Report: Charter School Vampires Drain Traditional PA Districts Dry

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If you ever needed proof that charter schools harm traditional public school districts, look no further.

A new report by Pennsylvania’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee concludes that these privately run but publicly financed schools often drain traditional public districts of funding.

The report conducted at the behest of the state House and Senate found that charter schools have attached themselves in some way to almost every district in the Commonwealth, but not equally. Half of the state’s traditional public schools suffer from 80% of the state’s charter parasites.

Moreover, 40% of traditional districts with “significant” charter enrollment are struggling to make ends meet. The reason: unfair state mandates about how traditional districts must pay their charter school hangers-on.

The report is based on interviews with 36 superintendents. A total of 29 of these leaders said charter schools hurt their districts. Only four superintendents mentioned any positive impacts at all.

Much of the damage comes from Pennsylvania’s insistence on funding charter schools out of traditional public school budgets. Instead of charter school money coming directly from the state, much of it comes from the traditional district where it has set up shop.

In effect, it’s like a leach sucking away money that could be going to traditional public school students. We’re one of only 13 states that does this.

It leads to many problems.

Chief among them are the state’s special education laws. Local districts are required to pay their charters extra money for special education students. But this additional funding isn’t based on the number of special needs students actually present in the charter school. It’s based on an arbitrary 16%. Local districts pay charters as if these schools had 16% special education students whether they do or not. This incentivizes charters to enroll less than 16% and pocket the difference.

It’s a system so corrupt that only one other state – Massachusetts – uses it.

We’ve always known the system allows for fraud. We just couldn’t prove it was actually taking place – until now. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), in the 2014-2015 school year alone, local districts gave roughly $294.8 million in special ed supplements to charter schools. However, actual charter expenditures on special ed were only $193.1 million.

That’s $101.7 million in profit for charter operators! Ca-ching!

It’s also more than $100 million set aside to educate children that’s not being used for that purpose!

But that’s not the only way charter schools are sucking out local districts’ finances.
Times are tough. Money is hard to come by. If a district struggles to pay its charter schools, the state steps in and withholds the amount of money due to the charter schools from the state funding it would normally send the district – and sends that money directly to the charters instead.

In effect, the state ensures charters are fully funded, while local districts are left to struggle.

And to make matters worse, when charters file a complaint, the state doesn’t even verify if it’s true. The state doesn’t check to see if the district actually did pay its charters or not. It just withholds whatever money charter operators say they’re owed.

Local districts can appeal overpayments to charters. Right now there are 317 general appeals pending for a total of nearly $30 million in disputed funding – half of which is from Philadelphia, alone!

Nor is this the only area where charters are given preferential treatment. When a charter school attaches itself to a traditional public school, that traditional district must pay to transport kids to the charter school – but it is not required to provide transportation to its own students.

Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states to require transportation to charter schools.

But that’s not the worst of it.

PA charter report

Now we come to cyber charter schools – the Count Draculas of the charter world.

The report estimates an additional $100 million in overpayments to cyber charters because of state law that overestimates their expenses. They are collecting much more money than they need to operate. They don’t have the same costs as brick-and-mortar institutions.

Cyber charter school students are given a computer and internet access. That’s about it. No costly building to run. Students usually do their lessons at home. Even when taking into account cyber charter staff, expenses are much lower than at other kinds of schools yet they are calculated without consideration of these differences.

Once again, state tax dollars that could be used to educate students become pure profit for charter operators. It is businessmen who win and students who lose.

The legislature used to acknowledge the burden charter schools put on local districts. The state budget used to include a line item reimbursing local districts for a percentage of their payments to charters. In 2010-11, that was $225 million. However, this money disappeared during the Gov. Tom Corbett administration when Republicans gained control of the legislature and prioritized tax cuts over charter school relief.

Though Corbett was defeated by Democrat Tom Wolf for the governorship, the legislature is still controlled by Republicans and the charter school reimbursement remains a distant memory.

But perhaps this new report signals a change in policy.

It contains several suggestions to fix Pennsylvania’s broken charter school laws. These include:

  • Permitting school districts to negotiate charter per pupil payment rates and methods.
  • Eliminating mandates for transportation that are inconsistent with services offered for district-operated schools.
  • Requiring the state to check with local districts when charter schools complain of underpayment.
  • Requiring greater transparency and fiscal accountability addressing problems like shell ownership, leasing, state payments, and conflict of interest policies.
  • Allowing audits of charter school funds.
  • Prohibiting the guaranteeing of loans where there is no direct school involvement.
  • Requiring charters to submit financial records for the district to review.
  • Requiring parents who place students in charters to first register with the local school district and then notify the district of changes in status.
  • Eliminating public school districts’ responsibility for charter school compliance with compulsory attendance requirements.

However, perhaps the biggest game changer is how charters set up shop in the first place.

Right now when charter operators want to open a school in a local district, the local school board gets to say yea or nay. However, school directors aren’t allowed to consider how this will financially impact the district. The report suggests this be changed; Districts should be allowed to approve or deny charters based on dollars and cents.

Currently local school directors are forced to approve charters that they know will hurt their students. This change would require charters to be equal partners with traditional districts or else be blocked. In effect, it would transform them from parasites to symbiotic organisms.

And as luck would have it, there are already two separate but similar bills that have been introduced that propose many of these changes.

