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.

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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?

Charter Schools and Voucher Schools are Virtually Identical

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The stark orange monolith that was Donald Trump is starting to crumble.

And with it so are the dreams of corporate education reformers everywhere.

Where in previous administrations they could pass off their policies as Democratic or Republican depending on whichever way the wind blows, today their brand has been so damaged by Trump’s advocacy, they fear it may never recover.

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they could champion both charter schools and school vouchers with impunity. But now the privatizers and profiteers hiding in progressive clothing are trying desperately to rebrand.

Not only is Trump’s voucher plan deeply unpopular, but the public has already begun to associate any kind of school privatization with a doomed President.

So like cockroaches, neoliberals have begun to skitter to one type of privatization over another. Fake Democrats hide beneath unfettered charter school expansion. Bought-and-sold Republicans cling to the idea that we should spend taxpayer dollars on private and parochial schools.

But is there a real substantial difference between each of these so-called “choice” schemes? Or are they both just scams when compared with traditional public schools?

THE DIFFERENCES

Charter Schools and Private Schools are basically the same thing.

The biggest difference between the two is funding.

Charter schools are completely funded by tax dollars. Private schools – even when school vouchers are used – often need to be subsidized by parents. For instance, many private schools charge tuition of $30,000 – $40,000 a year. Vouchers rarely provide more than $6,000. So at best they bring the cost down but still make it impossible for most students to attend private schools.

Sure they may start as an effort to allow only impoverished children to use tax dollars towards private and parochial school tuition. But they soon grow to include middle class and wealthy children, thus partially subsidizing attendance at the most exclusive schools in the country for those families who can already afford it.

Parochial schools, meanwhile, are exactly the same except for one meaningful difference. They teach religion.

Their entire curriculum comes from a distinctly religious point of view. They indoctrinate youth into a way of seeing the world that is distinctly non-secular.

Progressives complain that using tax dollars to pay for student tuition at such schools – even only partial tuition – violates a foundational principal of our nation.

Using public money to pay for religious teaching has historically been interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This is further exacerbated in many parochial schools where religious teaching includes a blatant political bias toward conservatism. Children at many of these schools are taught that supply side economics, voter disenfranchisement and prejudice are normative bedrock truths.

These are the main distinctions between voucher and charter schools.

In short, they’re not all exactly the same. And corporate reform apologist are trying to rebuild their brand on these split hairs.

But the similarities between these types of school are much more striking.

THE SIMILARITIES

The biggest commonality between these types of educational institutions is how they’re run. Unlike traditional public schools – which are governed by duly-elected school boards – charter, private and parochial schools are overseen by private interests. They are administered by independent management firms. They rarely have elected school boards. Their operators rarely make decisions in public, and their budgets and other documents are not open to review by taxpayers. This is true despite the fact that they are funded to varying degrees by public tax dollars.

So in all three cases, these schools are run privately, but taxpayers pick up the tab.

It’s ironic. Sending kids to charters, private and parochial schools with public money is called school choice. However, each of these types of schools gives taxpayers much less choice about how their money is being spent.

The community funds the school, but almost all decisions are made by people outside of the community – people appointed, in fact, by bureaucrats or business managers.

To be sure, parents can express their displeasure of administrative decisions by disenrolling their children in the school. But beyond this nuclear option, they are powerless. Even more troubling, taxpayers without children or with children who do not attend these schools have no say whatsoever about how their money is spent.

And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even really allow the parents to choose which schools their children attend. They can put in a request for their kids to attend a choice school, but enrollment decisions are made by these same private equity managers. In short, administrators make the ultimate choice – not parents.

If the religious school doesn’t want to accept your child for whatever reason including operators’ disapproval of your religious beliefs, they don’t have to accept him. If the private school doesn’t want to accept your child based on race, gender or nationality, they don’t have to accept him. If the charter school doesn’t want to accept your child because of bad grades or troublesome behaviors, they don’t have to accept him.

The traditional public school, however, cannot refuse a child who lives in district borders for any of these reasons. In effect, school choice really isn’t about parental choice. It’s about increasing choice for the operators of privatized schools – letting them choose their students and how to spend your money without any meaningful input from you.

And it’s true at all three types of school!

Those are pretty considerable similarities. Moreover, they highlight major differences between these so-called choice schools and traditional public schools.

