School Choice: Trick or Treat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 Problems with Charter Schools

Are there good charter schools? You might be surprised to hear my short answer to this question, which is “yes.” Many people I talk to these days assume that I am entirely anti-charter. That’s not true. However, I do have some concerns about the way that charters currently operate in Pennsylvania and their outcomes for students. Twelve concerns, to be precise, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, the good news: Southwest Pennsylvania has several high-quality charter schools, six of which were just named in a report by Rep. James Roebuck as “high performing.” (Although the study uses the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) scores to make that determination, which I have argued is a poor way to understand school quality.) The report separates the high-performing charter schools into two groups based on how many students they serve who are living in poverty. [Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update, April 2014]

Those on the high-performing list from our area enrolling more than 50% students from economically disadvantaged families are: City Charter High School, Pittsburgh; Propel Charter School, McKeesport; Propel Charter School, Montour; and Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. Two other local schools, with less than half their enrolled students living in poverty, made the list: Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Pittsburgh; and Baden Academy Charter School, Beaver County.

I believe high-quality charter schools can be a part of a great public education system. I also think that all students deserve the benefits offered by the best charter schools: smaller class sizes, rich curricula, full art and music offerings, a focus on learning not testing, and support for families and communities. To me the important question is not, “are there good charter schools?” but rather, “how do we make sure that all students, and not just a select few, are getting these benefits?” For the record, my definition of a “good charter school” is one that:

  • Offers innovative programs and a full, rich curriculum;
  • Serves a student population at least as diverse as its surrounding area (with similar or greater proportions of students living in poverty, students of color, students with special education plans, and English language learners);
  • Does not use skimming and weed-out strategies to alter student enrollment;
  • Operates as a non-profit with a local board of directors;
  • Compensates its staff fairly and includes teachers as experts in planning and decision making about curriculum, testing, and other pedagogical issues;
  • Partners with its local public school district to share best practices and ideas.

Not all of Rep. Roebuck’s “high-performing” charters meet all of the criteria on my list (for instance, none of them enroll the proportion of students with special needs as Pittsburgh Public Schools), though each could certainly contribute to the larger conversation about improving public education for all students. Unfortunately, these six are the exceptions to the rule in Pennsylvania, which has one of the poorest track records in the country for charter schools. Which leads me to my list of 12 concerns with charter schools in our state:

1. Most are not helping kids. Rep. Roebuck’s new report shows that for the 2012-23 academic year, “the average SPP score for traditional public schools was 77.1,” but for charter schools it was 66.4, and cyber charter schools came in at a low 46.8. What’s more, “none of the 14 cyber charter schools had SPP scores over 70, considered the minimal level of academic success and 8 cyber charter schools had SPP scores below 50.” [Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update, April 2014] The latest national research found that charter students in Pennsylvania cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts us in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] If we’re going to have charter schools, shouldn’t they be helping students?

2. Some are actually hurting kids. In a new report out last week, Dr. Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon, reviewed the growing low-budget-charter sector in Milwaukee, which has the oldest charter system in the country, and found startling results with national implications. Cost-cutting charters such as the Rocketship chain offer a narrow curriculum focused on little more than reading and math test prep, inexperienced teachers with high turnover, and “blended learning” products designed to enrich charter school board members’ investment portfolios. Dr. Lafer “questions why an educational model deemed substandard for more privileged suburban children is being so vigorously promoted—perhaps even forced—on poor children…” [Economic Policy Institute, 4-24-14] Others have pointed out significant problems with zero-tolerance, strict discipline charters made famous by the “no excuses” KIPP chain of schools. [EdWeek, 2-20-13]

3. Far too many are cash cows. When Pennsylvania is seen by hedge fund managers as prime ground for “investment opportunities” in charter schools, you know something is terribly wrong. And when four of the top political campaign donors in the entire state are connected to charter schools, you have to start asking why. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”] Publicly funded schools should not be serving to line the pockets of private companies and individuals.

4. The industry is rife with fraud and corruption. Who can forget the scheme by PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta, right here in Beaver County, to steal $1 million in public dollars? Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case. [Post-Gazette, 8-24-13] And then there is the Urban Pathways Charter School in downtown Pittsburgh under FBI scrutiny for trying to spend Pennsylvania taxpayer money to build a school in Ohio. A related investigation by the state auditor general revealed a history of expensive restaurant meals, a posh staff retreat at Nemacolin Woodlands resort, and payments for mobile phones belonging to the spouses of board members. [Trib, 11-11-13] Not to be left out, Philadelphia just had its eighth charter school official plead guilty to federal fraud charges. [Philly.com, 2-10-14]

5. Lack of transparency and accountability. Charter schools are publicly funded, but often act like private entities. Here in Pennsylvania, the largest charter school operator has been fighting a right-to-know request for years in the courts so that he doesn’t have to reveal his publicly funded salary (data that is publicly available for traditional public schools). In 2012, Gov. Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature tried to introduce a bill that would have exempted all charters from the state’s sunshine laws. [See “Where are the Real Republicans?”] In California, charter school operators have even argued in court that they are a private entity and should not be treated as a public institution. [Ed Week, 10-7-13] We desperately need charter reform legislation that emphasizes accountability and transparency, just as we demand from traditional public schools. [See the top 5 reasons the current proposed legislation fails to do both.]