One (Senate Bill 670) was introduced by Sen. Jim Brewster (D-McKeesport). The other (Senate Bill 198) was introduced by Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). Brewster’s bill would “realign and redefine how local school districts, charter schools, students and taxpayers interact.” Hughes’ legislation would “provide local school boards with the tools to better oversee charter schools in their school districts.”

Charter school reform is something that members of both parties have expressed interest in. However, until recently Republican efforts at it have been light on reform and heavy on destructive means to further deregulate an already dangerously unregulated industry, thus worsening the problem.

Charter support has been strongly bipartisan. Champions of this new report claim that these suggested reforms aren’t anti-charter. They’re an effort to make both charters and traditional public schools work together instead of against each other.

Time will tell whether lawmakers are willing to do so.

Given the large donations received from the charter industry to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, true reform may be difficult.

But at least we now have a state-sanctioned report to point to when referencing the multitude of problems associated with the industry.

Charters have been officially recognized by the state as parasites.

Will lawmakers do something to stop that unending sucking sound?

Instead of Nixing the Keystone Exams, PDE Recommends a Cornucopia of Tests

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The answer is in.

After a summer of intense study, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has a solution to our exit exam problem.

Last year we almost failed half of our high school seniors state wide because they couldn’t pass all three of our poorly constructed Keystone Exams. So we decided not to count the scores for two years in order to find a way to fix the problem.

And now PDE has a recommendation for the legislature.

Drop the Keystone Exams? Base graduation on the completion of high school classwork?

NOPE.

PDE still loves standardized testing. It just wants to give kids more choice about which standardized tests they can take.

Instead of having to pass the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Biology, state policy-makers suggest a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of test-heavy paths to graduation.

Four choices.

Four paths to a diploma.

And they all involve lots and lots of multiple choice, sharpen-your-number-two-pencil, standardized tests.

PDE suggests that students can:

1)         Achieve scores on all three Keystone Exams that when averaged out produce a passing score. So maybe you fail the Biology test but your Algebra I and Literature scores are high enough to even out to a passing score.

2)         Achieve a passing score on some other standardized test approved by the state – SAT, ACT, etc. So maybe you take the Keystone Biology exam and the SAT for English and Math.

3)         For vocational students only – get passing grades in your high school classes, and pass a standardized assessment made for vocational students or otherwise provide evidence of success in that field of study.

4)         Get passing grades in your high school courses and provide at least three pieces of evidence of postsecondary success. More on what counts as evidence later.

PDE estimates these new alternative graduation requirements will be much more effective than the old ones.

The first option of allowing an average score on all three Keystone Exams, for instance, would mean that 72% of Pennsylvania students would thus be eligible for graduation vs. 51% under the old requirement.

The remaining 28% of high schoolers could then meet the graduation requirement by following one of the other three paths.

In most cases, this means more standardized testing – you just get to choose which test to take.

Under the fourth option, students only need to pass their courses and provide three pieces of evidence that they deserve to graduate. But what counts as evidence?
Please pick three from the following menu:

1)         Earn a passing grade in a dual enrollment course. In other words, pass a class in high school that will count as a college credit – maybe an advanced foreign language or math.

2)         Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) – the entrance exam to qualify for military service. I don’t think you have to actually enlist, but you have to take and pass the test.

3)         Get a letter from an employer guaranteeing you have full-time employment after high school.

4)         Attain a high value industry credential.

5)         Get a certificate that you successfully  completed an internship related to your career goals.

6)         Pass a standardized test such as the PA Career Academic Work Standards assessment and/or SAT.

One notable absence from these choices is a Project Based Assessment (PBA).

Previous legislation allowed students who failed the Keystones to complete PBAs in place of one or more tests. Students would research a specific topic with a trained tutor who would evaluate students’ work and provide feedback. It was designed for students unable or unwilling to pass specific Keystone Exams.

However, this was extremely expensive.

Over the past year, approximately 6,700 students throughout the state completed 15,700 PBAs. In many cases, it took them more than 30 hours to finish each assessment. This put a tremendous burden on local school districts to hire additional staff and remediate students from missed coursework. It also cost the state more money to hire additional people to score the PBAs.

According to the report, an unnamed suburban southeastern district told PDE it had to hire nine specialists at a cost of $900,000. A large unnamed urban district estimated PBAs would cost it an additional $4.1 million. PDE, itself, would need an additional $7 million to grade these assessments.

There were also concerns of whether the PBAs could be completed in a secure fashion to make sure students weren’t cheating. However, the majority of concerns were financial.

As a result, PDE recommended doing away with PBAs.

This leaves the question of what to do with students whose parents opt them out of standardized testing. Under previous legislation, these kids could take PBAs. It is unclear what they could do now to achieve the graduation requirement since so many of the options suggested by PDE involve taking some form of standardized test.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers decide to trample on parents rights in this way.

So that’s it. Four paths to graduation.

There are many ways in which these alternatives are an improvement to the old pass-the-Keystones-or-else requirement.

First, the new plan acknowledges that students don’t need to be equally strong in all academic areas. Someone going into technical school has less reason to demonstrate skill in Biology than someone entering the medical field, for instance.

Also, this provides different options to qualify for a diploma instead of different kinds of diplomas. It had been suggested that students who don’t pass all tests might get a second tier diploma, perhaps even one of several tiers of diploma. So a blue diploma might mean you did pretty good, but not as good as a gold diploma, etc. We can be thankful PDE nixed that terrible idea.