This is important because we don’t even have to get into the academic records of individual schools. The way each type of school is structured shows the clear inferiority of choice schools compared to traditional public schools.

By their very structure, public schools give parents and taxpayers much more agency in children’s education and how taxpayer money is spent.

Second, the latitude for school administrators to perpetrate fraud on the public is maximized in so-called choice schools and minimized in public schools. This doesn’t mean public schools are perfect, but it is much better to have a school under public scrutiny and local control than otherwise. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of charter school scandals popping up in the news every day, where charters close suddenly, money is misspent on luxury items for operators that have nothing to do with education, and – especially in cyber charters – the quality of education students receive is literally lower than having no formal education at all.

Finally, if public schools struggle, it is almost always due to a lack of equitable funding and a surplus of impoverished students. It is no accident that poor students receive less resources and larger class sizes than middle class or wealthy ones. Nor is it an accident that we judge the effectiveness of schools primarily on standardized tests which are so good at highlighting the results of lack of resources rather than any academic deficiency.

If we spent our education dollars ensuring equitable resources instead of funneling tax dollars to charter, private and parochial schools, we would better increase the quality of children’s education. But for the last few decades that has not been the goal of education policy. It has instead been to enrich these same privatized school managers and investors – the corporate education reform industry. Nor is it a coincidence that this industry and its subsidiaries counts itself as major donors to both political parties.

Before she was elevated to Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was exactly that – a billionaire mega-donor pushing school privatization while getting richer off investments in the same. Now that she’s driving school vouchers off a cliff in the Trump train, her co-conspirators are getting nervous.

Neoliberal Democrats may try to save the movement by claiming charter schools are completely different. But they aren’t. They are fundamentally the same.

The public sees the clear similarities between these kinds of schools. And much of that is thanks to the incompetent boobery of Donald J. Trump.

Koch Bros Funded Publication Criticizes – ME – on School Choice!

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You know you’ve made it when the Koch Brothers are funding a critique of your work.

Most of the time I just toil in obscurity.

I sit behind my computer furiously pounding away at the keys sending my little blog entries out onto the Interwebs never expecting much of a reply.

Sure I get fervent wishes for my death.

And the occasional racist diatribe that only tangentially has anything to do with what I wrote.

But a response from a conservative Web magazine funded by the world’s most famous billionaire brothers!?

I guess this is what the big time feels like!

The article appeared in The Federalist, an Internet publication mostly known for anti-LGBT diatribes and climate change denial. But I had the audacity to write something called “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.”

I had to be taken down.

And they had just the person to do it – far right religious author Mary C. Tillotson.

You may remember her from such hard hitting pieces as “How Praying a Novena Helped Me Process This Election,” “Sometimes, Holiness is Boring,” and “Why It’s Idiotic to Blame Christians for the Orlando Attack.”
This week her article is called “Top 10 Reasons HuffPo Doesn’t Get School Choice.”

Which is kinda’ wrong from the get-go.

Yes, I published my article in the Huffington Post, but it is not exactly indicative of the editorial slant of that publication. Sure, HuffPo leans left, but it routinely published articles that are extremely favorable to school choice. Heck! Michelle Rhee is a freakin’ contributor!

So I don’t think it’s fair to blame HuffPo for my ideas on school choice. A better title might have been “Top 10 Reasons Singer Doesn’t Get School Choice,” but who the Heck is Singer and why should anyone care!?

Then she gives a quick summary of how my whole piece is just plain wrong: “Steven Singer of The Huffington Post would have you believe that when parents have more choices, they have fewer choices.”

That’s like writing “Steven Singer of Consumer Reports would have you believe buying a used car means you may not be able to get anywhere.”

I stand by that statement. They’re both scams, Mary. The perpetrators of school choice want to convince you to choose a school that gives you fewer choices than public schools do. Just like a used car salesmen may try to convince you to buy a clunker that won’t get you from point A to B.

Claim 1: ‘Voucher programs almost never provide students with full tuition.’

She says I’m wrong because I’m right. She basically admits most vouchers won’t pay the full tuition but that it’s still a help.

Okay. But parents have already paid for a full K-12 public school education that they will not have to supplement at all. That’s a much better value.

Moreover, Mary, you pretend that the cost of the voucher is going to pay for at least 2/3 of private school tuition. This isn’t true. Most of Donald Trump’s kids went to the Hill School in Pennsylvania for more than $55,000 a year. A thousand or two isn’t going to help much.