6. Skimming and weed-out strategies. Dr. Kevin Welner, professor of education policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has found that charter schools “can shape their student enrollment in surprising ways.” He has identified a “Dirty Dozen” methods used by charter schools “that often decrease the likelihood of students enrolling with a disfavored set of characteristics, such as students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty.” [NEPC Brief, 5-5-13] Think it’s not happening in Pennsylvania? Consider the Green Woods charter school in Philadelphia that made its application available to prospective families only one day per year, in hard copy form only, at a suburban country club not accessible by public transportation. [Newsworks, 9-12-12] When charter schools overtly, or even unconsciously, urge students to leave – for instance, by not offering services for special education students or English language learners – they send those students back to traditional public schools.

7. Contribute to the re-segregation of U.S. education. For a number of years, researchers have noted the trend towards re-segregation in public education and the role that charters may be playing in that process. A recent report warns, “the proliferation of charter schools risks increasing current levels of segregation based on race, ethnicity, and income.” [Phi Delta Kappan, 2-2014] Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, of University of Texas at Austin, writes about some charter schools that claim they would like to be more diverse, but that it’s “hard to do.” He explains, “Charters have a choice whether they want to be racially and economically diverse schools that serve ELL, Special Education and low-SES kids. Based on the various admissions and management policies … charters choose their students, rather than families choosing their schools— in essence, school choice is charter schools choose.” [Cloaking Inequality, 11-11-13]

A pointed article in the Jacobin last summer took liberals to task for supporting charter schools while failing to fight underlying racism embedded in education: “Advocating charter schools to boost academic outcomes for poor, minority kids presumes that we can provide equal educational opportunity and simultaneously maintain a status quo of segregated housing and schooling. If you are unwilling to wage the unpopular fight for residential and school integration and equalized (and adequate) school funding, charter schools can seem a “good enough” compromise.” [Jacobin, 7-31-13]

8. Drain resources from struggling districts. Charter tuition payments are causing a huge financial drain for many districts – $53 million in Pittsburgh this academic year alone. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Governor Corbett slashed reimbursement to districts for charter school tuition payments: that cost Pittsburgh $14.8 million in 2012 and continues to cause mounting financial harm. [See “Charter Reform Now”] And remember, when a couple students leave a classroom to attend a charter school, that classroom still has to keep the lights on, and pay the teacher and the heating bill: the math is not a simple moving of dollars from one place to another. What’s more, there is evidence that charters, especially cyber charters, are enrolling more students who were previously home-schooled, thus increasing costs for school districts. [NCSPE Brief on Cyber and Home School Charter Schools]

9. Closing traditional public schools. Some of the biggest charter school supporters are simultaneously working to close traditional public schools. For instance, a New York Times article this week on the Walton Family Foundation reported that it “gave $478,380 to a fund affiliated with the Chicago public schools to help officials conduct community meetings to discuss their plan to close more than 50 schools at a time when charters were expanding in the city.” [New York Times, 4-26-14] In Philadelphia, charter school proponents have succeeded in getting new charter schools opened while waves of traditional public schools have closed. This year, parents in some schools are being forced to choose between conversion to a charter school, with additional resources for their kids, or staying a traditional public school and losing resources. [Philly.com, 3-13-14]

While Pittsburgh has resisted any large scale opening of new charter schools, the state is now forcing the district to approve new charters, even as it is slashing the budget and promising more school closures. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] Under state law, districts are not permitted to take into account their own financial situation when approving new charter schools, which means that charter expansion cannot be a rational part of an overall strategic plan.

10. Lack of innovation. Charter schools were meant to be “innovation labs” to test out new ideas and introduce those ideas into the traditional public school system. But that is not happening. We’ve had charter schools in Pennsylvania for 15 years, so where is all this innovation that should be showing up in all of our schools by now? Supporters of the highly problematic Senate Bill 1085 wish to strip the innovation clause out of state law, which is the last thing we should be doing. [See “Top 5 Reasons to Oppose SB 1085”] We need to find ways for the best charter schools to work collaboratively with school districts so that all students benefit.

11. Hard to get rid of the bad ones. Poor performing charter schools do not just go away. Half of all brick-and-mortar charter schools have been around now for over ten years. But Rep. Roebuck’s new report finds that “their results do not significantly improve the longer that a charter school has been open. … Unfortunately, for 2012 – 2013, a majority, 51%, of the charter school open 10 years or more have SPP scores below 70 [considered the minimal acceptable score].” The report concludes, “these results are not encouraging and it raises concerns about renewing many charters with poor performance over so many years.” [Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update, April 2014]

12. Charters promote “choice” as solution. I’m not convinced we simply need more “choices” in public education. We do need great public schools in every community (that doesn’t mean in every single neighborhood), that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option. The idea of “choice” is very American, but it’s also at the heart of modern neo-liberalism; free market ideology has turned parents into consumers, rather than public citizens participating in a common good. Markets do a fine job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. [See “The Problem with Choice”] Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge any family that makes the personal choice to send their child to any school, whether private, religious, charter, or magnet. I’m not advocating getting rid of choices. But I’d be a lot happier if charter advocates stopped using “choice” to promote these schools. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality and it hasn’t solved the larger problems facing public education.