Another positive is that PDE acknowledges standardized tests are not the only possible measure of success. Moreover, some measures of that success can be fairly determined at the district level.

Personally, I wish they went further with this. The authors of the report admit that colleges and employers rarely look at standardized test scores. Report card grades are a much better predictor of future success at both the college and career level. PDE cites three different peer-reviewed academic studies that come to this conclusion, but state education officials don’t have the bravery to likewise conclude that standardized assessments are unnecessary. Instead they play around at the edges, allow choice among standardized assessments and a complicated metric relying heavily on these assessments.

Moreover, as refreshing as it is to have state government admit that we can trust our local school districts to make some decisions about their students, why can’t we go one step further and say local districts can determine who deserves a diploma, in the first place? For centuries this is exactly what our schools did. In fact, the majority of people currently holding down jobs were determined to be ready for those jobs or their college experiences by just those same local school districts. Is America so incompetent that it needs standardized test corporations to bless everyone before being allowed to graduate? Would we be a better nation if everyone had to pass a standardized test to qualify for the workforce?

In short, the report from PDE certainly represents an improvement on the current Keystone Exam graduation requirement. However, it shows a real lack of courage and conviction by state functionaries.

There is no academic reason to have a graduation requirement beyond traditional coursework. It will only suppress the graduation rate as it has in other states in which it has been enacted. If we really wanted to increase the quality of high school graduates, we’d invest in them. We’d lower class size. We’d provide a wide curriculum. We’d provide equitable funding for children at different points on the socioeconomic scale. We’d provide services and tutoring for our most disadvantaged students.

Instead, we’re still just putting up more hurdles and demanding kids pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Something clearly must be done.

If the legislature doesn’t make changes, the requirement to pass all three Keystone Exams will apply to current high school freshman and sophomores.

There’s never been an exit exam like this in Pennsylvania before – in fact, almost the entire workforce, business community and state leadership somehow managed to get by without one. But whatever; these children today need to prove themselves.

Kids, passing your courses isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to pass a test. Several of them in fact.

Never mind that you have to pass tests to succeed in your courses. THOSE tests are designed by teachers. You have to pass a real test – something designed by a corporation.

As big business continues to floods our lawmakers with campaign cash, somewhere along the way our representatives decided to spend a truckload of our tax dollars on big business – to make tests. Can’t imagine why.

In 2014, the legislature decided you’d have to pass a series of 10 Keystone Exams in core subjects. Fail even one of them and you’d get nothing but a certificate of attendance. So 12-13 years of schooling and you get this:

“Hey! Remember Paulie?”
 
 
“Yeah?”
 
 
“He was here.”

However, creating 10 brand new tests costs an awful lot of money. Pennsylvania shelled out more than $200 million before lawmakers said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and stopped with just the three we have. But before even these could be made permanent prerequisites of graduation, the scores came in.

It wasn’t good. About half of all students in both traditional public schools and charter schools couldn’t pass them all.

Why?

Well, the Common Core aligned tests were of dubious quality and zero validity based on actual educational research. Also, we cut off educational supports by slashing school budgets by almost $1 billion a year. Oh, and we spent way more money on rich students than poor students earning us the dubious distinction of having the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

So what was the state to do – move forward and withhold diplomas for half of all students? Or Toss out the tests and move on?

Instead, lawmakers came up with a unanimous compromise – more time. The legislature decided to pause the Keystone requirement for two years in order to better study what could be done.

And now PDE has it’s test heavy solution to move forward.

People of conscience need to stand up and oppose any kind of additional exit exam in Pennsylvania. Parents, teachers and students need to band together. School board directors need to pass resolutions. Thoughtful lawmakers need to put forward progressive legislation.
The resistance has already begun.

State Senator: Get Ready to Sue the PA Department of Education Over Common Core Testing

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Pennsylvania State Sen. Andrew Dinniman is mad as Hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

The West Chester Democrat is furious at the state Department of Education (PDE) over the Keystone Exams.

In February, the legislature unanimously passed a law to delay for two years using the Keystones as a graduation requirement for public school students. The exams will still be given to high school students in Algebra I, Biology and English, but passing them is not necessary to receive a diploma. During this time, the legislature is supposed to investigate alternate assessments above and beyond standardized testing.

However, Dinniman sent out an email to supporters this week claiming PDE is “blatantly ignoring the law and issuing directives to local school districts to use the exam if they want to for graduation.”

This goes against the delay, says Dinniman. The legislature is unsure requiring the Keystone Exam is a good idea, yet the state Senator contends the current administration is advising districts to move forward anyway.

Under the old law that was put on hold by the delay, if parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing, students had to complete a Project Based Assessment. However, even though there is no test-based graduation requirement for current seniors, Dinniman says PDE still is forcing these children to complete Project Based Assessments.

“It appears that PDE is forcing the children of parents who opted out to take the Project Based Assessment, whose use is currently suspended by the legislature,” he says.

“There seems to be no respect by PDE for the rights of parents concerning their own children.”

Dinniman, who also serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, has long been a critic of the Keystone Exams. He lead the charge to delay their implementation.

Now that PDE seems committed to the project despite concerns by legislators, he is asking for parents and other concerned citizens to contact him about suing the organization.