But Mary disagrees. Most rich folks aren’t eligible for voucher programs, she says, so the hyper elite academies are off the table.

It’s true that most vouchers are given to poor students, but that’s only temporary. The goal is to increase them to middle and upper class students. It’s the first thing they do after initially limiting vouchers to the poor. And she knows this. She’s read Milton Friedman, the conservative nutjob who thought up this scheme to destroy public schools. “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system…” he said. How? “Privately conducted schools… can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools and mixed schools,” Friedman wrote.

What a brave new world you’re defending, Mary!

Claim 2: Choice schools don’t have to accept everyone.

She writes, “Singer would have you believe that charter schools and private schools receiving voucher money are cherry-picking the best students to stoke their egos and stats. This isn’t true, and even if it were, it would still provide more choices.”

Um. Okay. So you admit this could be true but it doesn’t matter. Choice is all that matters. Very telling.

Then she goes on to talk about schools that actually do pick their own students, and she argues that it’s okay.

It’s not, Mary. Schools that accept tax dollars should have to accept all students. Otherwise, you’re just guessing that somewhere out there is a school for all kids, but you’re doing nothing to ensure this is true.

Children and families from places destroyed by vouchers and underfunding of public schools such as Detroit have been complaining of this very thing. They go from school to school never able to find one that meets their needs. It’s not that this is a failure of the system either – this IS the system working properly! This IS school choice – a system that only ensures choice but never quality or excellence. It is predicated on the semi-religious belief that the market will take care of everything.

It doesn’t. Ask Dannah Wilson about it.

Claim 3: Charter schools are notorious for kicking out hard-to-teach students.

She acknowledges the point and then changes the subject. She says there are great charters out there like KIPP. Yes, KIPP – a system that does exactly what I just said it does! Look at the huge numbers of students KIPP schools kick out. Look at the very few who make it to graduation. This is a terrible model for your school. I guess Mary lives in a universe of alternative facts where terrible equals great.

I’m kind of embarrassed for you. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Claim 4: Choice schools actually give parents less choice than traditional public schools.

Mary says that every parent should have the right to vote with their feet? Why? I’m not sure. Maybe this explains her position:

“Singer writes, “If you don’t like what your public school is doing, you can organize, vote for new leadership or even take a leadership role, yourself.” But seriously, who has time for that? Some people, yes, but not the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet. It’s a lot easier—and a lot faster, which matters in the life of a child—to enroll a child in a different school than to slog through the political process.”

So it’s a lot easier to have fewer options? Mary, you just argued AGAINST choice. You just said choice is too much work. No one has time for choice? Make up your mind.

That is ridiculous. But moreover it’s untrue. Do you really believe parents have the time to go shopping for new schools every week? That single mom doesn’t have time to go to board meetings but she has the time to enter these charter school lotteries and hope her kids get in? And if they don’t, she has time to trudge across town to another school and when it closes suddenly, she has time to start the process all over again? And again? THIS is the time saving process!? When she could actually be building something as part of her community?

Claim 5: Charter schools don’t perform better than traditional public schools.

She just says both can be good or bad. This sidesteps exactly how bad charter schools can be. Charter operators can take all the money and run. Charters can close without warning. Cyber charters have been found to actually provide less education in math and reading than not going to school at all.

Traditional public schools can struggle, and when they do it’s almost always because they’re underfunded. Yet, they NEVER provide an education that is as bad as the worst charter schools. And most traditional public schools do the best they can with what they have. The problem is strategic disinvestment. We could make almost every traditional public school excellent if we just funded them fairly. But unfortunately billionaires like the Kochs are paying for people like Mary to convince us otherwise.

Claim 6: Charters and vouchers increase segregation.

She basically offers a defense of white parents who want their kids schooled separately from black ones. That’s just choice, baby, and choice is always good.
No, it’s not. We’ve seen that it is better for everyone if children are educated with diverse people. It helps them understand people unlike themselves. It builds a more tolerant and just America.

Yes, our traditional public schools have become more segregated because of the way district lines are drawn. But that doesn’t mean we should double down on segregation. It means we should fight to reverse it.

Then she tells a fairytale about Obama attacking choice schools in Louisiana. He CREATED that system! He was a booster of the all-charter system! He was not an enemy of school choice. Corporate Democrats are not the enemy of school choice! They love it! They are the allies of your own corporate masters, Mary. Do some research.