 

How will the region’s six high-performing charter schools identified in Rep. Roebuck’s report help to address these 12 concerns? How can we make their noteworthy work a part of the conversation about improving public education for all students?

The Problem with Choice

We Americans love choice. Just look at the cereal aisle in Giant Eagle. You could choose a different box every day of the month and still have more varieties left to try. But public schools are not corn flakes. Here’s the problem with “choice” when we’re talking about public education.

When we’re in the cereal aisle, we are consumers looking for our favorite brand, the best price, or perhaps grabbing a box of sugar filled junk with a toy surprise inside to appease our screaming two year old who won’t stay in the cart (been there). But schools are public goods, not consumer goods. Think about other public goods and services that you use, such as public safety. We don’t want to choose from different police providers, we want our local police department to be great: to offer high-quality service that meets the needs of our local community.

We don’t need more choices in public education. We need great public schools in every community, that any parent would be happy to send their children to, and that meet the needs of local families. We don’t really have any choice at all if our local public school is not a high quality option.

Choice is a free market ideology. Markets do a good job making stuff and selling it. But they also create extreme inequality, with winners and losers. Choice alone doesn’t guarantee quality: you can stick five kinds of dirt in those cereal boxes and offer them as a “choice,” but nobody wants to eat that. Pennsylvania teacher and blogger Peter Greene compares school choice to the drive to mediocrity in the cable TV industry and explains, “Market forces do not foster superior quality. Market forces foster superior marketability.” [Curmugeducation, 1-9-14]

The parent-as-consumer model promotes school choice as an individual choice, abrogating our responsibility as citizens to provide great public schools for all children. Public schools are community institutions that must meet the needs of communities. As education historian Diane Ravitch explains:

“The more that policy makers promote choice … the more they sell the public on the idea that their choice of a school is a decision they make as individual consumers, not as citizens. As a citizen, you become invested in the local public school; you support it and take pride in its accomplishments. You see it as a community institution worthy of your support, even if you don’t have children in the school. … You think of public education as an institution that educates citizens, future voters, members of your community. But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers.” [Reign of Error, p. 311]

Now, does this mean all choice is bad? Of course not. Americans have long made choices between sending their children to public or private schools. And between religious and other private, independent schools. Or even homeschooling. That’s fine. Families should make those choices if they want to.

We’ve also had long agreement in the U.S. that the public ought not to pay for private education. Yet under the guise of “choice,” corporate-style education reformers have pushed voucher and tax-credit programs diverting public resources to private schools. Pennsylvania’s two EITC programs cost tax-payers $150 million a year and provide no accountability to the public: we don’t know how those dollars get spent nor how the students are performing in those private and religious schools using our tax dollars. [See “EITC No Credit to PA”]

In fact, the legislature outlawed any attempts to collect such information and the tax-credit programs are actually managed by the Department of Community and Economic Development – not the Department of Education. With practically no state oversight, the public has almost no financial information on the organizations receiving tax credits or distributing scholarships funded with taxpayer dollars. The lack of accountability creates a situation ripe for corruption, as has occurred in others states. [Keystone Research Center report, April 7, 2011] What’s more, this “choice” program serves over 38,000 students in Pennsylvania – far more than Pittsburgh Public Schools – effectively making it the second largest school district in the state, with zero accountability to the public. So much for informed choice.

What about other kinds of school choice? Despite what corporate-style education reformers like to say, simply giving parents “choices” has not produced better results for students. Quality magnet programs (such as Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts high school or Sci-Tech school) and some public charter schools provide excellent education for the lucky few students who secure spots in them. But this kind of “choice” has not improved education for all students who deserve access to the kind of opportunities touted by these programs.

Indeed, investment in these kinds of “choices” has too often come at the cost of the remaining public schools that serve the vast majority of students. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] And far too many charter schools do not provide quality education at all. In fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom three worst in the nation in charter school performance. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance]

As the Education Opportunity Network points out in a terrific political analysis of the choice phenomenon, “the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school – as it is rapidly being defunded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents – or choose a private or charter that pays teachers much less and provides fewer services for their children and provides no benefits of prestigious private schools.” [Education Opportunity Network, 1-28-14]

We should also be concerned about the way in which corporate-style reformers promote “school choice” in place of authentic parent engagement. For instance, one tip sheet for parents recommends, “The more research you do, the better choices you can make. With time and legwork, you can provide your child with access to a great educational environment. I like to tell people that they should spend more time looking at schools for their children then they do when they shop around for a new car.” [National School Choice Week] Um, what if we don’t treat our public schools like cars or cornflakes? What if parents didn’t have to spend time and legwork finding a great educational environment for their kids, because the local public school provided exactly that?