“If you know parents or organizations who might want to take PDE to court or file amicus briefs, let me know…  This is a matter of great importance. A number of us have been working for years against excessive testing and have serious concerns about Common Core.”

He will hold an open meeting for those concerned about the issue on Monday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 pm in his district office along One North Church Street in West Chester.

One of the issues at stake is the exorbitant costs of the Keystone and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. With education budgets shrinking at the federal, state and local level, this money diverted to huge testing corporations could be better spent elsewhere.

Since 2008, the Commonwealth has spent $1 billion to proctor, grade and create new versions of the PSSA and the new Common Core-aligned Keystone Exams. Of that figure, $741 million went to Data Recognition Corporation.

Dinniman included in his email an explanation of the Commonwealth’s contract with Data Recognition Corp., a chart showing how much has been paid to the company, a list of materials PDE requested from the company but that has not yet been provided and an article written by education historian Diane Ravitch published in the New York Times explaining why these tests are troublesome.

In 2013, the state Conference of NAACP Branches issued a statement condemning the Keystone graduation requirement in extremely strong terms.

The organization called it a “present day form of Eugenics”, “a human rights violation”, “a clandestine social movement that strips children of their dignity and self worth” and that it would deprive impoverished and minority students  “of decent income, decent food, decent homes, and hopeful prospects as well as the security of justice.”

The statement can be read in full here.

In the halls of state government, Dinniman has been one of the most vocal critics of high stakes testing and national academic standards.

“I have been fighting against the use of these standardized tests as the sole determinants of high school graduation since they were first proposed by the previous [Corbett] administration in 2012.”

“Strong standards and effective assessments are needed in our schools, but they must come with the necessary resources and support to be implemented in a way that does not negatively impact both students and taxpayers,” he says.

Chester County, where Dinniman is from, has been a hotbed of testing criticism. Located in the southeastern most part of the state, parents, teachers and students publicly spoke out against the exams. Almost all school boards in the county passed resolutions opposing the Keystones and 58 superintendents and Intermediate Unit Directors up through the Philadelphia suburbs also expressed opposition.

If the delay had not been approved, this year’s seniors would have been required to pass all three Keystone Exams in order to graduate. Now the exams won’t be a graduation requirement until the 2018-19 school year.

The federal government still requires the exams be given for evaluative purposes, but it was the Republican dominated Tom Corbett administration that went the extra step of making the exams necessary to receive a diploma.

The delay is supposed to provide additional time to resolve consequences of implementing the exams. This means investigating and reporting on the following:

    • Alternative methods for students to demonstrate proficiency for graduation in addition to the Keystone Exams and project-based assessments.
    • Improving and expediting the evaluation of the project-based assessments.
    • Ensuring that students are not prohibited from participating in vocational-technical education or elective courses or programs as a requirement of supplemental instruction.

Moreover, the newly passed federal K-12 education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows the Commonwealth even more leeway to implement fairer and more affective means of assessment, Dinniman says.

“Until now, education policy has been largely dominated by regulations implemented by the State Board of Education in accordance with the federal government. Some of these regulations seemed to be enacted with little to no consideration of fiscal impacts or educational value,” Dinniman said.

“However, the state legislature has a Constitutional duty and responsibility to oversee and provide for ‘a thorough and efficient system of public education.’ Going forward, I believe the legislature will be more aggressive in reasserting its role in the process.”

Dinniman can be reached by phone at 610-692-2112 (District Office) and 717-787-5709 (Harrisburg Office).

He can be reached by email here.

He is on Facebook and Twitter.

Below is the full text of Dinniman’s Email:


(Source: optoutpa.blogspot.com)

 

To Supporters of Ending Common Core Exams in Pennsylvania:

Despite Act 1 of 2016, which suspended any use of the Keystone exams or the Project Based Assessments for graduation purposes during the two year period of 2016-18, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is blatantly ignoring the law and issuing directives to local school districts to use the exam if they want to for graduation.

It certainly appears that PDE has shown their solid commitment to the Common Core testing process and the continued collection of data.  They don’t seem to care about or respect the law.  This is not government by the elected legislature but government by the bureaucracy.

You will be interested to learn the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, since 2008, spent $1.1 billion on these Common Core tests, with $741 million of that going to one testing company, Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).

Please view the supporting material at the following links:
1. An explanation of the Data Recognition Corp. (DRC) contracts.

2. A chart showing the DRC contracts, which come to $741,158,039.60, and the total paid to date of $440,512,625.69.

3. A listing of material requested from PDE but, as of this date, not provided.
4. A column from the July 23, 2016 New York Times providing background on these Common Core Exams, which in Pennsylvania are the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Additionally, it appears that PDE is forcing the children of parents who opted out to take the Project Based Assessment, whose use is currently suspended by the legislature.  There seems to be no respect by PDE for the rights of parents concerning their own children.

So the question now is “what will we do about this situation?”  If you know parents or organizations who might want to take PDE to court or file amicus briefs, let me know.

In the meantime, I am having a meeting for those concerned about PDE’s actions in my district office, One North Church Street, West Chester, on Monday, September 12th, 2016 at 7:30 p.m.

This is a matter of great importance.  A number of us have been working for years against excessive testing and have serious concerns about Common Core.  Please invite your friends to join in the September 12th meeting.

Respectfully,

Andrew E. Dinniman

State Senator, 19th District

Paying Back School Kids on the Installment Plan – PA Budget Shenanigans

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Hey, Kids!