Claim 7: Charter and voucher schools take away funding from traditional schools.

She basically agrees with me and then says public schools should find a way to deal with it. That’s what private schools do.

But public schools can’t operate like private schools and they shouldn’t for many of the reasons already enumerated here. They accept everyone. They don’t intentionally segregate. Etc.

Moreover, instability is a terrible basis for a school. You want to ensure it will be there for children when they need it. You don’t want schools competing with each other for resources like businesses. Most businesses fail. You don’t want that for schools. You need them to succeed. That means artificially ensuring their success with a steady, reliable stream of funding just like you give to the military. You wouldn’t suggest the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines compete for funding. Why do that to our public schools?

Claim 8: Funding a variety of schools would be wasteful and expensive.

She says I’m thinking “bureaucratically, considering ‘school systems’ instead of the actual children who are the reason schools exist in the first place.”

Uh, these systems serve children. You need to be able to run them FOR THOSE STUDENTS.

Claim 9: School choice distracts from the real problems: poverty and funding equity.

She agrees that poverty is important. Then she pulls the old “throwing money at problems is a terrible idea” card. Public schools just need to find ways to cut costs. They spend too much. Blah, blah, blah.

She ignores the facts. Public schools spend dramatically different sums on students depending on whether they’re rich or poor. We need equitable school funding. That means spending more on poor children and not complaining about “throwing money” at the problem. No one complains about that at the rich schools where they spend so much more than the poor schools. No one calls it “throwing money” when it’s your own child. That’s “investing in children.” It’s only when it’s THOSE kids that it’s “throwing money” at the problem. It betrays a class conscious prejudice against the poor and – most likely – children of color.

She then goes on to complain about the increase in administrative costs at public schools. This is laughable! Charter schools spend so much more on administrative costs than traditional public schools! A study by Michigan State University and the University of Utah found that charter schools spend on average $774 more per student on administration and $1,140 less on instruction than do traditional public schools.

And then she talks about student achievement not increasing at public schools. Actually, it depends on how you measure it. Standardized testing is a poor measure of achievement. And when you adjust for poverty, our schools are some of the best in the world.

Claim 10: School choice is supported by billionaires, not the grassroots.

Here she just talks about all the events planned during school choice week.

Mary, these are attended by private and parochial schools during the school day. The staff is literally paid to be there. The school children are literally forced to be there because their schools are closed and they are bused in to these events.

That’s not grassroots. That’s the definition of astroturf.

Do some people support school choice? Yes. Less than 10 percent of America’s students attend these schools. But the overwhelming majority of Americans support public schools.

Mary goes on about all the people applying for vouchers but she ignores a much more pertinent fact. Whenever school vouchers have been put to a referendum, voters have always turned it down. This despite who-knows-how-many-millions of dollars in advertising and propaganda to influence voters to support it!

No matter what the position, you can find someone to support it. But the majority of school choice proponents are billionaires and corporatists trying to fool regular people into doing what’s not it their own best interests.

Just ask your editors at the Federalist, Mary. You and your article are a case in point.

But thank you so much for critiquing my article. I’m just a public school teacher. I so rarely get corporate employees writing responses to my work.

Frankly, I didn’t find your piece very convincing, but what do I know? I’m a union thug with an advanced degree, a masters and a national certification. I don’t represent Trump’s America like you do.

I just represent the majority who may one day wake up and take it all back.

Why Are So Many Democrats Behind Backdoor School Voucher Expansion in Pennsylvania?

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Democrats are supposed to be liberals, progressives.

 

That means upholding the Constitution and the Separation of Church and State.

 

So why are so many Pennsylvania Democrats sponsoring an expansion of the state’s de facto school voucher bill?

 

A total of 11 out of 84 sponsors of HB 250 are Democrats. The bill would expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

 

The Commonwealth already diverts $200 million of business taxes to private and parochial schools. That’s money that should be going to support our struggling public school system.

 

The new bill would add $50 million to each program for a total of $100 million more flushed down the drain.

 

Pennsylvania has a budget deficit. We’ve cut almost $1 billion a year from public schools. We can’t afford to burn an additional $300 million on private and church schools.

 

 

We expect Republicans to support this regressive nonsense. Especially in gerrymandered Pennsylvania, they’ve gone further and further right to please their Tea Party base and avoid being primaried.

