Top 5 Reasons State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085

New year, old bill. Today’s post comes to us from our colleague, Susan Spicka, a public education advocate from the middle part of the state who has been tracking the progress of SB1085. As you may recall, that is the Senate bill that proposes to “reform” charter schools, but will actually cause more harm than good. We desperately need charter reform, but SB1085 is not it. [See “Stop This Bill” and “Killer Weeds”] Spicka has identified five reasons our state senators should oppose this bill. In a series of guest spots this week, we will share them with you.

Susan explains, “The PA Senate is poised to vote on SB 1085 … Now is the time for Pennsylvanians who care about our public schools to contact our state senators and urge them to oppose this legislation. … Please take a few minutes, contact your senator each day this week to share your concerns about these flawed policies, urge him/her to oppose SB 1085, and share this information far and wide! If our senators don’t hear from voters, they will likely pass this bill.”

Reason #5 our State Senators Should Oppose SB 1085
The Private Authorizer System

SB 1085 creates a private authorizer system for charter schools in PA. More than 100 institutions of higher education, including institutions with no experience, capacity, or faculty in education, would be allowed to authorize an unlimited number of charter schools without input from local communities.  Charter schools will be able to set up shop without community approval, and send us the bill—whether we can afford it or not.

In addition, SB 1085 would allow even more taxpayer dollars intended for educating public school children to be siphoned off to private entities. Institutions of higher education would be permitted to receive public dollars for being unaccountable authorizers of charter schools. Good charter school policy should keep more taxpayer dollars in classrooms educating our children, not allow more taxpayer dollars to be siphoned into private pockets.

SB 1085 supporters often cite the university authorizer system in New York as the reason that PA should have a university authorizer. However, New York has exactly ONE university authorizer, NOT more than 100. SB 1085 would create a Wild West scenario in charter school authorization in PA. A single school district will potentially have more charter school authorizers than almost any other state, and more than all neighboring states combined! (Charter Schools and Higher Education Authorizers)

The bottom line is that the private authorizer system in SB 1085 will not increase the quality of charter schools in PA. The private authorizer system WILL, however, give charter school operators an item at the top of their wish list ­– the ability to open charter schools in communities throughout Pennsylvania without the approval of the taxpayers who will have to pay the bills.

Please contact your senator here and urge him or her to oppose SB 1085 because of the deeply flawed private authorizer system. Feel free to cut and paste this message:

Please oppose SB 1085, which would create a private authorizer system for charter schools in PA. SB 1085 would strip local control from taxpayers and allow more than 100  institutions of higher education, including institutions with no experience, capacity, or faculty in education, to authorize charter schools without input from local communities.

Charter schools are public institutions that are paid for by the communities in which they are located. SB 1085 creates a system of taxation without representation where a private entity can authorize an unlimited number of charter schools in our communities without regard for the impact on local taxpayers, who will be required by law to foot the bill.

I most strongly urge you to oppose SB 1085 and to work on real charter school reform in PA that will craft a sustainable charter school funding formula to create efficiencies for taxpayers, relieve the overwhelming financial burden on our school districts, and help strengthen Pennsylvania’s entire system of public education.

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Killer Weeds

The PA General Assembly is back in session today and we need to go wading into the policy weeds for a moment. This is where we pay attention to potentially-lethally-boring policy details around bills such as SB 1085. These are killer weeds all right, but the real threat is to our schools. I promise you’ll be perfectly safe as you read this message: your blood pressure might rise, but then you will click “Take Action” at the bottom of this page, and you will feel much better.

Remember Senate Bill 1085? This is a charter “reform” bill that will actually hurt school districts. [See “When Charters Cause Harm”] In a recent analysis of the bill, the Education Law Center concluded, “Ultimately, SB 1085 would gut local control over charter school authorization and growth, encourage unfettered expansion of even poorly-operated charter schools, take already underfunded school districts to the brink of financial collapse, and remove important accountability tools that school districts can use to ensure that charter schools are performing well and equitably serving all kinds of students.” [Education Law Center SB1085] Those are very strong words coming from our lawyer friends.

In opposing passage of SB 1085 in its current state, the ELC explains that the bill would:

  • Permit any charter school, good or bad, to grow without permission from any authority.
  • Permit charter schools to unilaterally amend the terms of their charter, at any time, for any reason.
  • Double the length of a charter from five to ten years, which would slice accountability in half.
  • Permit institutions of higher education to authorize new charters, even though they have no financial stake or accountability to the public for the school’s performance.
  • Permit “multiple charter school organizations” to avoid accountability to the communities they serve by electing to be authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
  • Create a funding commission that is stacked in favor of charter schools and not permitted to consider the fiscal impact of charter expansion on their local communities.