 

We’re your Pennsylvania Legislature, and we’re here to help!

 

We just passed a new state budget that puts $200 million more in your classrooms! Isn’t that great!?

 

Yeah. We know. Your public schools are crumbling to dust, and your school books are falling apart, and you’re stuffed into overcrowded classrooms, and…

 

But here’s some more money so it’s all better now!

 

Um. No. It actually doesn’t heal that huge chunk of cash we slashed from public schools six years ago. We’ve been giving you back about $100-200 million a year for a while now, so with this new budget… uh… We’re actually about $150 million short. But we’re good for it!

 

No, that doesn’t take into account inflation. Or compounding costs. Or the billions you should have had but did without in the intervening years. Or the loans you had to take out to stay operational while we argued over all this.

 

Jeez. I guess that means your schools are still deep in the hole, huh?

 

Well, don’t you worry. Next year we’re bound to give you just a little bit more. At this rate, we should have paid you back all that money we took in about 20 years!

 

You’re welcome!

 

The 2016-17 budget was passed in two motions. A spending plan was ratified at the end of June, and a revenue package to pay for it was passed on Wednesday. That’s only 13 days beyond the state-mandated deadline for doing so. It’s a huge improvement over last year’s budget, which was 9 months late!

 

One of the largest sticking points was an initiative to allow charter schools to proliferate exponentially without oversight or state control. It was tabled until a later date. Legislators now go on summer break.

 

What’s that, sonny boy?

 

You wonder how Pennsylvania stacks up to other states in terms of education funding? Well according to federal education data, we’re number one!

 

No. Not number one as in the best. Number one as in the worst. Our state has the worst funding inequality in the nation!

 

You see, even though we’ve been adding more money into classrooms, it hasn’t been done equitably.

 

When our previous Governor, Corbett, and the Republican-controlled legislature slashed almost $1 billion annually in education funding back in 2011, we didn’t take it away from all schools equally. We took the lion’s share from the poorest schools. But when we started putting it back piece-by-piece, we didn’t give it all back to those impoverished districts.

 

It’s all kind of complicated, but since you asked…

 

We used to do something called the charter school reimbursement.

 

This was money set aside to help schools deal with the extra cost of having a charter school pop up in their neighborhood. Charter schools siphon off loads of funding so they can operate without actually reducing the operating expenses of traditional public schools all that much. So when a charter school opens, it usually means kids left in the traditional public school suffer.

 

When the Corbett cuts went through, we got rid of that charter school reimbursement all together. Now those schools – most of them in impoverished areas – have to make up that money some other way.

 

The funding formula? Yes, the legislature did create a new funding formula – a more fair way to distribute education monies across the Commonwealth. However, it’s got some kinks in it.

 

First, we didn’t want to take away any extra money rich schools were getting that they don’t need, so we made sure to grandfather that money in. I know it means less for schools that really need it, but… you know… rich people.

 

Second, the funding formula only adds $150 million for the poorest districts. Our current Governor, the guy who was elected after Corbett was kicked out of Harrisburg for shortchanging school children, Gov. Wolf, he wanted to include more. But the Republican controlled legislature wouldn’t allow it. They said it would send too much money to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and you know what kind of kids go there? Right? Blac… I mean, poor ones.

 

You know, the only way we get away with this is because Pennsylvanians aren’t very good at math.

 

You see, we’ve been playing a shell game with numbers. We add fixed costs like pensions into the mix to make it look like we’re spending more than ever on public schools. But when it comes to money that actually goes to the classroom, nope!

 

It’s like replacing your tires and wondering why you have no money for gas.

 

Specifically, you kids lost $841 million for your classrooms between 2010-11 and 2011-12. That’s why you lost 30,000 teachers, guidance counselors, nurses and other school staff. That’s why you lost extra-curriculars, arts and music, foreign language, field trips and why class size exploded. Heck! Several kids died for lack of having a full-time school nurse!

 

By the time voters booted Corbett, he and the Republican legislature were spending $579 million less in 2014-15 as opposed to 2010-11. And now with Gov. Wolf and the threat of voters booting lawmakers who thought they were safe even in their highly gerrymandered districts, we’ve got that gap down to about $150 million.

 

How are we paying for this? Uh. We’re taxing the poor and using one-time funding streams.

 

We’ve raised a $1 per pack tax on cigarettes. We’ve got liquor privatization, internet gaming, a licensing fee for a second Philadelphia casino, and a tax amnesty program.

 

More than half is made up of one-time sources. That means next year we’re going to have another budget deficit to fix just like we did this year. But our fiscal conservatives will just do the same thing and put it on the credit card. That’s what it means right? Fiscal conservative?

 

The good news is we didn’t have to raise taxes on rich people. We’re one of the “terrible ten” states that relies on the poor to pay a larger percentage of the tax burden than the rich, and we’re darn proud of it!

 

Sure we could have instituting a severance tax on natural gas; closed the Delaware tax loophole; and slightly increased taxes on those who are making bank, but those are our real constituents. Those are the ones who pay us the big bucks. You expect us to inconvenience them for you poor people!?

 

Ha!

 

Consider that a lesson, kiddos. We aren’t here for you or your parents. Now take this measly bit of education funding we owe you and be happy with it. If you’re lucky, next year we might give you back the last few hundred million we took. Then you’ll only be down due to rising costs, inflation and seven years of neglect!

