Our Missing $200 Million

We’d like our $200 million back, please. That’s how much money charter schools in Pennsylvania collected last year for special education in excess of what they actually spent on special education for students. Charter schools took in over $350 million, but spent only $150 million. (Or $350,562,878 vs. $156,003,034 to be exact.) So where’s our extra $200 million? (OK, $193,559,844 to be exact.)

Our colleague, Mark Spengler, who is a public education advocate in the Lehigh Valley and tracked down this data, points out that, “charter schools are not obligated to spend special education funding for special education purposes. That money can be spent for numerous miscellaneous reasons including billboards and mailer advertisements.” [Lower Macungie Patch, 5-26-14]

Last year, the Pennsylvania legislature created a Special Education Funding Commission to devise a new funding formula. Deplorably, the old formula did not reimburse schools for the actual cost of educating students with special needs, which resulted in great inequities (and under-funding for some of the state’s most vulnerable children). The bi-partisan commission’s recommendations formed the basis for House Bill 2138 and Senate Bill 1316 now under consideration. These bills would create a fair and rational system of funding special education in Pennsylvania based on actual costs. However, Harrisburg lobbyists are threatening to kill the two bills.

Our partner, Education Voters PA, is making it easy for us to help fight back: click here to send an email to your state senator and representative (you can keep the suggested wording on the form, or edit your digital postcards). This took me less than 12 seconds to do. EdVoters explains that our senators and representatives need to hear the following in support of SB 1316 / HB 2138:

  • “The current system of funding special education is broken and unfair. It does not provide enough resources for the services children need and it does not ensure that all special education dollars are spent on special education services. 
  • “State special education funding should be distributed to both school systems and charter schools based on the level of services that students need. Allocating taxpayer dollars differently to school districts and charter schools doesn’t make sense. All of our public schools should receive funding distributed by the same allocation formula.
  • “State special education funding should be spent ONLY on providing students with services. Any excess special education funding should be returned to the state and allocated to help other children get the services they need. If some schools receive and keep more special education dollars than they are spending on services for children, these schools are reaping a financial advantage at the expense of children with special needs in Pennsylvania. 
  • “If the legislature chooses to freeze special education funding at current levels for charter schools, no additional money should accrue to charter schools based on the old, flawed system for funding special education. Any new special education funding for charter schools must be based on the new law and fair to all of Pennsylvania’s special needs children.”

If we can’t get our $200 million back to help students who actually have special education needs, the very least we can do is urge our representatives to pass these special education funding and accountability reform bills. That’s just common sense and rationale. And above all, fair to Pennsylvania’s children.

More Bad than Good

Governor Corbett doesn’t want to hear what the public thinks about his proposed budget. He leaked details to the press Monday in advance of his Tuesday announcement “under the condition of a late-night embargo, precluding the gauging of reaction before publication.” [Post-Gazette, 2-4-14] So we’ll keep our analysis nice and simple for him:

  • More $ for special ed = GOOD
  • More scholarships for higher ed = GOOD
  • More $ for early childhood = GOOD
  • Flat funding for K-12 basic ed = VERY BAD
  • More $ for richer schools = BAD
  • Flat funding for higher ed = BAD
  • Making schools compete for $ = BAD
  • Grant $ only for training but not teachers = BAD

Now, for those who would like a few more details, let’s start with the positive. Governor Corbett proposed a $20 million increase to special education funding. That’s welcome news since the state’s own Special Education Funding Commission recently found that special education funding has not increased since 2008-09, effectively pushing rising costs onto local school districts. [Pennsylvania Special Education Funding Commission Report, December 2013] This has been especially problematic for districts like Pittsburgh that have substantially larger proportions of students with special education needs (18.1% of Pittsburgh students receive special education services, while the state average for all schools is 14.5%). Legislators need to continue the positive momentum on special education funding while also re-instating a fair funding formula to distribute that money.