Why does this matter? Why should you spend another minute in these uncomfortable policy weeds that are scratching your legs and harboring who-knows-what slithering creatures? Just stand still for a minute and you’ll be fine. We need to go into these weeds once in a while to hold our legislators accountable for making policies that will help, not hurt, our schools. Right now, we desperately need good charter legislation.

Just take a look at the news that broke over the weekend about an FBI probe of another charter school here in Pittsburgh. [KDKA 11-8-13] The state Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale, found “potentially criminal” spending at the Urban Pathways charter school. The charter school spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy restaurants, retreats at elite resorts including Nemacolin Woodlands, and even paid for the mobile phones of board members’ spouses. DePasquale said these expenses are “a waste of taxpayer money” and is particularly concerned that Urban Pathways is also using Pennsylvania tax dollars to pay for a new school it is starting in Youngstown, Ohio. He’s turned the investigation over to the FBI. [Tribune Review, 11-11-13]

Larry Feinberg, a public school director from the other side of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition, reminds us, “Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories of innovation.” Instead, he says, “In Pennsylvania, they have been laboratories of fraud, waste, abuse and lack of transparency.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 11-11-13] Now watch your blood pressure as you read Feinberg’s list:

  • In Pittsburgh, Nick Trombetta, founder of the state’s largest cyber charter, is on trial under a 41 count federal indictment for allegedly stealing $1 million.
  • In Philly, June Brown is on trial, accused of defrauding the four charters she founded of $6.7 million. Joan Woods Chalker, 75, a top lieutenant in Brown’s school network who worked with Brown for more than 20 years and served as a chief executive at one of her charters, has pleaded guilty to three counts of obstruction of justice. She stood accused of conspiring with Brown and the others in a scheme to defraud four charter schools of $6.7 million, then staging a cover-up.
  • In Wayne, PA, K12, Inc.’s Agora Cyber Charter used tax dollars to pay for more than 19,000 local TV commercials. Agora has never made AYP, but Business Week reported that it had made over $31 million for K12, Inc. in one academic year.  K12’s CEO was paid $5 million in 2011.
  • In Harrisburg, PA Office of Open Records executive director Terry Mutchler said her office had received 239 appeals in cases in which charter schools either rejected or failed to answer requests from the public for information such as budgets, payrolls, or student rosters. She said her office ruled in favor of the schools on just six of those appeals. “They don’t feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you,” Mutchler told senators on the state government committee, which is considering legislation to amend the five-year-old law. “They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy right-to- know-law.”
  • In Palm Beach Florida, the Governor’s largest individual campaign donor is building a new 20,000 square foot mansion on a $29 million beachfront lot. He has been fighting a right-to-know request for over 6 years regarding financial details of his management company’s operation of the state’s largest brick and mortar charter school. Standardized-test scores dropped precipitously at that Chester Community Charter School after an investigation of possible past cheating brought new scrutiny to the school’s testing practices. Results for 2012 state tests show that, schoolwide, scores fell about 30 percentage points in math and reading, with double-digit drops in every grade. Some fell more than 40 percentage points.

Now see why the policy weeds matter? We need real charter reform, but SB 1085 is more like a snake in the grass. Please TAKE ACTION – yes, click on those words to visit our colleagues at the PA School Board Association where you can send an email to your senator asking her or him to oppose SB 1085. Really. You will feel so much better. And then you can walk on out of these killer weeds.

Can or Con

It must be all the spring rain – new corporate-style reform groups are popping up like weeds. The latest one just appeared in Pittsburgh on Tuesday with an Op Ed piece in the Post-Gazette promoting teacher evaluation. [Post-Gazette, 5-21-13] Called PennCAN, this group is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, which has started a national effort known as 50CAN. So who are these “cans” and what are they saying?

ConnCAN was founded by investment manager Jonathan Sackler, who is also on the board of an oil and gas production company, a real estate investment company, and several pharmaceutical companies. He is also a trustee for Achievement First, which operates charter schools in four cities, as well as on the board of New Schools Venture Fund, which raises money to “invest” in “education entrepreneurs,” with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs).

Ten of the eleven members of ConnCAN’s board are hedge fund managers. In other words, these are not educators thinking about what is best for students: these are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios. Not surprisingly, ConnCAN promotes charter schools, vouchers (“money that follows the student”), teacher evaluation systems that eliminate union protections, and school turnaround (shorthand for firing teachers and principals, or even closing “under achieving” schools). ConnCAN makes bold claims about its work, though Rutgers School of Education scholar Dr. Bruce Baker recently shredded their assertion that their reforms are working in Connecticut. [School Finance 101, 3-7-13.]