 

PA House: Online Courses for the Poor. Teachers for the Rich.

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Pennsylvania has a long history of under-resourcing its public schools.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay has a solution.

The Republican representing Washington and Allegheny Counties envisions a world where poor kids learn from computers and rich kids learn from flesh-and-blood teachers.

It’s all in his proposed legislation, H.B. 1915, passed by the state House on Monday. It now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation would assign the Department of Education the task of organizing a collection of online courses for use by students in grades 6-12. Some classes might be created by the state and others would be made by third parties with approval for state use. If anyone so desired, the courses could be utilized by anyone in public school, private school, homeschool and beyond. The online learning clearinghouse thus created would be called the “Supplemental Online Course Initiative.”

But what does this have to do with impoverished schools?

According to the bill, itself, state education officials would:

“Upon request, provide assistance to school districts which have been declared to be in financial recovery status or identified for financial watch status under Article VI-A by facilitating the school districts’ search for low-cost or no-cost online course options.”

In other words, this bill provides an alternative for schools where the local tax base isn’t enough to fund traditional classes presided over by living, breathing teachers.

In the distant past, the state used to made up some of the slack to level the playing field for students born into poverty. However, for the last five years, the legislature has forced the poor to make due with almost $1 billion less in annual state education funds. This has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, the loss of extra-curriculars, increased class size, and plummeting academic achievement.

While the majority of voters are crying out for the legislature to fix this blatant inequality and disregard for students’ civil rights, Ortitay’s proposed bill lets lawmakers off the hook. It allows legislators to provide a low quality alternative for the poor without necessitating any substantial influx of funds.

Here, Jaquan and Carlos. You can learn from this YouTube video. Billy and Betty will be in the classroom learning from a trained professional with an advanced degree in the subject.

None of this bodes well for state budget negotiations going on right now to finalize a Commonwealth spending plan by the end of June. Those expecting a proposal to heal the funding cuts most likely will be disappointed – AGAIN.

Nevertheless, the bill still needs to clear the Senate and a signature from Gov. Tom Wolf before it can become law.

In the House, the bill passed 128-66 with 8 abstentions. Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the measure, it was opposed only by Democrats.

If the clearinghouse becomes a reality, it would be implemented in two phases. In the 2017-18 school year, it would only offer courses on subjects tested by state Keystone Exams at no cost to local districts. Then in the following year, it would expand to include courses not tested on state mandated exams that can be purchased by local districts.

If the Keystone-aligned courses are free to local districts, who pays for them? Certainly these online classes aren’t being constructed, monitored and graded as a public charity.

According to the bill, the Department of Education should:

“Explore the possibility for Federal and private funding to support the clearinghouse.”

However, if the state can’t find someone else to foot the bill, the cost will be born by Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Specifically:

“There is hereby established a restricted revenue account in the General Fund to be known as the Online Course Clearinghouse Restricted Account…”

“The funds in the account are hereby appropriated to the department on a continuing basis for the purposes of paying expenses incurred by the department in carrying out its duties relating to the administration of the clearinghouse under this article.”

How much taxpayer money will be allocated to this initiative? It doesn’t say. Will this money come from an increase in education spending or will it cannibalize other education line items? Again, it doesn’t say. Apparently such decisions would be made while drafting the state budget – presumably not the one being hashed out now, but the 2017-18 spending plan.

“This initiative will give public schools, which might not otherwise be able to afford similar educational opportunities, the flexibility and ability to make use of online learning [for] the betterment of their students,” Ortitay said in a press release.

However, online courses have an infamous history throughout the Commonwealth, and, indeed, the nation.

All courses collected in the clearinghouse would be subject to approval by the state Department of Education. But cyber charter schools fall under the same jurisdiction often with disastrous results.

Internet-based classwork – like that which would be collected in the clearinghouse – makes up the curriculum at cyber charter schools. Moreover, these online schools have a proven track record of failure and fraud.

A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools and 72 days less of reading instruction.

In addition, researchers found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

They have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, according to researchers.

And THAT kind of curriculum is what the state House voted to increase using public money!

One of the biggest problem with online courses is the low quality of what’s being offered. Here’s how a cyber charter teacher describes the reading curriculum at his school:

“Most cyber schools get their curriculum from K12, a company started by William Bennett, a former federal Secretary of Education. My school gets the majority of its high school material from a mail order company called Aventa.

When Aventa creates a course it is fairly bare bones. They choose a textbook from one of the major textbook companies, and cut it up into lessons. The lesson will contain a few paragraphs introducing the topic, they will have the students read a section of a chapter, they will ask the student to do a few problems from the book, and lastly, there will be some form of graded assessment, taken from textbook review problems. That is all.”

This is like giving out nothing but worksheets and expecting high academic performance. Here. Read the book, answer the questions at the back, and call it a day.

Another problem is high turnover for students taking online classes. Though learning exclusively through the Internet seems novel at first, few students continue taking these courses more than a year or two.

This is especially true for younger students. It’s hard to imagine many 6th graders with the tenacity to persevere without anything but the most limited human interaction and adult supervision.

Advocates claim this is healthy experimentation. Students are trying out different means to accommodate their learning styles.

However, when students invariably fail at online education and return to their traditional public school hopelessly behind their peers, taxpayers bear the cost of remediating them. And their low academic performance becomes a reflection on the public school system where it is used as an excuse to denigrate teachers and close more brick and mortar buildings.