Governor Corbett also proposed an additional $10 million for early childhood education and a $25 million college scholarship program. There’s probably no better investment we can make than in quality early childhood programs. However, while the college scholarship program will help low-income and middle-class families, it does nothing to address the historic de-funding of higher public education. Over the past four years, Gov. Corbett has cut public college and university funding by an astonishing 20% (forcing institutions to push costs onto students through rising tuition bills) and he proposes locking in those cuts again this year. Pennsylvania students now rank as the third-most indebted in the nation. [Project on Student Debt]

Perhaps the worst news in the budget is the Governor’s plan to flat-fund the K-12 “basic education” line. This line provides the bulk of education funds to our public schools and flat funding essentially means another budget cut, as districts grapple with ever rising costs. Our kids have already lost just about everything that isn’t nailed down. What else would he like them to give up?

The Governor is clearly banking on the $340 million he has proposed adding as a “Ready to Learn Block Grant” to dampen criticism of his education funding policies this election year. Unfortunately, this money comes with strings attached, with a narrow focus on math and reading readiness, curriculum, and teacher training. [PA Dept. of Education release, 2-4-14] While these are valuable, schools can’t use this money for the very things our students need most: hiring back their teachers, reducing class sizes, restoring their tutoring programs, or replacing lost art and music classes.

But here’s his worst idea of all: some of that money will be distributed as competitive grants, including $10 million for a competitive Hybrid Learning program that would award funding to 100 schools, and $1 million for a new competitive Governor’s Expanding Excellence Program (GEEP), open to schools with SPP scores 90 and above. Making schools compete for money creates winners and losers, not equal opportunity for all. These programs are not about getting our neediest students the resources they deserve, and they overwhelmingly favor wealthy districts.

Last week when Governor Corbett let the news slip about his GEEP plan, we talked about this misguided strategy to give more money to exactly the wrong schools. [“GEEPers, More Money for the Rich”] In a new analysis of GEEP, Research for Action found that only 428 schools (out of 3,004 in Pennsylvania) would be eligible to participate in the program based on their SPP scores. It also found that “Statewide, no school with a poverty rate above 65 percent is eligible.” [RFA Policy Note, 2-4-14] As you will recall, SPP scores are almost entirely based on high-stakes-test scores, which track very closely to family income. Research for Action has produced a terrific new scatter plot that beautifully demonstrates the correlation between SPP scores and poverty. Stick with me, and we’ll explain this:


On this graph, every school is represented by a triangle. Those that are GEEP eligible, with SPP scores over 90 (on or above the red line), are shown in blue. The vertical axis shows the school’s SPP score (those range from 11.4 to 101.4, possible due to the awarding of “bonus” points). The horizontal axis shows the percentage of students at that school living in poverty. Now see that black line tracing the declining SPP scores for schools with a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students? That’s a pretty stark illustration of the way that, for all its bells and whistles, the School Performance Profile system continues to grade schools – and reward them – on the basis of wealth.

On the whole then, Governor Corbett’s budget proposal contained more BAD than GOOD. But it was just the opening salvo. We now have several months of negotiation before the legislature will pass the final state budget in June. We need to tell our legislators LESS BAD would be GOOD for Pennsylvania students.

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.

Two Steps Forward, One Back

This is how you make progress. One step at a time. Last week, we saw two steps forward, and one giant step back for public education. The good news first:

On Thursday, Governor Corbett signed a much-needed new law that will help to fix the state’s special education funding formula. Sponsored by Republicans Rep. Bernie O’Neill and Sen. Pat Browne with strong bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate, House Bill 2 creates a new commission that will develop a formula taking into account actual numbers of special education students and their needs. Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, called the legislation “historic.” [Education Law Center, 4-26-13]

The Education Policy and Leadership Center explains, “The current formula assumes that the average daily enrollment of each district includes 16% of students with special needs.  A new formula will aim to reflect actual costs incurred by districts and distribute the money accordingly.” The new commission will also make sure that school districts don’t over-identify the number of eligible students, and will take into account geographic variations in costs. The commission must make its report by September, and any formula they develop will not go into effect unless the General Assembly acts on it – and even then, the formula will only apply to the distribution of any increased funding. [EPLC, 4-26-13]

In another step forward, the House Education Committee last week held a public hearing on bullying and suicide prevention. [EPLC, 4-26-13] This is a significant issue that needs to be addressed as part of a larger conversation about school climate issues, with a particular focus on equity.