 

But the few Democrats left in the House and Senate are likewise in districts that would never vote Republican. You’d expect them to get more and more progressive. Instead, even here we see them taking steps to the right!

 

Democratic sponsors of the bill are almost exclusively from the state’s urban centers – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

 

They are:

 

Vanessa Lowery Brown (Philadelphia County)

Donna Bullock (Philadelphia County)

Dom Costa (Allegheny County)

Daniel J. Deasy (Allegheny County)

Michael J. Driscoll (Philadelphia County)

Jordan A. Harris (Philadelphia County)

William F. Keller (Philadelphia County)

William C. Kortz II (Allegheny County)

Joanna E. McClinton (Delaware & Philadelphia County)

Harry Readshaw (Allegheny County)

Mark Rozzi (Berks County)

 

These corporate tax giveaways are based on the premise that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. The Commonwealth has developed a list of approximately 400 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public taxpayer money to go to private and religious schools. Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them. However, few public schools take part in the program because school boards know it’s just another attempt to weaken their districts.

 

How does the state define a “failing school”?

 

Partially it’s based on standardized test scores. Districts with the bottom 15% of reading and math scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone tests are supposed to earn this label. However, the state has been notorious for including districts that actually are making academic progress.

 

Since low test scores are highly correlated with poverty, that’s the real indicator. If you live in a poor enough district, you’re probably eligible.

 

What about charter schools?

 

It’s funny you asked. Though they often have subpar test scores, they rarely are included on the state’s list of “failing schools.” They even exclude most of the state’s execrable cyber charter schools. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. But somehow that’s generally not failing enough to earn you a voucher-like tax credit.

 

How can we tell that students at private and parochial schools are doing better than those in public schools?

 

We can’t.

 

The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements. Moreover, private and parochial schools don’t have to take the federally-mandated standardized tests! So there’s no way to do an apples-to-apples comparison!

 

But here’s the best part. The EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement. You’re not even allowed to ask!

 

However, the law goes out of its way to remove regulations on how these tax dollars are spent. For instance, schools taking these tax credits can spend as much as 20% of the money to cover pure administrative costs.

 

Yet the public schools are still responsible for many of the costs of students living in their attendance areas but who use these de facto vouchers. For instance, there’s no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized scholarship. But the student’s home district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles.

 

Vouchers have been repeatedly defeated on every referendum held on the subject in the entire country. One of the reasons people have been up in arms against Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary has been her support of vouchers.

 

What do voters have to do to tell legislators that they don’t want school vouchers – no matter what you call them? What do voters have to do to show that they support our public school system – a system that despite being underfunded and weighed down with corporate education reforms remains one of the best in the world?

 

And when will Pennsylvania’s Democrats start acting like Democrats on the subject?

School Privatization Turns Business Into Predator and Students Into Prey

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The mother sea turtle struggles to shore to lay her eggs.

 

A typical clutch includes anywhere from 50–350 eggs, which the mother hides under the sand. Her sole contribution to their future complete, she swims away.

 

They incubate underground for 50-60 days. Then just at dusk, the tiny sea turtle hatchlings emerge and struggle their way to the waiting sea and surf.

 

Well they try to get to the sea. Most of them don’t make it.

 

Predators are always lurking in the shadows to pluck up these movable hors d’oeuvres. Sea gulls, crabs, small fish – all are waiting to enjoy a meal of fresh baby sea turtle.

 

It’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive into adulthood.

 

Is that really the model we should be using for our public schools?

 

Because – make no mistake – it is exactly the kind of thing the market-driven model of education is based on.

 

The idea goes something like this: schools should be run like a business. Parents and students should choose between educational institutions, which would then compete for their budget allotments.

 

Some schools would thrive but most would fail – just like in business, athletics or other competitive pursuits. And while these fledgling schools struggle to make ends meet, predators will be waiting in the wings to benefit from their failure and perfidy.

 

To be fair, it’s a model that works well in many circumstances. In business, it ensures that only the best enterprises stay open. In sports, it translates to athletes striving to give there all to prove superiority over competitors.

 

But if we look at it through clear eyes, it’s obvious that this is really just the same as baby sea turtles struggling to get to the ocean. Many will compete. Few will win.

 

That’s a terrible way to run a school. Think about it.

