back this corporate tax, which is scheduled to be completely eliminated by next year. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million to offset additional budget cuts. [PBPC, 5-29-13] This one is a no brainer. Pennsylvania taxpayers simply can’t afford all these corporate giveaways, which have tripled in just the past ten years: the legislature is now handing out well over $3 BILLION of our dollars to their corporate friends every year. [PBPC, 3-12-13]

While putting some money back into the “basic education subsidy” (one line item in the state education budget out of many), the proposed House Republican budget also leaves out many things. Our friend Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition reminds us that in fiscal year 2008-09, well before any federal stimulus money was applied to the state budget, “there were several line items in addition to the basic education subsidy that no longer exist or are significantly reduced.” [KSEC, 5-30-13] These include:

  • High School Reform, $10.7 million eliminated
  • Accountability Block Grant, $171.4 million reduction
  • Tutoring, $65.1 million eliminated
  • Dual Enrollment, $10.0 million eliminated
  • Science: It’s Elementary, $13.6 million eliminated
  • School Improvement Grants, $22.8 million eliminated
  • Charter School Reimbursement, $226.9 million eliminated

That’s a total of $520.5 million eliminated to these programs alone. [See data comparison from Philadelphia Senator Vincent Hughes]

While House Republicans released their budget yesterday, House Democrats held a public hearing on education over on the other side of the state. Parents were invited to speak, along with our colleagues at the PA Budget and Policy Center and the Education Law Center. But I was disappointed to see that the corporate-reform group, Students First, was also given time on the agenda.

That is the organization founded by former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, most well known for firing people live on film, mass closings of schools, and a high-stakes-testing cheating scandal that appears to have unfolded with her knowledge. Despite that scandal, and confirmed cheating by adults in 37 other states, Rhee and her Students First continue to promote high-stakes-testing as the solution to our education woes. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] Students First PA promotes a school letter grading system based on the results of those tests, along with parent trigger laws – also known as parent “tricker” laws, which trick parents into thinking they have control over their schools, when in reality they are handing control over to privately managed companies. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]

Fortunately, our friend Colleen Kennedy, a public education advocate in Upper Darby and founder of the grassroots group, Save Upper Darby Arts, was at the hearing and reports, “Overall it was a productive meeting, and I think that most of the legislators are not falling for the corporate Students First approach.” Let’s hope she is right.

Speaking of Upper Darby, another group of parents in that district (which is right outside of Philadelphia), created a helpful petition on special education funding aimed at our state legislature during this budget negotiation season. This is a particularly detailed petition laying out the problems with the current way the state funds special education, negatively impacting all of our schools. I encourage you to read it and sign.

It’s time to get our legislators talking about what our kids really need in the next state budget: adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for their public schools. Get to work and fix special ed funding. Fix the charter funding formula. Fix the state funding formula. Get serious about pension reform. Accept available federal dollars to provide expanded healthcare coverage in Pennsylvania and free up funding for our schools. And stop giving away billions of our taxpayer dollars to corporations. You’ve got four weeks until the state budget is due. Go.

Can They Fly Our Kids to School?

What on earth is going on with our state legislators? Yesterday the House Finance Committee voted, 18 to 6, to give away $14 million in our taxpayer money to exempt the super-wealthy from paying sales tax on the purchase of their private jets. House Bill 1100 will also keep corporate aircraft, jet parts, maintenance, and repair all tax free. Of course, you and I will still have to pay sales tax on our cars. [Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, “Kids or Tax Breaks”]

Seriously? Eighteen Pennsylvania state representatives voted for this bill when school districts across the state are still slashing programs, furloughing teachers, and closing entire buildings?

Our state senators are apparently eager to give away our money, too. By a unanimous vote last week, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill creating a new loophole allowing business owners to pass along their assets to heirs without paying the usual inheritance tax. Senate Bill 303 does nothing to exempt the rest of us from paying that tax when we inherit a family house, but we will all be footing the bill for the estimated millions this tax giveaway will cost us every year.

And the House Commerce Committee is looking at a bill that will give away $15 million a year to wealthy investors. Yes, if you’re already rich, Pennsylvania is the place for you. House Bill 36 will reward investors with a net worth of $1 million or more (or who have an annual income over $200,000) if they put their money in start-up companies. And they can take the tax credit even if they don’t owe state taxes. [Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, “Kids or Tax Breaks”]

What’s $15 million here, $14 million there? To our legislators, apparently nothing. But to our children, this is real money that is being drained directly away from their schools. You can’t honestly claim that Pennsylvania is broke and make draconian cuts to public education, then turn around and offer plump tax breaks to millionaires. And you can’t honestly suggest that our kids get their school money from a one-time shot of booze-bucks while these new tax codes will continue to strip our public coffers of millions of dollars every single year.