But just as we saw these forward steps, the House took a giant step back, approving a suite of corporate tax cuts proposed by Governor Corbett. Once in place, the tax breaks will cost us taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars – that’s hundreds of millions in lost revenue for the state and money that won’t be available to fund our public goods, including schools. While these tax cuts are defended by the Governor as necessary for creating future revenues, according to the EPLC some estimate “that there will only be $1 dollar of new revenue generated for every $7 of tax cuts for some businesses.” [EPLC, 4-26-13]

Speaking of revenue, the state took in slightly less than they projected in March, but the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign tells us that overall, “for the year total revenues remain slightly ahead of what was projected for the first nine months.” We haven’t heard much from legislators about the budget because, “Most lawmakers are anxiously awaiting the end-of-April report before deciding to move forward with legislative budget proposals.” [PA School Funding Campaign, 4-22-13]

The school funding campaign – a coalition of 30 education groups – will be holding a press conference in the capitol rotunda tomorrow morning at 10AM, telling legislators and Governor Corbett that they need to prioritize funding for public education. The proposed plan addresses the nearly $1billion cut in 2011 (and locked in again in 2012), by restoring $270 million each of the next three years. Now that would be a huge step forward.

Opt Out FAQs

Our post about opting out of high-stakes-testing prompted a great deal of discussion on social media this week. [See “National Opt Out Day.”] Folks in this grassroots movement raised lots of good, thoughtful questions. And in the spirit of the best of our civil rights movements, we will work through those questions and learn together. We might not have all the answers and we might not all agree, but having this conversation is probably the most important thing we can be doing right now for public education. So please continue to be a part of this discussion, on the blog, on the Facebook page, at school meetings, and among your friends and colleagues.

What will happen to my school if students opt out and we don’t make AYP?

Schools must have at least 95% participation in order to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). This benchmark was set by the federal government under No Child Left Behind and has been used as a “bullying” tactic to enforce school district and parental participation in the testing system. The national organization Fair Test, which has been around since the 1980s, points out: “This is one of the many ways schools can fail. However, because many schools are already not making AYP, this may not matter. In other words, if your school or district is failing anyway, why worry about test participation?” [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

Thr bottom line is that our schools are already being hurt. By next year, every school in the U.S. is supposed to be 100% proficient in reading and math — at that point, every single school will be labeled a “failing” school under No Child Left Behind. Even the amazing Pittsburgh public school my two children attend — an incredible school by many, many measures — is already labeled a failing school. It is in “corrective action 2” — that’s as low as you can go. The state already has the right to come in and shut down my children’s school if it wants to. (There is no indication this is going to happen, by the way, but it’s important to remember what the very real consequences are of this high-stakes-testing mania.)

What will happen to teachers if students opt out of the tests?

Many people are worried about their teachers and don’t want to do anything that might hurt them. This is excellent and obviously a very appropriate sentiment. The concern is particularly that if a large proportion of relatively high-scoring students don’t take the tests, a teacher’s evaluation might suffer. The problem is, teacher’s evaluations are about to be subjected to the junk science of VAM, based on students’ high-stakes-test scores. [See “The VAM Sham.”] This is exactly the damaging misuse of our students’ test data that we would be protesting by refusing to have our children participate in high-stakes-testing.

Some teachers are also parents, and are facing a real conflict. Some are feeling very real fear about their own jobs. I really appreciate these words from one Pittsburgh public teacher: “We all have to support one another as we struggle through the mire before us, holding one another’s hands as we put together a movement which can strike at the heart of the beast. Right now, telling the truth about what’s happening in education and holding up another vision — other child-centered visions — is a revolutionary act in and of itself. Even there, some of us (like my gray-haired self) are more in a position to do so than others are. We are all in this together, at whatever level we feel we can be on.”