 

We don’t want only our best students to get an education. Nor do we want only our best schools to provide one. We want all schools to provide the best education possible to the highest number possible. Clearly some schools will be better than others. That can’t be helped. However, we can maximize the quality of the education each provides. We can ensure that none fail.

 

That isn’t what the market-driven approach does. It forces schools to compete for their very existence. They have to spend a considerable amount of time and money attracting students to enroll. That’s time and money that doesn’t go to education. It goes to advertising.

 

Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from traditional public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate.

 

Another major change with this approach is how these schools will be run. Many of these institutions will be operated privately without the input of a duly-elected school board, without transparency for how they spend tax dollars, without even the guide rails of most regulations.

 

Like in the charter school sector, these schools will get almost free reign to do whatever they want. And we can see the results of this bold experiment already. The predators are lining up to make a meal of their students.

 

Corporate interests offer to run charter schools while cutting services and increasing profits. In fact, administrative costs at charter schools are much higher than at traditional public schools. Students lose, the market wins.

 

Moreover, many charter schools provide a sub-par education. To put it more bluntly, they do things that would be impossible for public schools to do. One in Philadelphia literally transformed into a nightclub after dark. Another funneled profits into the CEO’s personal bank account to be used as a slush fund to buy gifts and pay for rent at an apartment for his girlfriend. Another CEO used tax dollars to buy a yacht cheekily called “Fishin’ 4 Schools.” A study found that cyber-charters provide almost less education than not going to school at all. Even brick and mortar charter schools can close on a moments notice leaving students in the lurch.

 

It’s a Darwinian model made to benefit the predators, not the prey. It’s a boon for any unselfconscious businessman who doesn’t mind getting rich stealing an education from children.

 

By contrast, our traditional public schools are modeled after something else entirely. Instead of offering various kinds of school competing with each other, they provide one basic type that is shielded from predation.

 

In short, public schools are modeled after primate childcare practices – not the egg-laying habits of reptiles. Primates usually have a very limited number of offspring per pregnancy – often just one. Unlike sea turtles, they don’t just lay their eggs and leave their offspring to their own devices. Primates provide excellent care and nurture for their child making sure it is safe from those that would hurt it.

 

This is exactly what public schools do. They provide one basic kind of school. The public gathers twice a month with an elected school board to decide how the school should be run. Most functions of the school are open to public view as are expenditures, documents, etc. And there are regulations that stop the most extreme practices that put students at risk.

 

Public schools aren’t perfect. Neither are primate parents. But the model is child-centered where the goal is all about what’s best for the next generation – every member of that generation.

 

In short, the entire debate about school choice really has little to do with choosing this or that school. It’s about choosing a style of education – public or private, primate or reptilian, one that favors prey or predator.

 

Deep down, the public knows this. That’s why school vouchers have never passed a public referendum despite obscene spending from advocates. That’s why the money behind school choice is almost entirely from the same would-be predators who would benefit from opening our tax dollars and our children to such harm.

 

The media churns out the myth of failing schools and this has had a damaging effect on public perception of public education in general. However, when you ask people about their neighborhood school, opinion is generally high. People like their schools the way they are. Ninety percent of American students attend public school and that’s just the way we like it.

 

We aren’t about to take a chance on a system that instinctually reminds us of neglect. For school choice advocates, it really comes down to ideology. They hate anything public. They hate government in all its forms and wish for the freedom to do as they wish.

 

They wish for the freedom to be a predator – a predator of children.

State Senator To Propose Rewriting PA Charter School Law To Hold the Industry Accountable

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Pennsylvania’s charter school law is a national disgrace.

 

It allows charters to defraud the public and provide a substandard education to our children.

 

Charter school managers pay themselves with taxpayer money for leases on properties they already own. They funnel money through shell companies into their own pockets. Academic achievement at many charters is far below par.

 

And it’s all legal.

 

That’s why state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has long called it the “worst charter school law” in the country. But his call for sweeping reforms from the legislature has fallen on mostly deaf ears.

 

Until now.

 

State Sen. Jim Brewster (D-45) is in the early stages of proposing legislation that would ensure charter schools are held as accountable as other public schools.

 

 

Specifically it would require these types of schools, which are ostensibly public but privately managed, to be transparent, fiscally solvent and responsible to taxpayers.

 

“It has become abundantly clear that systemic changes are needed in how brick and mortar and cyber charters operate in Pennsylvania,” Brewster says.  “There is a growing frustration that charters are unaccountable.”