Since this has been designated National School Choice Week, it’s a good time to pause and ask: if two decades of “school choice” has not helped the vast majority of students, why is it still being promoted as the “cure” for what ails our public schools? If “choice” programs drain precious taxpayer dollars away from public schools, who is actually benefitting from them? (Hint: see how some of the backers of National School Choice Week, including the American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst PA, made our “Big $” list of those shaping education policy.)

It’s time to stop celebrating “choice” and get serious about quality public schools as community institutions. “Choosy mothers choose JIF!” is about selling peanut butter, not great education for our kids.

Envisioning – What?

It’s back-to-school time. But what are our kids heading back to? Students in Pittsburgh will be missing 68 more educators when they start classes on Monday. Over the summer the board approved 36 new furloughs – on top of the 280 last year – and returned 32 teachers to furlough status (these were staff who had been laid off and then brought back for temporary positions). The majority are paraprofessionals who work right in the classroom with students, so our children will be directly impacted. [Post-Gazette, 7-25-13]

On Monday evening, one of those furloughed paraprofessionals, Clevon Owens, spoke at a press conference outside the board of education. Sponsored by Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, the press conference introduced our new coalition and announced that Pittsburgh parents, students, teachers, and community members are standing up together for public education.

Mr. Owens spoke movingly about his work with children at Pittsburgh Linden K-5, where he was the transportation coordinator. He managed the bus system, greeting children and getting them safely to and from school, often working from 6AM to 6PM many hours past his shift to answer parents’ calls. He also worked in the classroom with students, getting to know entire families and making a real difference in kids’ lives: in one tough case, he was so successful in helping a boy he eventually became his godfather.

Now multiply stories like these over and over. These are the important adults in our children’s lives. Students need them to be successful. And we have an obligation as parents and community members to make sure our public schools have the resources they need to keep teachers and paraprofessionals like Mr. Owens in the classroom. That’s one of the main messages GPS Pittsburgh delivered on Monday night at the press conference, which received news coverage from KQV and KDKA on radio, and WTAE and KDKA on television. We will also have a story out soon in the Tribune Review.

Following the press conference, community volunteers moved inside the board of education to testify at the public hearing. This was extremely important because we needed to let our elected representatives on the school board know that there are now thousands of us coming together through this new coalition and that we are ready to stand with them to fight for our schools.

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This is a critical moment. The district’s “Envisioning Educational Excellence” process is now wrapping up and officials intend to present their plan to the board in October. Last week, superintendent Dr. Linda Lane revealed some of that plan to the Envisioning advisory group. [Envisioning Advisory Group slides, 8-15-13] Here are the highlights:

  • Close some elementary school closings. They are not telling us how many or which ones until they present the plan to the board.
  • Open an International-themed elementary school in the North/Central region of the city.
  • Possibly add language immersion to an existing elementary school.
  • Expand the Online Academy program.
  • Possibly open an arts-focused feeder school in the North/Central region.
  • Continue to offer feeder pattern schools, but allow elementary students to attend any school in their region and high school students to attend any high school in the city if space is available.
  • Streamline and offer fewer elementary and high school magnet programs.
  • Eliminate partial high school magnets.
  • Expand seats in popular schools such as Montessori.
  • Introduce two Early College High School programs by 2015- 16 (students could earn up to two years of college credit)
  • Explore moving Central Office and selling the building; continue trying to sell or lease unused buildings.

The advisory group asked penetrating questions about this plan, focusing especially on the issue of “school choice.” The room was unanimous in calling for quality public schools in every community, making this a far higher priority than offering more choices, introducing new programs, or reconfiguring older programs (“yet again and again” as one teacher reminded the district). One person after the next said we must focus on quality, so that families don’t feel the need to flee from their feeder schools into magnet programs, further creating haves-and-have-nots in the system.

Last week at the Envisioning meeting and again at the public hearing on Monday I put it this way: Until we have a great public school in every community – one that every parent in Pittsburgh is happy to send their children to – then we don’t really have “choice.”

So what are you envisioning for our public schools? More budget cuts? Fewer teachers and paraprofessionals? Larger classrooms? Or how about a community, thousands strong, standing together for public education and making great schools for all our kids a reality? Now that’s the kind of vision I can get behind.

 

Coming soon: I’ve been working all summer with the GPS Pittsburgh coalition to get our new website up and running, with lots of information on what we can do together as a community. I will let you know as soon as it’s live!

Big $

The way some of them throw around the green stuff, you’d think corporate-style education reformers were made of money. Oh wait. Some of them are. As Big Money plays a bigger and bigger role in shaping public education, it can be hard to keep all the players straight – from wealthy individuals, to foundations, superPACs, astroturf groups and corporations. Here’s a handy reference guide.

1.  Individuals
Some of the wealthiest people on the planet are pouring their money into corporate-style education reform. Some are doing this through foundations (see below) and others are happy to invest their millions in politics to shape policy or directly into charter schools as money-making investments. Some have a profit motive and others seem more ideologically driven (to privatize public goods, oppose union rights, etc.) One thing all of these folks have in common? Not one is an educator or education researcher. And none of their ideas is based on evidence of what actually works for kids.