The online educational clearinghouse is supposed to be monitored and regulated by the state Department of Education – just as it does for state cyber schools.

Unfortunately, state budget cuts in K-12 education have left the department seriously understaffed and unable to do this job effectively.
Just look at the almost weekly news reports of fraud at state cyber schools.

For instance, PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta allegedly stole at least $8 million in public dollars only a few years ago. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters.

Why would we want to increase the opportunities for such fraud by encouraging students to take more online classes?

This bill is at best a distraction.

It’s a Band Aid for the fiscal irresponsibility of our lawmakers toward our public schools. It’s an excuse so that we’ll let them continue short changing our children for at least another year with yet another budget lacking in education funding.

This does not compute.

Pennsylvania Breathes Sigh of Relief As Crappy GOP Budget Becomes Law

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The majority won in Pennsylvania this week.

After 9 months of bipartisan bickering, the state finally has a 2015-16 budget.

And it’s almost exactly the same spending plan favored by the majority.

The majority of lawmakers, that is.

Voters, however, wanted something much different.

They wanted it to heal almost $1 billion in cuts to public schools. They wanted it to be balanced and not to spend more than it takes in. They wanted everyone to pay their fair share.

But lawmakers disagreed and took the entire Commonwealth on an extended game of chicken while schools had to scrimp and borrow just to stay open.

Like any public spectacle, the conflict centered around two teams: Republicans and Democrats.

The Republicans refused to raise taxes, even after they had previously reduced state revenue to a place where it could no longer provide the services taxpayers expect. The Democrats wanted to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations who were getting away without paying their fair share, thereby increasing services to a point citizens have come to expect.

The result? Nine months of finger pointing.

The GOP-controlled legislature passed the same budget over-and-over again, while Gov. Tom Wolf (a Democrat) kept vetoing it.

There was a brief moment when they almost agreed on a compromise budget, but GOP lawmakers just couldn’t stomach a tax increase if it didn’t include an almost definitely Unconstitutional measure to shortchange state workers pensions.

This week Wolf agreed to let pretty much the same Republican budget become law without his signature. Otherwise, some of the state’s more than 500 school districts would have had to close. He said he hopes to focus on next year’s budget which is due at the end of June.

Wolf came into office on a tidal wave of support from across the state to unseat the previous Republican governor. The people couldn’t have been more clear – fairly fund education and get the fiscal ship in order. But since state legislative districts were redrawn under the previous administration to gerrymander lawmakers, voters were silenced.

Which brings us to the inescapable question: why are voters putting up with this?

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

The above quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sums up the proper relationship between governors and governed.

Our lawmakers aren’t afraid of us. Are we afraid of them?

The budget passed this week does increase education by $200 million. but that’s still far below what Republicans cut five years ago. Apparently, they aren’t afraid voters will make them pay a price for this. They don’t think we have the guts to unseat them in their safe gerrymandered districts.

They figure that since most of the voters in their districts are registered Republicans, they won’t have to answer for shortchanging school children – especially those at poor districts which receive more state support.

They figure other Republicans like themselves don’t care about poor black kids. Are they right? You tell me, Pennsylvania!

Likewise, they think GOP constituents don’t care if the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. They think we’ll buy the lie that business works kind of like getting pandas to mate at the zoo. We have to do everything we can to make them comfortable or else no little panda cubs.

So the rich and corporations get sweetheart deals while the rest of us – even Republicans – have to tighten our belts. What say you, Pennsylvania? You buying that?

While no one thinks the budget should be unbalanced, they are betting you will let them push the blame onto the other party. There is a $2 million deficit because Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes. Never mind that they opposed measures to fairly make up the difference. Never mind that they have no problem cutting services so that you don’t get your taxes worth from state government.

Well, Pennsylvania? Are you swallowing that whooper!?

We’ve become used to blaming our politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans love to rag on our elected officials.

But it’s not really their fault.

It’s ours.

We’ve let it get this way.

Sure, the odds are stacked against us. Corporate money floods legislators campaigns so they can buy endless ads convincing us to vote against our own interests. Legislative districts are drawn so that a minority of Pennsylvanians get a majority say.

But we still have the last vestiges of a functioning Democracy here. We still hold elections, and they still have consequences.

If lawmakers felt like they would be held accountable, it would change their actions. Why do you think they didn’t enact that terrible pension plan last year when the GOP controlled both the legislature and the governor’s mansion?

They were afraid of taking the blame. They were afraid voters of both parties wouldn’t put up with it. Republicans only had the guts to push it through if they could force Democrats to vote for it, too. That way, people would have no choice but to blame both parties and not just the GOP.

We need to make them feel that same fear for under-resourcing our schools. When Republican voters in gerrymandered districts show up to their legislators offices en mass and demand equitable school funding, that’s when things will change.

When Republican voters care as much about poor black kids as they do about rich white kids, that’s when things will change. When Tea Party citizens demand the rich pay as fair a share of the tax burden as they do, then things will change.

But so long as we pretend politics is a sporting event and you have to stand by your team, things will remain as they are.

Democrat. Republican. Tea Party. Progressive. These are nothing but labels that divide us. Throw them away.

Turn off the TV. Stop listening to talk radio. Crumble up the op-ed.