And let’s not ignore what is happening to our teachers right now, even if we do not opt out: the canned curricula, the lack of resources, the loss of creativity and freedom in the classroom to teach as one human being to another. What about how the very act of giving these mandated tests affect our teachers? I was very inspired to act after reading Sheila May-Stein’s account of proctoring the PSSAs and how it made her feel. [“Outside the Lines – of the Standardized Test Bubble,” 12-11-12]

Won’t opting out risk leaving mostly low-scoring students to take the tests, thereby harming them further, and worsening inequities?

A common concern with opt out is that only (or mostly) middle class and predominantly white families will participate, further ghettoizing those students who remain to take the tests. If schools “fail” on the basis of their scores, these students might be “blamed” even more. Education researcher Dr. Tim Slekar responds, “It helps if you see the opt out movement not as an attack on the tests but as an effort to take back our schools from corporations and the complicit state and federal government. … your school will fail if you opt out and your school will fail if you don’t opt out. The system was set up to ‘demonstrate’ that public schools (all of them) are failures and need to replaced with something new — typically market driven charter schools with privately managed boards that make a profit off of the tax payers. In fact this is already happening in Philadelphia, Chicago, DC and other urban school districts.”

Opting out is about standing up for equity, as Dr. Slekar explains: “We are doing it to bring attention to the fact that we don’t support a system that will eventually be used to hurt all of us. And we do it because are most vulnerable students are already being harmed by this system and our teachers are being demoralized. This testing system uses our children’s data to dismantle our schools. You opt out to deny the data to the reformers. You opt out because you refuse to participate in a system that uses your child to provide data that will be used to label your school and your teachers as failures. You opt out because these are your schools and at this time in history only civil disobedience at the grass roots level has the potential to stop this insanity. It is because of the ‘OTHER’ children that we opt out. If we don’t they will be the ones to feel the most pain in the new two tiered system of separate and unequal education.” [See also, Huffington Post, 11-21-11]

What about public perceptions of my school if people hear that it did not make AYP?

By next year, every single school in this country will be labeled a “failure” under AYP. Some of our great public schools have already been labeled failures, including those in some of the wealthiest areas of Southwest Pennsylvania such as Mt. Lebanon. Obviously we want families to choose public education and to stick with our neighborhood schools – this is especially true in urban areas that have been fighting white flight. Clearly we need to continue working together to counter the lies and misconceptions about public education being spread by the corporate-reform-movement that would have us believe that AYP scores actually describe what is happening inside our school buildings. We need to be clear that we care deeply about the racial achievement gap and equity, but that AYP and high-stakes-testing are not addressing these issues. We care about real learning for all students. [For more inspiration on this point, please see @theChalkFace, “I Don’t Care About AYP.”]

What about special education students?

Fair Test explains that “a major reason for the 95% [student test participation] rule is that some districts had a history of holding low scoring, disabled, ELL [English Language Learners] or other students out of testing to make the school or district look better. Some advocates for those students supported the 95% rule as a way to preclude students from being excluded from testing and therefore educationally ignored.” As Fair Test points out, these “are legitimate concerns” and we need to address them. [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

Clearly, schools need to meet the learning needs of all students. But high-stakes-testing is not meeting the needs of any of our students, and is quite clearly harming many of them. When I was at the White House meeting with the President’s policy advisors last spring, a special education teacher literally broke down in tears describing how horrendous these tests are for her students, some of whom bang their heads on their desks in frustration until they are bruised. She explained how the tests are completely inappropriate, create immense stress, and do not measure any real learning that these kids have achieved. I was also really moved by an account of the effects of high-stakes-testing on special education students written by a teacher working in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. [See “Make No Mistake, Corporate Ed Reform is Hurting Kids,” 12-28-12]

What about all the other uses of high-stakes-test scores?