  • Start here in Pennsylvania with charter school operators like Van Gureghian, Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donor. He makes so much money that he and his wife bought beach front property in Florida worth $28.9million, while he’s been fighting for years to keep his salary a secret. [See “Soaking the Public”]
  • Recall that 4 of the top contributors to all political races last fall in our state had ties to charter school operators. Wealth advisors are on record recommending that people add charter schools to their investment portfolios, especially in places like Pennsylvania. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”] Cyber charter schools are particularly lucrative investments, as the public taxpayers are currently over-paying them by $1million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”]
  • How about folks like Philip Anschutz? He’s the oil billionaire with ultra-right politics who owns Walden Media, which made the anti-public school films, “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” He funds groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights, environmental regulations, and union rights. [See “We Won’t Back Down Either”]
  • Then there’s New York Mayor Bloomberg, who likes the idea of privatizing schools so much that he put $1million into the Los Angeles school board races last month to try to maintain a corporate-reform minded majority there. Too bad his horse didn’t win. [See “School Boards Matter”]

2.  Foundations
The “big three” foundation are Gates, Broad, and Walton. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls them the “billionaire boys club,” though each has a slightly different emphasis. And there are others.

  • The Gates Foundation is currently funding teacher evaluation systems throughout the country. As I have argued before, not only does this focus on the wrong thing, by avoiding the issue of poverty (or even early childhood education where many agree we might most effectively concentrate our resources), it starts with the faulty assumption that we have a plague of bad teachers. Though the foundation itself has warned that teacher evaluation should not be based solely on high-stakes-testing, this is exactly what is happening all over the country (or in many places, student testing is being used for a large portion of teacher evaluation). The Gates Foundation is so large and distributes so much money that it can essentially set policy through its grant making. And combined with the Great Recession, school districts and other beneficiaries have not been able to say no to the money nor been willing to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes (i.e. that his “reforms” don’t work). Gates has also launched a clever campaign to shift public opinion, by strategically targeting grants to community organizations (for example, over a half-million to A+Schools this year) and astroturf groups (see below) in communities where they are working.
  • The Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with “road”) Foundation runs a non-accredited superintendents training program premised on the idea that business executives with no education experience will improve urban school districts. Both the current and former Pittsburgh superintendents are Broad Academy graduates (though Dr. Linda Lane is an educator). The Foundation promotes teacher effectiveness and competition (i.e. charter schools), and drafted President Obama’s current reform strategy. They also literally wrote the book on how to close schools, using Pittsburgh as an example. Eli Broad also continues to spend his personal millions on corporate-reform, putting a half-million into the LA school board races this spring alone. [Los Angeles Times, 4-24-13]
  • The Walton Family Foundation derives its money from Wal-Mart and gave $158 million in K-12 education grants last year to promote charter schools and voucher programs. Its current top grantees include Teach for America, which has come under increased scrutiny for its method of placing young college graduates with only a few weeks of training in urban schools with the neediest students, where they stay only two years. (Teach for America, by the way, is looking to set up shop in Pittsburgh and has been making inquiries about hiring a local executive director. Stay tuned.) Here in our state the Walton Family Foundation is also funding the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. And they fund Bellwether Education Partners, the group hired by Pittsburgh Public Schools (through subcontract with FSG) to craft its education plan. [Walton Family Foundation 2012 Grant Report]
  • Let’s not overlook the role that other foundations play in education reform. Remember a decade ago when the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and Grable Foundation (the big three education philanthropies in Pittsburgh) yanked their funding from the school district, forcing them to introduce new reforms? [Post-Gazette, 7-10-02] The history books have yet to finish writing that episode – and there were no doubt both positive and negative long-term outcomes – but it illustrates the power that foundations can wield over a school district.
  • What about when a venerable old foundation starts behaving badly? Our big sister grassroots group in Philadelphia, Parents United, recently filed a legal complaint against the William Penn Foundation “based on the fact that they had solicited millions of dollars in donations for an exclusive contract” with a consulting group, with an agreed “set of ‘deliverables’ such as identifying 60 schools for closure, mass charter expansion, and unprecedented input into labor and contract negotiations – without the School District of Philadelphia being a party to the contract.” After a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center that concluded the foundation was essentially engaging in illegal lobbying and funneling private donations for the purpose, Parents United joined the Philadelphia Home & School Council, and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in bringing the complaint. [Parents United, 2-14-13]

3.  SuperPACS
The Citizens United ruling opened the door to massive spending by corporations in politics and ushered in the era of superPACS. Without spending limits, now we are seeing just how much influence money can buy in politics (where education policy is set).