Go to the voting booth with the only thing that matters.

Vote with your heart.

Entire State of Pennsylvania Held Hostage by Handful of Ideologues Refusing Budget Compromise

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Pennsylvania’s hostage crisis goes into Day 258 Saturday.

Republican lawmakers continue to block the passage of a state budget that was required by law at the end of June 2015.

In fact, Gov. Tom Wolf – a Democrat – released his spending plan this week for the fiscal year 2016-17 – yet the previous year’s budget still has not been approved!

Even after numerous difficult concessions made by Democrats, Republicans still decline approval of any spending plan but their own.

I call this a “hostage crisis” because their actions are not supported by the majority of Pennsylvanians.

The overwhelming majority of residents want a budget. The overwhelming majority of voters cast ballots for Democrats in the last election, but the GOP remains in control of the legislature purely because of gerrymandering. That’s why the majority of residents booted out the former Republican Governor and overwhelmingly approved Democrat Wolf to replace him.

Meanwhile, legislative Democrats lead by Gov. Wolf have made numerous concessions to the opposition. For instance, the Keystone state is one of the richest in the nation in shale deposits yet it is the ONLY one not to tax the industry. That’s right: Ohio, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia, Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, Kansas, Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Utah and Alabama all have a severance tax. Only Pennsylvania does not.

GOP legislators receive massive donations from the energy industry and have demanded gas drilling remain untaxed. Though Wolf promised to make shale drillers pay their fair share, the Democrats have conceded the issue in the name of compromise.

Our posterity will look back at us and wonder why we let gas drillers poison our environment. But we aren’t even asking questions about the industry’s impact on our water and soil. Instead, we’re fighting over whether to tax them or not! And still there is no budget!

Additionally, Republicans demand we further dismantle our urban school districts like Philadelphia City Schools. The GOP insists on accountability from the district while making sure no one actually responsible for the schools’ hardships will ever actually be held accountable. The district has been systematically underfunded. Administrative decisions have been taken over mostly by the state. Yet somehow the solution is further privatizing the poorest buildings without any transparency from the for-profit companies that will take over.

Democrats have given in to this outrageous ultimatum. And still we have no budget!

No amount of public bloodletting has been enough for Republicans. As each demand has been met, a new one is leveled. The latest example is a GOP commandment to shortchange state workers pensions.

Republicans insist the Democrats allow them to reduce pension payments to new and current employees. Never mind that this is illegal. Pensions are bills for services rendered. You can’t sign a contract promising to pay X and then years later decide to give less. Pensions are part of a trade off state workers make when they take the job. In essence, state workers agree to lower wages than they would receive in the private sector in exchange for a safe, reliable pension when they retire. You can’t renege on that.

A tentative agreement was reached to reduce benefits for only new state employees, but it failed. Never mind that this measure would achieve no cost savings for a generation. Never mind that it would reduce the quality of employee who would even apply to work for the state. Never mind that just last year Republicans – who controlled both the executive and legislative branches – could have enacted any bill they wanted. But they are only pushing the issue this year to force Democrats to take partial responsibility for legislation they didn’t have the courage to enact alone.

This is not partisanship. These are facts.

On the local scene, there are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that are willing to put party aside and work for the common good. But at the state level, Republicans almost exclusively are destroying the value of our government. It shouldn’t exactly be surprising that people who got into office campaigning that we don’t need government turn out to do a bad job of running it.

The national banking and investing world have made it quite clear. Standard & Poor’s cited the state’s budget impasse as the reason it withdrew an A rating from the Commonwealth’s public school system. Moody’s Investors Service likewise downgraded the state’s general obligation rating. The legislature’s actions are destroying our national reputation and ability to get things done.

The major sticking point is that Wolf and the Democrats are asking Republicans to restore the almost $1 billion in budget cuts made to education for the last 4 years and continuing through this year’s budget temper tantrum. The GOP had no problem robbing public schools of this money when they also controlled the Governor’s mansion. They are just now adamantly opposed to returning it.

Make no mistake. This has nothing to do with protecting residents’ taxes. Blocking the passage of a budget forces local municipalities and school districts to do state legislator’s dirty work for them and raise local taxes. Legislative Republicans are shirking their duties and pointing fingers elsewhere.

After even worse actions by Republicans in Michigan, it’s hard not to wonder what has become of the GOP? Poisoning the town of Flint? Systematically disinvesting in Detroit Schools? And now in Pennsylvania refusing to pass a fiscal budget!? This isn’t your father’s GOP!

Are state Republicans even a political organization anymore? With actions like these, don’t they more resemble home-grown terrorists? If ISIL took over Harrisburg and shut down the state budget, it would be an act of war. They are spreading chaos for chaos’ sake.

If it weren’t for Gov. Wolf releasing emergency funds through an executive order, many schools would already be closed. Many public services would be shut down. But this can’t last much longer. The Governor can’t govern alone indefinitely.

It is time for the hostage crisis to end. If you live in a Republican-controlled legislative district, you need to let your representative know that you want compromise. Send your legislator back to Harrisburg. Don’t let any of them return to their home districts until the impasse is over. Heck! Thousands should march outside of the capital building keeping a quorum present until the matter is resolved. None of them should get to leave until they DO. THEIR. JOBS.

Until then, all of us in Pennsylvania remain at the mercy of a handful of ideological cowards while our schools go wanting and public services rot on the vine.