Some parents are legitimately concerned about the various uses of high-stakes-test data, such as making decisions about admission to gifted programs, grade or subject acceleration, or acceptance to certain High School or magnet programs. Even some outside agencies such as Carnegie Mellon’s C-MITES program asks for these test scores. However, in many cases parents can ask to use other measures of learning. It might be worth exploring this issue ahead of time where these concerns exist, while explaining precisely why your student won’t have test data in their file. It’s also very useful to remember that “achievement” as measured by these tests is not the same thing as aptitude, or the potential for learning and doing well in a subject. Dr. Dave Powell, education professor at Gettysburg College, reminds us: “The next time you see a kid’s future being framed by a test score, ask yourself: Is this what I would want for my kid?” [Read his excellent piece: Education Week, “Confusing Achievement with Aptitude,” 12-11-12]

How many people have to participate in order for it to “work”?

Essentially, even one person can make a difference, because that is one voice standing up for public education. Dr. Slekar says that three years ago when he originally starting opting his older child out, he thought that a mass-movement would be necessary: “Now I know that every individual that opts out is what matters the most. Individuals serve as role models and surrogates for others. Just one opt out says loud and clear: I love my child, I love my school and I love my teachers! I will not take part in this insanity anymore.” Others have pointed out that we don’t want lone voices to lead to martyrdom, which is why we need a real movement to do this right.

Pittsburgh public school parent Elaine Rybski has proposed having each school organize a parent campaign, to educate other parents, distribute FAQs and sample letters, and collect letters from those who choose to participate. She explains her proposal saying, “when a significant number have turned theirs in … they can be turned in as a group. This collection method ensures that there are enough to make a difference, and if only a few participate in the campaign, they will actually not be opted out, so the school will not be hurt. But the campaign needs to start soon so that parents can get all their information and have time to think about it and have any questions answered.” What do you think?

One more thought: According to Dr. Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education at College of Education at the University of Oregon (where he also serves as the director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education), it would take just a 6% opt-out rate to invalidate state test results. [“The 6% Club,” 5-11-11]

How do parents go about opting out their children?

In February, the state will deliver copies of the tests to school districts. At that time, parents and guardians may ask for a meeting with the school’s assessment coordinator. You have a right to look at the test at this time, though you can also use the meeting to simply submit your letter. In Pennsylvania, families can request a religious exemption from testing: you simply need to write a short letter stating that you are asking for just that. It does not need to be long, nor does it even have to identify your religion (in fact, the state is not permitted to ask that). I will personally be calling on the traditions of social justice, social action, equity, and compassion at the root of all our major religions.

Students can attend school on the days when tests are administered (the state and district cannot refuse to admit a non-test-taking student, which would be an issue for some working parents). Some parents involved in Opt Out around the country have offered to volunteer in the schools that day to assist with real learning opportunities for those students who are not taking tests. Other parents have simply kept their children at home and engaged them in out of school learning activities. United Opt Out has developed a tool kit for parents interested in this movement with additional tips and sample letters that can be used. [United Opt Out, “Opting Out of High Stakes Testing,” 9-12-12]

Would you like to see some sample Pennsylvania letters? Would you like to have a meeting to discuss the specifics involved in opting students out of testing? Please speak up so we can have the conversation and get things organized.

Will my school lose its Title I funding?

Title I funds are federal dollars used by schools that have a substantial proportion of low income students (measured by the number of those participating in the free-and-reduced-lunch program). Fair Test explains the impact on Title I funding is actually indirect:

  • “If a school fails to make AYP for two years, a portion of Title I funds must be spent on transporting students to another school in the district that is making AYP (if there are any making AYP and don’t have special admissions requirements such as minimum test scores).
  • “After three years, Title I funds must in part go to ‘supplemental services’ (e.g., small group after school instruction, often test prep).
  • “Up to 20% of Title I funds must be earmarked for these two purposes, with no more than 15% of Title I funds required to be spent on either one of the two. There is evidence that many districts are not spending the 20%. Still, this is a financial consequence.
  • “There are no other federal financial penalties for schools that receive Title I funds and do not make AYP. Other consequences, such as privatizing control over a school or closing it, may have financial implications.
  • “NLCB only requires states to impose the escalating AYP sanctions on schools that receive Title I funds (but all schools must test and report the disaggregated results).” [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