 

The bill doesn’t have a Senate number yet, nor has its specific language been made available. However, the State Senator from McKeesport announced plans to formally propose it in Harrisburg within the next several weeks.

 

 

Brewster’s bill would:

  • Require local school boards to sign off on any new charter construction project costing more than $1 million. The project would have to be backed by a financing arrangement with a local industrial development authority or other government entity. This way charters would have to prove that new construction projects are fiscally sound and won’t be abandoned after wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.

 

  • Compel charter schools to prove they have the funds to keep running for the entire school year. They would have to post a bond, other type of surety, or agree to a payment escrow arrangement. This would ensure charters don’t close suddenly leaving students and parents in the lurch.

 

 

  • Limit the scope of the state Charter School Appeal Board to solely determining whether the local school board acted appropriately in reviewing charter school applications. The state should not be approving new charter schools. That power should remain at the local district level, though the state can determine if local school boards are acting within the bounds of the law.

 

  • Require officials from the state Department of Education (PDE) to visit the proposed site of a charter school to ascertain the condition of its physical building. Their report will then be made a part of the charter application. This way charters can’t get away with paying themselves for properties they already own and they won’t be able to open with substandard buildings.

 

 

  • Mandate that a charter school applicant obtain approval from multiple school districts if the charter school draws more than 25 students from a specific district. Every district impacted by the opening of a new charter should have a say whether it can open.

 

  • Upgrade accountability by requiring a quarterly report on the operations of the charter school to the local school board – with the report delivered in person by a charter school official. While traditional public schools report on operations monthly, reporting four times annually would greatly increase charter school transparency. At present charters don’t have to provide such reports sometimes for years after opening. Moreover, having a flesh and blood representative of the charter school at these meetings would allow for the public to ask questions about how their money is being spent.

 

 

  • Make a structured financial impact statement part of the charter school application. This would include an estimation of enrollment multiplied by tuition payments. The impact statement may serve as the justification for denial of a charter application. This would be huge. Traditional public schools can be sucked dry of funding from fly-by-night charters without their record of proven success. Necessitating an impact statement of this kind would truly make the local district and the charter school educational partners and not competing foes.

 

  • Increase the percentage of certified teachers at charters from 75 percent to 90 percent of faculty, though current faculty would be grandfathered in. Except under extreme circumstances, all teachers at traditional public schools are certified. Making charters raise the bar close to that of traditional public schools is an improvement – though Brewster has in the past proposed legislation to require 100 percent of charter teachers to be certified. It’s unclear why he’s settled on 90 percent here.

 

  • Prohibit charter board members from receiving payments for school lease arrangements.  This issue was highlighted in August in the auditor general’s report where he found $2.5 million tax dollars being defrauded in this way. Charter operators have complained that nothing they did was illegal. This measure would ensure that in the future such moves would be explicit violations of the law.

 

 

  • Impose a moratorium on the approval of new cyber-charter schools since their academic performance has been so consistently below that of traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters. In fact, A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading than traditional public schools. (By the way, there are only 180 days in an average school year.)

 

Brewster said these reforms offer a place to begin real robust regulation of the charter industry. However, he is open to adding others.

 

“The auditor general has made a number of worthwhile recommendations and I’ve combined some of these ideas with other features to produce what I believe is an excellent starting point for comprehensive reform,” he says.

 

“We need to dig deep and look critically at the charter law to make sweeping changes. In this year alone, the auditor general has pointed out that the reimbursement process is flawed, that there were too many reimbursement appeals and that the cyber charter law reeked with ethical issues, poor oversight and a lack of transparency.

 

“It is clear that the charter law is not helping schools, charters themselves or the taxpayers.”

 

There are more than 150 charter schools statewide enrolling more than 128,000 students, according to state data. Nearly half of these schools are in the Philadelphia area.

Two years ago, DePasquale released a set of specific recommendations to improve the charter law, which Brewster drew upon when writing his proposed legislation. DePasquale’s suggestions called for an independent board to oversee charter school processes and functions — including lease reimbursements and student enrollment. He also suggested public hearings involving charter changes, limits on fund balances and guidelines on calculating teacher certification benchmarks.

 

Brewster said he is not unduly singling out the charter school industry. He says he is confident making these changes will help charter schools by ensuring only high quality institutions are allowed in the Commonwealth.