Last week, seven public education allies sent a letter to Governor Corbett warning him of the many ways in which Pennsylvania’s school finance system is failing to meet the state’s own constitutional requirements. [See our previous discussion of this in “Simple”] The letter was signed by The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania; Education Voters Pennsylvania; Public Citizens for Children and Youth; Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center; Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools; and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. All these organizations argue that state “underfunding is now so significant that the Commonwealth is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to maintain a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education.’”

The groups also point out that Pennsylvania is actually now providing less funding for public schools than it did back in 2008, a finding consistent with our own analysis. [See “The Numbers Game”] What’s more, the state’s share of school funding is once again on the decline: Pennsylvania now provides only 36% of the costs of public education, while the national average is 46%. [“The Unconstitutionality of Pennsylvania’s School Finance System,” March 2013]

If Pennsylvania is not meeting its own constitutional requirements to fund public education, we need to be asking why our legislators think they can give away more of our tax dollars to wealthy investors and private jet owners. Pittsburgh has already tried eliminating bus passes for students and having high school kids start at the insanely early hour of 7AM, all to save transportation money. [Post-Gazette, 5-19-12] Harrisburg has talked about getting rid of student transportation altogether. [Penn Live, 5-16-12] Can those private jet owners fly our kids to school?

Budget Forecast

On Wednesday, Governor Corbett gave us a sneak peak at his proposed education budget for this year, which he will formally announce in a few weeks. Speaking of the millions of Pennsylvanians worried about further cuts to their public schools, he said, “I think they’re going to be happy” with the budget. But then he immediately tempered that with: “I think you know not everybody’s going to be pleased with the budget address, but I think a number of people are and will be at least satisfied.” [Republican Herald, 1-10-13]

I don’t know about you, but I won’t count myself satisfied until we see the nearly $1BILLION he slashed from our schools in 2011 restored. As we well know, that massive reduction was carried forward in the 2012 budget, locking in the largest cuts to public education in Pennsylvania history. And our children are reeling from the effects: they have lost almost 20,000 of their teachers in the past two years; watched as art, music, and library have been eliminated; suffered from cuts to tutoring programs, special education, transportation, and even Kindergarten. All of these draconian cuts have hurt our poorest students the most – in part because Gov. Corbett reneged on our legislature’s pledge to fix the state’s terribly broken funding formula. By taking us back to the old system, Corbett has literally locked in historic inequalities that have been damaging public education in Pennsylvania for decades. [For more on this, please see the posts under “Claim 3” on “The Facts” tab.]

We are eager to hear what the governor will announce on February 5th, but it is already clear that he plans to continue blaming everyone else for the deep wounds he has inflicted on public education. On Wednesday he again claimed, “We are fixing the fiscal mess that I inherited. A 4 billion-dollar deficit, spending out of control, spending beyond our means and we had to do that.” [Republican Herald, 1-10-13] Funny how Governor Corbett wants to talk about billions of dollars and out of control spending, when he himself wants to give Royal Dutch Shell Oil Co. $1.675 BILLION of our taxpayer dollars. He proposed handing the international corporate giant $67 million a year for twenty-five years starting in 2017, ensuring that our children and grandchildren will be paying this boondoggle for years to come. [See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”]

State budgets are about priorities. And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made it abundantly clear where their priorities lie: for instance, this past year they 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]

And while Gov. Corbett was proposing to cut another $100 million from education last year, he managed to find that same amount – $100 million – for a “voucher in disguise” program: his EITC tax credit program is now giving away public money to private and religious schools. He also created a new $50 million program for students living in the attendance boundaries of “low-achieving schools,” as defined by the state using high-stake-test scores. [See “2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?”] And by refusing to fix the broken charter school funding formula, the Governor and our legislators force our public schools to overpay charter school operators an estimated one million dollars every day. [See “One Million Per Day”] So when Governor Corbett told a reporter, “I think we’re starting to turn the corner … we seem to have started to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” I have to wonder: what corner? what light?

The light that we saw shining Wednesday on the Governor as he made these comments actually came from retired teachers protesting his budget cuts. He was visiting the Pine Grove Area school district for a presentation on the role Pennsylvania played during the Civil War: ironically, this was the very district where Corbett himself taught high school for one year, leading him to claim credentials as an educator (remember the “lifetime achievement award” for education he got back in May?). That district out in Schuylkill County, has lost $1.1 million in education cuts these past two years. The retired teachers there held signs saying, “Put education first, restore funding now,” and “We are one for public education.” Jane Fennelly, who taught math and physics at the high school, summed it up, saying, “Public education is needed for a strong democracy.” [Republican Herald, 1-10-13]

I applaud these retired teachers for taking a public stand for public education. The budget forecast might be chilly, but Governor Corbett is right about one thing: there is light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s coming from the grassroots as parents, teachers, students, and community members demand adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools.

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]