Others have pointed out that even when Title I monies are used by a District, they can circle back to testing companies and the disruptive agenda of corporate-style-reform. That is because schools often use the money to pay for things such as after school test preparation, or are forced to spend it on transporting students to other schools.

Is opting out legal?

There is no federal law, under No Child Left Behind in particular, that prohibits parents from opting their children out of high-stakes-tests. At the same time, there is no specific statute that permits it, and the law was written in such a way as to provide great incentives for compliance (by instituting the 95% participation mandate). [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

An opt-out group in Coloroda, Uniting4Kids, prepared this helpful information about parental rights and testing: “Parental rights are broadly protected by Supreme Court decisions (Meyer and Pierce), especially in the area of education. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents posses the “fundamental right [to] direct the upbringing and education of their children. Furthermore, the Court declared that ‘the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.’ (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35)”

“The Supreme Court criticized a state legislature for trying to interfere ‘with the power of parents to control the education of their own.’ (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 402.) In Meyer, the Supreme Court held that the right of parents to raise their children free from unreasonable state interferences is one of the unwritten ‘liberties’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (262 U.S. 399). In recognition of both the right and responsibility of parents to control their children’s education, the Court has stated, ‘It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for the obligations the State can neither supply nor hinder.’ (Prince V. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158)” [Uniting4Kids, “A Guide to Exercising Your Parental Rights”]

Finally, Uniting4Kids points out this line from the U.S. Supreme Court (in American Communications Association v. Douds): “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

What could we expect the outcomes to be this year if we opt out?

One parent asked, “When will our teachers be allowed to stop teaching to the test?” It might be too much to expect that opting our students out of testing this year will lead to an immediate end to test-prep in our schools – at least for this year. But doing nothing will not change the situation, either. My hope is threefold: to start a real conversation here in Southwest Pennsylvania about the damaging impact of corporate-style-education reform; to make a dent, however small, in the system by refusing to allow my children’s bodies and souls to be used in this way; and to make a much bigger impact through our movement by drawing the attention of policy makers to these critical issues. I expect we will be able to get a critical mass involved in this effort – and that this will feed back into our other efforts, such as fighting further proposed education budget cuts.

Does opt out work?

The short answer is yes. But it’s early and this movement is just getting off the ground. There is terrific evidence from other places around the country where this movement has been growing for the past few years: we are not alone, in fact, we are nowhere near the first to do this. Entire PTA groups and even school boards have decided to opt out. School superintendents like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland are speaking out very publicly. [Charlotte Observer, 12-21-12] The entire state of Vermont even refused to apply for an NCLB waiver on the grounds that the tests were not working. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In 2011, Michele Gray started an opt-out campaign in State College, PA. [CNN, 3-21-11] Back in June last year, the parents of East Village Community School in New York City came together and opted out en masse of the field trials of standardized tests the state was trying to give their children. Nearly every parent in the school signed a letter, which they delivered to the principal, stating that they would not have their children tested and wound up catching the attention of the media. [New York Times, 10-12-12] There are loads of other examples at the United Opt Out web site and at Fair Test, with parent groups from Florida to Connecticut, Oregon to South Carolina, and everywhere in between. The Bartleby Project aims to invite 60,000,000 students to opt out of tests. The American Federation of Teachers has just launched a new website against high-stakes-testing called, Learning is More than a Test Score. United Opt Out will also be holding its second “Occupy the Department of Education: The Battle for Public Schools” in D.C. in early April.

We are not alone, and this movement is growing quickly. Now is the time to add our voices to those calling for an end to this madness that is hurting our schools, our teachers, and our children.