  • Students First PA PAC (not to be confused with Michelle Rhee’s national organization, see below), started in 2010 by three Philadelphia investment brokers to funnel millions into the state races of pro-voucher candidates. Co-founder Joel Greenberg is on the board of the American Federation for Children, a national group run by Betsy DeVos with mega-wealthy (and ultra-right) backers including the Koch brothers, who have used the super PAC to channel their out of state dollars into Pennsylvania politics. [See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”] And Gov. Corbett tapped Joe Watkins, the chairman of Students First PA, to be the Chief Recovery Officer for the struggling Chester Uplands school district last year – a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, since he now has the power to hand those public schools over to charter operators. [See “Taking the Public out of Public Education”]
  • Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” last spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC was entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders who started the Students First PA PAC, because apparently one super PAC on your resume is just not enough. And their largest contribution? To Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from Beaver County (site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant) who introduced last year’s voucher-in-disguise EITC tax credit bill. Rep. Christiana also received money from the Walmart PAC. [See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”]

4.  Astroturf groups
Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass.

  • Operating at the national level are groups such as Michelle Rhee’s Students First. Rhee is best known as the former Chancellor of the D.C. school district where she publicly fired a principal on film as part of her massive school closure effort there. She became well known for supposedly increasing student test scores, but there are now serious questions of large-scale cheating (by adults). Students First promotes her privatization agenda of charters and vouchers as well as merit pay and teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes-testing. The Walton Family Foundation just gave the organization $8 million. [Washington Post, 5-1-13] At the same time, Rhee has been caught inflating the number of members in her organization to make it appear that it has a much broader base of support by using deceptive petitions (for un-objectionable issues such as anti-bullying) on the progressive change.org site to capture the names of unsuspecting new “members.” [DianeRavitch, 8-3-12]
  • Parent Revolution practically wrote the book on how to create an astroturf organization. Founded in California by a charter school operator – with major backing from Gates, Broad, and Walton – the group got a “parent trigger law” passed and then hired agents to convince two towns to turn their schools over to the them. But many parents later said they had been purposefully misled and filed lawsuits to try to stop the conversion of their schools to charters. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]
  • Closer to home, we learned just last week that the Gates Foundation is backing a new astroturf group here in Pittsburgh. Called Shepherding the Next Generation, the Washington D.C. based organization has been trying to recruit churches – especially in our African American communities – to preach the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation. [See “Astroturf”] Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy. This is not about promoting an authentic community dialogue, but about promoting a specific ideology of school reform.

5.  Corporations
Perhaps not surprising, corporations control some of the big money at stake in corporate-style education reform. Here are a few to keep your eye on.

  • Testing companies have significantly benefitted from the dramatic expansion of testing under No Child Left Behind. Nationally, we are spending $1.7 BILLION a year testing our kids. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] And corporations like Pearson Education, Inc. and McGraw Hill spend millions lobbying state legislatures to keep their products in favor. [Republic Report, 5-4-12] The new national Common Core Standards are also creating a bonanza for companies that make textbooks and assessment materials.
  • Pennsylvania has a contract with Data Recognition Corporation. Taxpayers in the Keystone state are footing the bill for average spending of $32.2 million a year on testing students. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] That’s a lot of money that is not getting spent on actually educating children.
  • Struggling school districts are increasingly turning to hybrid or “blended” learning models to deliver content at least partially on-line as a cost-savings measure. A major 2010 Department of Education review of the literature found that blended-learning does not offer better learning outcomes for students, but it will surely be good for corporate bottom lines. Pearson is promoting its Connections Learning as the solution to schools looking to close their achievement gap and reduce the cost of teachers.
  • Finally, don’t forget about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council where corporate members write business-friendly laws and have them introduced word-for-word into state legislatures. In education reform, ALEC promotes the unregulated expansion of charters and vouchers, keeping both unaccountable to the public while taking away control from local democratically elected school board officials. In Pennsylvania, ALEC issued a guide helpfully pointing out how legislators could get around our troublesome constitution, which prevents public money from being spent on religious schools. The Gates Foundation granted $375,000 to ALEC from 2010-2013, before cutting all ties with the organization last spring after becoming the target of an online petition that gathered over 23,000 signatures in just a few hours. [SeeThere’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”]

Now that’s a lot of money coming from a lot of sources. It’s helpful to think about the “big tent” metaphor here: there are many Big Money players in this tent, with multiple motivations. Clearly some are driven by profit motive and stand to make a lot of money. Some share ultra-right interests in de-unionization and de-regulation and are happy to push those interests in the field of education. Many others are driven by an ideological agenda of corporate-style education reform. One thing is for sure: all that Big Money under one big tent is having an enormous impact on our public schools.

PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?

Around here, the acronym PPS usually means “Pittsburgh Public Schools,” but now it might mean “Planning a Privatization Scheme.” The district has hired two consulting companies to help it craft an education plan that addresses equity issues for students and its looming financial crisis. But it turns out those two companies – Bellwether and FSG – support privatization of public schools. Hello? Who invited them to the party?