Last fall, Mr. Sackler wrote a check for $50,000 to a superPAC (it’s largest donation) that is trying to eliminate the local, democratically elected school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut and replace it with a politically appointed board under the supervision of a corporate-reform mayor. Sackler’s ConnCAN has spawned a national effort, 50CAN, which is working to do the same thing in other states: for instance, in Minnesota, they supported the campaign of a pro-charter, Teach for America alumnus. (Unfortunately, Teach for America seems to be in the corporate-reform camp: a topic for a future blog post, but for starters, see educator and TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein’s analysis of TFA’s biggest claims.) The chairman of 50CAN’s board is Mathew Kramer, the President of Teach for America, which also put money into that Minnesota race. [DianeRavitch 2-2-13] Other 50CAN board members include the presidents of two charter school chain operators and a representative from DFER (Democrats for Education Reform).

Jonathan Pelto, a former Connecticut state legislator, writes about ConnCAN and related groups explaining, “The charter school industry is spending record amounts to lobby government officials and buy local boards of education.” And he warns, “Backing up their lobbying effort is a broader strategy to change the rules and change the players as a way of ensuring they can build their charter schools and further privatize America’s public education system.” [Guest post on DianeRavitch 2-2-13; also see his alarming 12-2-12 analysis of the group’s teacher evaluation and explicitly anti-union work in Connecticut.]

So is this what we’re seeing here in Pittsburgh with the arrival of ConnCAN’s sister, PennCAN? The group actually started working last year and is just now moving into our part of the state (they’ve been advertising for a public affairs manager who lives in or has connections to Pittsburgh), but their agenda is clear. They want to expand charter schools and advocate for “systems that authorize schools,” which I take to mean a state-authorizer bill that would eliminate local control. (We already defeated this once last fall: see “Where are the Real Republicans?”) They also promote vouchers, which they call “scholarships to attend high-performing schools of [the student’s] choice, whether they be district, charter, private or parochial.” And, of course, PennCAN wants a “statewide evaluation system that incorporates student achievement” – in other words, using high-stakes-testing to evaluate our teachers. The only point of agreement it appears our grassroots movement has with this group is that we ought to preserve funding for early childhood education. [PennCAN 2012 Policy Agenda]

PennCAN’s opening salvo here in Pittsburgh focused on teacher evaluation, an issue that already has some traction given the district’s $40 million Gates Foundation grant for just that. And we’ve seen other local Gates-funded organizations promoting teacher evaluation, including A+Schools and Shepherding the Next Generation, giving the idea additional legs. [See “Big $” and “Astroturf”] Now guess who is funding the national 50CAN? You guessed it: the Gates Foundation. And the Waltons. And Google and Jonathan Sackler, to name a few.

Here in Pennsylvania, the operation is being funded by a Catholic group (the Catholic church in Philadelphia has been lobbying hard for vouchers and tax credits to help keep religious private schools afloat: See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”). PennCAN donors also include the William Penn Foundation, now being sued by our sister-grassroots organization in Philadelphia for illegal lobbying efforts aimed at promoting more charter schools in that district. [See “When Foundations Go Bad”] And don’t forget Janine and Jeff Yass – that would be the Jeff Yass who made Pennsylvania’s top campaign donor list in the fall. He and two other of the top political donors in our entire state – Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik – went to college together and then founded a Philadelphia hedge fund company. Then they founded the Students First superPAC to funnel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into the races of pro-voucher candidates. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”]

So that’s who we’re dealing with. Nice bunch of corporate-style reformers bent on privatization. We’ll look at their claims more closely in a future piece, but for now, we’re calling this can a con.

A Victory

Put this down as a victory for our grassroots movement! The proposed charter “reform” that Governor Corbett tried to ram through the legislature this week had died, in no small part because of the loud protest we mounted. The bill passed through the Senate last week and appeared to be ready to sail through the House this week, until public education advocates all over the state raised serious questions about many of its pieces. Most egregiously, the bill in its original form would have exempted charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law, taken away local control and accountability, and concentrated power in a state committee stacked with political appointees. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?” for all the details.)

Remember the story about the boiled frog? If a frog jumped into hot water, he’d hop right back out again, but a frog sitting in a pot slowly brought to a boil doesn’t realize until it’s too late that he’s cooked. The devil is in the details of these bills, and it’s these incremental legislative changes that will slowly boil our frog (and our schools). That’s why it was so important that we pay attention to those policy details and take action, like we did this week.