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Now That’s More Like It

See, it can be done. Yesterday, state representative James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia and Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, announced a new bill that would represent a big step forward in really reforming the rules governing charter and cyber charter schools. [For an explanation of Gov. Corbett’s current attempt to impose anti-reforms, overriding local elected officials, and hiding the actions of his friends operating some of the state’s largest charter schools, see “Real Charter Reform.”]

House Bill 2661 would subject charter school fund balances to the same regulations that traditional public schools must follow (so they can’t keep huge sums of public taxpayer dollars essentially as profit). It would also tighten up pension funding rules that are allowing charters to “double dip” right now and limit special-education payments to charter schools to the actual amounts spent by the school district on special ed (currently, special-ed can be a cash cow for some charters). Significantly, this bill would not exempt charter operators from our Right to Know Laws. (H.B. 2661)

What’s more, Rep. Roebuck wants to see results this school year. Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, he explained, “If we are overfunding some charter and cyber charter schools, as appears to be the case, that money needs to be returned to the school districts this school year, not held until 2013-14 or later.” [PA House.com 10-2-12] In a press, release, Roebuck laid out some of the details, explaining that the bipartisan bill would:

  • Limit unassigned fund balances for charter and cyber charter schools, consistent with the limits already in effect for traditional public schools. In 2010, the auditor general reported that charter schools had $108 million in reserve funds. Nearly half of charter schools had a cumulative reserve fund balance above traditional public schools’ limit of 12 percent of their annual spending. The charter school balances ranged as high as 95 percent.
  • Remove the “double dip” for pension costs by charter and cyber charter schools. Presently, a school district’s cost for retirement expenditure is not subtracted from expenditures in the tuition calculation that determines funding for charters. This sets up a “double dip” since state law guarantees charter schools reimbursement for their retirement costs. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials estimates that between 2011-12 and 2016-17, eliminating the “double dip” would save school districts $510 million, including $45.8 million in savings for 2012-13.
  • Limit the amount of special education funding that a charter or cyber charter school receives per student to the school district’s total per-pupil spending for special education services. The state funding formula’s 16 percent cap on school district special education population does not apply to charter schools. An official of Bensalem Township High School in Bucks County testified last year that this results in paying $3,425 more per charter school special education student than Bensalem is paying for its own special education students.
  • Require year-end audits by the state Department of Education to determine the actual costs of education services of charter and cyber charter schools, followed by an annual year-end final reconciliation process of tuition payments from school districts against those actual costs. Any overpayments would be returned to the school districts. In the 2010-11 school year, non-special education tuition rates per student ranged from $4,478 to $16,915.
  • Increase transparency for contractors that provide management, educational or administrative services to charter and cyber charter schools by requiring disclosure of a financial relationship with for-profit providers. [PA House.com 10-2-12]

This is exactly the kind of bill that our grassroots movement should get behind. Five of the bill’s 39 sponsors are from Southwest PA: we applaud Rep. Dan Frankel (Allegheny County), Rep. Frank Dermody (Allegheny County), Rep. R. Ted Harhai (Fayette and Westmoreland Counties), Rep. Tim Mahoney (Fayette County), and Rep. Harry Readshaw (Allegheny County).

However, we need to see more legislators from the ten counties here in the heart of Yinzer Nation standing up for public education. If your legislator is one of these five, by all means, please let them know you support their stand on charter reform. But if your legislator is missing from this list, your voice is all the more important! Please contact your state Representatives and Senators to let them know that H.B. 2661 is the kind of real reform we need in Pennsylvania, moving us closer to adequate and equitable funding for all our public schools. [Look here to Find Your State Legislator]

Real Charter Reform

They’re at it again. Our state legislators returned to work last Monday after a nearly three month summer break – and will only be in session through next week, before adjourning again for several weeks for the election season. That means Governor Corbett only has a few days to get some of his top priorities through both the House and Senate. And by all accounts, charter “reform” legislation is at the top of his list.