Actually, the PPS administration did, and then received approval from the Pittsburgh school board to pay them $2.4 million for their advice. The money is coming from local foundations as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been pouring money into teacher evaluation systems across the country, including the one here in our city. In fact, the funders made sure that the contract stipulates, “A commitment that on-going current programs, for example but not limited to … Empowering Effective Teachers, will continue to be implemented while the planning process is in progress.” [PPS Board January 2013 Legislative Session]

Remember, there is nothing wrong with teacher evaluation per se. However, the current national obsession with evaluation starts with the faulty assumptions that we have a crisis of bad teaching in our schools (while ignoring the very real crises of poverty, budget cuts, equity, and more); that we must weed out “low performing” teachers; and that we can identify “bad” teachers based on the test scores of their students. [For more on the serious problems of this obsession, please see “The VAM Sham”.]

But concerns with the teacher evaluation system aside, the Pittsburgh school board voted to approve the contract with FSG (with Bellwether as a subcontractor) without asking a single question about the philosophy of these two companies. Only board members Mr. Mark Brentley and Dr. Regina Holley voted “no” after inquiring if there weren’t local organizations that could do this consulting work, keeping all those dollars in the regional economy (an important point). But what’s worse than sending those dollars out of state, is that we will be spending $2.4 million on a plan formulated by people who actually believe we ought to be handing our public schools over to private companies.

Let’s start with Bellwether Education Partners. Mary K. Wells, a co-founder and managing partner at Bellwether, told the Post-Gazette that the group does not necessarily advocate charterizing public schools. “We’re for high-performing schools that serve all kids really well. I think we’re quite agnostic around whether that is the traditional public school setting or the charter school setting.” [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13] Yet Bellwether’s small group of five partners includes Andy Smarick, who just published a new book, The Urban School District of the Future, that “argues that the traditional urban school district is irreparably broken, and that … it must be replaced.” Smarick, who helped start a charter school in Annapolis, Maryland, believes that, “Vastly better results can be realized through the creation of a new type of organization that properly manages a city’s portfolio of schools using the revolutionary principles of chartering.” [Bellwether: Can Chartering Replace the Urban District]

Seriously? This is their starting point. That Pittsburgh’s schools are beyond hope and our only way out is to hand them over to charter operators. Education historian Diane Ravitch responded to the premise of Smarick’s book saying, “Suffice it to say that his arguments begin with the assumption that the schools and the system are broken, whereas I have concluded that the schools are struggling to educate children who have been harmed by poverty and societal neglect. … If poverty is the cause of low academic performance, as it appears to be on every standardized test and in every nation, then we might see better results by reducing poverty than by opening charter schools.” She points out that Smarick, like most corporate-style “reformers” has spent no time as an educator. Ravitch continues:

Smarick doesn’t like public education. He likes privately managed charter schools getting public money. Given his limited experience, I wonder whether he has ever spent any time in good urban public schools. I doubt it. Nothing that I have seen from his pen acknowledges that charters experience failure on the same scale as public schools. Nothing acknowledges that urban charters get no different results from public schools unless they somehow manage to minimize the number of students with disabilities and students who are English language learners and to exclude the students with behavioral and academic problems. If this is the case, then what exactly would be accomplished by dismantling urban public education and handing it over to entrepreneurs? [DianeRavitch, 10-23-12]

Back in September, Diane Ravtich also went head to head with another Bellwether partner, Andrew Rotherham, on Diane Rehm’s national public radio show. Rotherman and two other conservatives blamed unions for all problems in schools and claimed that even in “right-to-work” states (which severely curtail unions), unions are too powerful. While Ravitch explained why the Chicago public teachers were striking to defend the education of their students, Rotherman was publicly rooting for the Chicago mayor to defeat the union. [DianeRavitch, 9-12-12]

These are the people who founded Bellwether. They were management consultants and investors (Ms. Wells herself worked at Bain & Company) and they have MBAs, not education credentials. Bellwether’s own client list reads like a who’s-who of charter schools and corporate reformers. So I’m not particularly inclined to take their word for it when they tell us that they are “agnostic” as to whether charter schools are the path of Pittsburgh’s future.

Brad Bernatek, the FSG director working with the Pittsburgh public schools, also claims that his company is “fairly agnostic” on privatization. [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13] But the FSG website makes it very clear that they believe in school choice – often code for charters, vouchers, and tax credit programs in the corporate “reform” lexicon – saying that their expertise is in “Unleashing the potential of technology and ensuring that a range of high-quality school options exist to meet the needs of all students.” In the fall, Bernatek authored a report on “blended learning” as the future of education, looking at how schools – especially charter schools – are combining cyber learning with traditional classrooms. [Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools]

Last week the district asked me to meet with Mr. Bernatek to share my vision for the future of Pittsburgh’s public schools. I talked about the things our grassroots movement has been fighting for: art, music, library, science, history, and languages for all our students. Our teachers back in the classroom and smaller class sizes. A restoration of our tutoring programs, nurses and social workers in every school, parent engagement specialists, and community-based wrap-around services that address poverty and whole neighborhood needs. I want to see our district and our school board take a public stand and boldly insist that state legislators deliver adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for all our students. And I want them to start talking about public education as a public good that must be cherished and promoted.