By Wednesday night, legislators in the House were working overtime before going into recess until after the election – and it was becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have the votes to pass Senate Bill 1115. Many of our legislators agree that the charter funding formula in particular needs to be fixed. The state Auditor General estimates we are currently over-paying charter school operators $1million every day – that’s a huge pile of public taxpayer dollars going to line some very deep, private pockets. (See “One Million Per Day.”)

But rather than tackle this problem directly, this ill-fated bill would have formed a commission to study the problem, and loaded it with charter school operators. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican from our neck of the woods, admitted that, “the funding for cyber charters, in particular, is an issue that has to be addressed,” but the proposed “commission wasn’t going to satisfy a lot of members [of the House].” [Post-Gazette, 10-19-12] Representative Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County who chairs the House Education Committee, said legislators “felt there were ways in which the bill was more favorable to the charters and cyber charters than to [traditional] public schools,” and that the commission “was too stacked with pro-charter people.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10-19-12]

What’s most disappointing is the way that the Corbett administration tacked these charter “reform” measures onto a much needed special-education funding bill that had previously gained wide bi-partisan support. Shooting down SB1115 also meant tanking efforts to get more money to children with the most severe disabilities and those districts with large numbers of those students. When the legislature returns to this issue in January, which everyone expects they will do, our representatives ought to look to House Bill 2661 for guidance. Introduced by James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia and Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, this bill would a big step forward in really reforming the rules governing charter and cyber charter schools. (See “Now That’s More Like It”) But we’ll have our work cut out for us, since many of our state Senators – including a surprisingly number from Yinzer Nation – voted for SB1115 before the bill died in the House. (See Senate Roll Call.)

Meanwhile, it’s time for a little celebration in the grassroots. We have to recognize these achievements for what they are – real victories in saving public education from the fate of the boiled frog.

Where are the Real Republicans?

Real Republicans don’t vote to take away local control. Real Republicans don’t try to concentrate power in the hands of the state and with small groups of political appointees. Real Republicans don’t thumb their noses at public accountability. Yet this is exactly what Governor Corbett and the legislature are trying to do with the latest charter school “reform” bill that goes before the Senate Rules Committee today. [Senate Bill 1115]

This deeply flawed bill was Gov. Corbett’s latest attempt to ram through a statewide authorizer, which would take control away from local, democratically elected school board representatives and permit only a state commission of political appointees the right to open new charter schools and to supervise them. [See “Real Charter Reform” and “Now That’s More Like It” for details.] It now appears that the governor’s office and legislative leaders have agreed to set aside the authorizer portion of the bill so they can focus on other pieces of the legislation. That is a partial victory for our grassroots movement, which has made a big noise about this issue. But a spokesman for Senate Republicans said there is still “broad support for a statewide authorizer among Senate Republicans.” A spokesman for House Republicans said views were more “far-ranging” in that chamber. [Post-Gazette, 10-15-12] We know this issue will be coming back.

Meanwhile, the bill retains equally terrible measures that should have all citizens up in arms, liberal, moderate, and conservative alike. Perhaps most egregious, SB 1115 will exempt charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law. We taxpayers are supporting charter and cyber charter schools to the tune of $1 billion. As the Delco Times editorial board wrote yesterday, “Given the growing influence – and cost – of charter schools, you would think the public would want to know as much as we possibly can about their operation and their financial dealings, given the increasing amount of public dollars flowing into their coffers.” They also noted, “Make no mistake, the charter school explosion in Pennsylvania has become a big business, a very lucrative business.” [Delco Times, 10-14-12] Since when do good Republicans want less accountability for taxpayer dollars?

Let’s remember charter school management corporation owner Vahan Gureghian, who was Governor Corbett’s single largest individual campaign donor and a member of his Education Transition Team. In the first ten years after Gureghian started his charter operation in 1999, he had already collected $60.6 MILLION from the public coffers. While salary data for public school administrators is public information, we don’t know what Gureghian is paid – or his wife, who is general counsel for their company. The Philadelphia Inquirer originally filed a right-to-know request all the way back in 2006 asking for salary figures: the Commonwealth Court ruled they had to disclose that information, but the Gureghians have appealed and six years later the case is still bouncing around. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009-06-11] Meanwhile, last fall Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18]

And on this side of the state, PA Cyber Charter School is under federal investigation for what appear to be far ranging financial misdeeds. Just Friday, the Post-Gazette reported that the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta, bought a Florida condo for $933,000, and then sold it “to a business created by one of the school’s former executives for just $10.” [Post-Gazette, 10-12-12] These are the people raking in millions and millions of public dollars, yet fighting tooth and nail to keep their business dealings away from public scrutiny. When was the last time your local school administrator bought a Florida condo for close to a million dollars? Why should the public not have the same access to the financial records of charter school operators as they do to traditional schools? What happened to Republicans’ fiscal conservatism?