We indeed need charter reform in Pennsylvania. A broken funding formula is currently sucking resources away from traditional public schools and allowing some charter schools – especially cyber charter schools – to line the pockets of their corporate directors with wads of taxpayer cash. But what Gov. Corbett has in mind is not reform at all: it’s a sly new way to hand more power to the state. He wants a “state authorizer,” creating a new state commission that would take away local control over establishing new charter schools, sidestepping the elected school boards who now make those decisions.

In June, our grassroots movement scored a real victory, making enough noise that we prevented Gov. Corbett from pushing through his state authorizer during the last minutes of the budget debate. The Governor acknowledged recently, “We came very, very, very close to getting charter reform,” and added what should be a warning to those of us in the grassroots, “now, we need to get that done.” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (a Republican from Delaware County), boasted that, “leaders from both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have used the summer to iron out differences,” and said, “I don’t see any reason why we should not be able to resolve them.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-24-12]

Apparently, the plan these “leaders” hatched over the summer involved hijacking a bill that was meant to reform special education funding, by adding the charter school amendment. This special-ed bill actually has broad bi-partisan support and is desperately needed. Right now, the state gives every school district a set fee for each student who needs special education services, regardless of what that service is (some disabilities require extensive and expensive interventions while others do not). The current state law also caps payments to districts at 16% of their enrollment, while many school districts have 20 or event 25% special-need populations. The proposed special-ed bill would solve many of these problems and create far more equity in school funding across the state. Yet, as state Rep. Michael Sturla (a Democrat from Lancaster) put it, the bill “is being held hostage,” to twist the arms of legislators who might not want to vote for Gov. Corbett’s charter authorizer scheme. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-29-12]

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis explained the attempted hijacking saying the administration “thought it would be faster.” [CBS Philadelphia, 9-27-12] Sure. It’s always faster to bully and use strong-arm tactics. But we’re talking about legislation that will take away the voices of local communities by cutting out their elected representatives. By handing control over charter authorization and oversight to a state board appointed by Gov. Corbett, our legislators will be handing the fox the keys to our henhouse. [Look no further than who the Governor has put in charge of struggling school districts: see “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”]

And to add insult to injury – and to cover the trail – the proposed charter amendment will exempt records of charter school “vendors” from our Right to Know Law. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-28-12] In this case, that means that for-profit, corporate charter school operators will not have to reveal the very basic facts we expect all schools to make public – such as the salaries of their top operators. Remember Vahan Gureghian, who runs the state’s largest charter school through his management company? Gureghian is Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor – and a member of his education transition team – who has collected over $60 million in public taxpayer dollars through his charter management company, but has been fighting a right-to-know lawsuit for the past six years to prevent the public from learning his actual salary. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian recently purchased two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [See “Soaking the Public”.]

We can expect more of this nonsense, and worse, if we do not prevent the current charter “reform” bill from going through. As Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters PA explains, “Charter schools are part of the public education landscape and we need high quality reform in order to help ensure that good charters can thrive and that we address the problems that have occurred.” Ed Voters proposes that good charter reform legislation would:

  • Fix the funding formula that hurts ALL kids: we need to address the reality that current law means that funding charter schools siphons funds from community schools. A good funding formula would help both charter schools and traditional community schools,
  • Address the financial and quality problems with virtual charter schools,
  • Ensure that communities continue to have a say in how all public schools function in their community, and
  • Improve fiscal and operational transparency, protecting the rights of students and taxpayers.

Please call your legislators today and let them know you are paying attention to this issue. [Look here to Find Your State Legislator] There is no state-wide “call in day” for this action as we did last spring several times for the budget process – we are hoping you will pick up the phone and call them now, or send an email while you are on the computer. Governor Corbett and his allies are counting on this flying under the radar. This is really in the policy weeds and there are only a few of us paying attention: but we are paying attention, aren’t we? If you’ve read this far, you are the one who is going to make a difference. So please, use your voice and tell your legislators: We need real charter reform.