But I don’t see any of our priorities reflected in the process FSG/Bellwether will be using to work with Pittsburgh public schools. They have established an advisory group that will split into six subcommittees to look at: “finance and budget analysis; student outcomes and effectiveness; organization and human capital; information technology and operations; stakeholder engagement and communication; and the types of available schools and the external landscape.” [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13]

Where is a rich curriculum for our kids? Where are teachers? The only subcommittee that even mentions students is “student outcomes and effectiveness,” which sounds like more emphasis on the testing, evaluation, and measurement that’s turning our children into data points and is not about real learning. When I told Bernatek that we want an end to the punitive culture of high-stakes-testing, he admitted to me, in the interest of full disclosure (for which I give him credit), that when he worked for the Seattle school district as director of research, evaluation, and testing he helped to select the very test that teachers there are now refusing to administer to their students. (For more on that test and the Seattle opt-out movement that is spreading like wildfire, please see the series of posts under our Opt-Out Movement category.)

Does all this mean Bernatek and his team will recommend more testing, charterizing our public schools, or blended cyber-learning as the answer to Pittsburgh’s challenges? I don’t know. But I do know that the district and school board ought to have asked a lot more questions before hiring these two companies. This information is all available on the web (many thanks to Yinzercator Pam Harbin for the internet sleuthing for this story). Which leads me to suspect that the district knew full well just who they were dealing with. And that raises a lot more questions. Is PPS really Planning a Privatization Scheme?

It’s Raining – Money

It’s still raining in Pennsylvania – campaign money, that it. As the elections have heated up, candidates pushing school privatization efforts such as vouchers have received a windfall from some well-organized and extremely wealthy out-of-state pockets. While we’re mopping up and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, we better take a look at what else has blown into our state, and the consequences we could be dealing with for years to come.

Remember Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children (AFC)? The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and married to the heir of the Amway fortune, DeVos is the founder and board chair of the AFC, which works across the country to promote her “school choice” agenda. In the run-up to this spring’s primaries, the AFC funneled over $1million into Pennsylvania politics through the Students First PAC. (Last year AFC contributed $120,000 and in 2010 it paid $1.2 Million into Students First PAC.) [PA state campaign finance reports] In the past few weeks alone, the AFC has dumped another $400,000 into the superPAC. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12]

A few years ago, Ohio fined DeVos’s group a record $5.2 million for illegally shifting money into that state to support “school choice” candidates. [Associated Press, April 5, 2008] Wisconsin also fined her group for political misconduct. Following these incidents, DeVos simple rebranded her organization as the current American Federation for Children. The AFC also accepts donations from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the ultra-wealthy and ultra-conservative brothers who are well known for their anti-union politics. [The Nation, May 2011; for more on the AFC, see It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”]

Joel Greenberg, who just made the list of Pennsylvania’s top political campaign donors, is on the board of the AFC. He and two of his financial investment partners, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founded Students First PAC back in 2010 with $5.2 million they happened to have lying around. [Public Source, PA top political donors report] Now Students First PAC operates as the conduit for AFC campaign contributions. Since September 28th, the superPAC has spent $534,000 on Pennsylvania elections. Where is all that money going?

Far and away the top beneficiary these past few weeks has been Representative Jim Christiana, from right here in Southwest PA. The Republican from Beaver County received a deluge of $100,000 from Students First PAC – twice as much as any other single candidate. The superPAC gave a handful of candidates two donations, but Christiana received no less than five separate checks, totaling about a fifth of all their giving. Why?

It’s certainly not because Rep. Christiana faces any serious political challenge. His opponent hasn’t had a campaign event since August and has just 40 “likes” on his Facebook page. (Honestly, this is the best the Democratic Party could do in what should be an extremely important race? Even the word “Endorsements” is spelled wrong on his website.) [Elect Bob Williams site] So why shower Rep. Christiana with cash?

The answer is pretty obvious. Christiana has become the go-to guy for Governor Corbett’s school privatization legislation. Back in June, he introduced our shiny new Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, a voucher-in-disguise that will divert $200 million in public money to private and religious schools. (See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”) Christiana hails from Monaca in Beaver County, site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant, which Gov. Corbett intends to hand $1.675 BILLION to do business in Pennsylvania. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) Just a few weeks before Christiana brought the EITC bill forward, he received a nice fat check for $25,000 from “Fighting Chance PA,” another new superPAC started by – you guessed it – Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founders of the Students First PAC.

These guys have also taken notice of a more tightly contested race in our neck of the woods, funding Republican senate candidate Raja who is running against Democrat Matt Smith, currently a representative in the state house. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12] Fortunately for public education advocates in the South Hills area, Rep. Smith offers the clear choice: he has met with Yinzercation parents and stands solidly behind adequate and equitable public funding for our public goods.

But we better be asking ourselves just what Philadelphia hedge fund operators are doing, dumping their spare cash in political races over here on the other side of the state. And we have to pay attention to the millions flooding into Pennsylvania from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children. It’s still raining campaign money, and there will be a lot of storm damage if public-education advocates don’t get out to the polls next week – come hell or high water.

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