The proposed bill also contains a measure that would allow the state to pay charter schools directly. While this seems benign, the Keystone State Education Coalition (KSEC) points out that this would effectively “deny local school districts any ability to monitor the validity of charges and payments of taxpayer funds before they are paid.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] In other words, this is another way to remove local control from democratically elected school boards who represent the interests of their communities and taxpayers. Conscientious Republicans value real oversight.

And last but not least, SB1115 would create a statewide charter funding advisory commission. Again, boring sounding bureaucratic details – until you realize that three quarters of the members of the commissions would be charter school and cyber charter operators in addition to the Governor’s political appointees. KSEC notes that, “Of 17 members, only 3 would represent school districts.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] Where’s the accountability to taxpayers in that plan?

The real Republicans I know would not be in favor of SB1115. It’s far from fiscally conservative, eliminates accountability and oversight, and strips away local control. In fact, this bill is fairly radical and it’s time our legislators see it for what it is. They also need to know that here in the grassroots we are paying attention to those details. Would Pennsylvania’s real Republicans please stand up?

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.

Sunshine

Yesterday’s summer solstice gave Governor Corbett and Republican leaders the extra daytime they apparently needed to agree on a budget. Only they aren’t letting the details see the light of the sun. After the longest day of the year, Gov. Corbett announced Pennsylvania would have a $27.66 billion state budget saying, “We can put money back into some programs, we’re just not going to go into the details.” [Post-Gazette, 6-21-12] Why keep us in the dark?

The figure announced yesterday matches the one approved by the Senate, which included a $50 million cut to public education. While Governor Corbett originally proposed cutting $100 million back in February, we would obviously prefer to see the plan approved by the House a few weeks ago, which had no further cuts for K-12 schools still reeling from last year’s massive budget gutting. (See “Time’s Not Up, But Revenue Is.”)

Legislators feel they have a little more wiggle room in the budget with the state now anticipating $100 million more in June revenues than previously predicted. [Post-Gazette, 6-21-12] Yet they are poised to hand that – and far more – to Shell Oil Co. next week in a tax credit plan for a Beaver County petrochemical plant. That revenue-giveaway will cost us taxpayers $1.7 BILLION over 25 years. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) While the final numbers may vary slightly, the big smiles on the faces of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Gov. Corbett as they stood for press photos yesterday suggest that it’s a done deal. [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12]

So why keep us waiting for those budget details? Governor Corbett is trying to shove through some last minute legislation, and he’s got his eye squarely on vouchers. According to a “ranking Republican senator,” the Post-Gazette reports that “a policy discussed in negotiations [is] on its way forward.” That will most likely be Governor Corbett’s attempt to create a commission to study funding for charter and cyber charter schools (as well as special education).

Right now there are also several bills in play dealing with charter “reform.” Unfortunately, as Executive Director of Education Voters PA Susan Gobreski points out, this is “charter reform (without the reform).” Last week, Rep. Christiana, from here in Southwest Pennsylvania, proposed giving away $200 million to private schools by increasing the current EITC program, while creating a new Education Improvement Scholarship Credit (EISC) program. (See “We Have $200 Million?” for details.) This is HB 2468 and is scheduled to be voted on this coming Monday, June 25, 2012.

An alternative bill (HB 2364) sounds better: it would fund charter schools based on what they actually cost. Meanwhile, another local legislator, Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Democrat from Allegheny County, wants to introduce yet a different bill that will increase EITC funding and create a new Keystone Scholarship Tax Credit (KSTC) program. Various proposals also include a statewide “authorizer” that would “take away local authority and input.” [Education Voters legislative update, 6-20-12]

Christiana and Wheatley’s proposals are actually vouchers in disguise and should never see the light of day. But on the longest day of the year, Gov. Corbett declared, “I feel very confident that we’re going to have a very productive week next week.” [Post-Gazette, 6-20-12] Real charter reform would be a ray of sunshine, fixing the way charter schools are funded, increasing accountability, and maintaining local authority.

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Ed Voters PA is hosting a “virtual phone bank” today from 6:30pm to 7:30pm. You can volunteer to make calls to voters in key legislative districts and patch them through directly to their representative’s office. You can make the calls from the comfort of your own home and all you need is a phone and a computer. To help, please contact Ian Moran <ian@educationvoterspa.org> for details.