 

The Democrat Representing the 45th legislative District says he realizes that October is late in the year to be proposing such sweeping changes. He is doing so now to raise awareness of the issue, though he doesn’t expect it to come to a vote until the next legislative session at the earliest.

 

He hopes to bring up many of these issues tomorrow (Oct. 13) at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing at the Monroeville Municipal Building in Monroeville in his district.

 

The legislature tried to pass a charter school reform bill (House Bill 530 ) this summer but it had been rewritten into more giveaways to the industry than regulations. For instance, it would have allowed charters to open almost anywhere in the state without approval from local school districts. As such, it lost support.

 

Government watchers cautioned that this charter Trojan Horse bill might rear its ugly head again in Harrisburg. Here’s hoping that Brewster’s bill has more success and isn’t likewise bastardized into a piece of legislation that gives away the store.

 

If there’s one thing most people agree about in the Keystone state, it’s that we need charter school reform. Brewster’s Bill may be the answer to our prayers.

The Measure of Citizenship isn’t an Exit Exam – It’s Participating in Our Democracy

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Pennsylvania legislators just flunked civics – big time.

Once again, instead of offering real solutions to eradicate the ignorance of the coming generation, they clothed themselves in their own.

A bi-partisan group of 47 state lawmakers is proposing forcing all public school students to pass a test on citizenship in order to qualify for a diploma.

House Bill 1858 would require all K-12 schools receiving tax dollars — including charters schools and cybercharters — to give their students the same 100-question test that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship will have to pass starting in 2020. Any student who doesn’t get a sufficient score will not receive a diploma or GED equivalency.

While it is admirable that legislators are concerned that high school students don’t know enough about civics, it’s unfortunate that they think the solution is another standardized test.

After all, what does being a good citizen have to do with a multiple choice exam?

Citizenship is about political independence. It’s about exercising your rights, not memorizing them. It’s about engaging in the political process, not spitting back facts about what kind of tree George Washington chopped down. It’s about using the principals of self-determination to rise up to the level of personal and community involvement, of individual sovereignty and home rule.

This involves actually teaching civics, a subject that has been cut to the quick in our schools to make room for an increasing amount of test-prep in math and reading. It used to be common for American high schools to offer three civics and government courses. Two of them – “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” – defined the role of a citizen in relation to current events and issues. However, in most districts now these have been condensed into one “American Government” course that spends hardly any time on how students can and should participate in their government. Moreover, this course isn’t even offered until junior or senior year – far too late to make much of a difference.

Maybe instead of  putting a metaphorical gun to kids heads and demanding they care about civics, you could actually provide some resources so teachers could… I don’t know… teach it!

How about actually funding our public schools? You well-meaning dunderheads slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion a year for the last six years, and your only solution to helping kids learn has been to put more hurdles in their way without offering anything to help them achieve.

That is a losing strategy. If you want to have a winning race horse, at some point you have to feed the freakin’ horse!

If lawmakers really want kids in the Keystone state to know something about civics, why not start by making it easier for schools to broaden the curriculum to include robust civics courses?

This means REDUCING the number of standardized tests, not increasing them. Inject some money into the system so schools can hire back some of the 25,000 teachers who have been furloughed. You want kids to learn how to be citizens? Provide them with excellent teachers who actually get to experience some meaningful professional development, teachers not overburdened with meaningless paperwork to justify their jobs at every turn, teachers encouraged with rewards for seeking National Board Certification, etc. And let’s reduce class size so kids actually have the chance to be heard by their teachers and might actually learn something.

Moreover, if you really want to assess if these lessons have been learned, assess whether students are actually participating in their Democracy.

That’s the thing about citizenship. It looks like a noun, but it’s really a verb. It only has meaning if you do it.

Have high school kids registered to vote? Have they volunteered to take part in the political process, to canvass or phone bank for a candidate they believe in? Have they attended a session of the state House or Senate? (Have you provided the funding for appropriate field trips?) Have they attended a rally or protest for a cause close to their hearts?

THESE are the measures of true citizenship. And there are things you can do to make it easier for students to take part.

But no one really wants that. Come on. This is still essentially the same legislature that passed a Voter ID bill a few years back to make it harder for people to participate in our Democracy. And it would still be on the books if the state Supreme Court hadn’t struck it down as Unconstitutional.

Citizenship!? This is the same legislature that redrew state districts to be so incredibly gerrymandered that the most radical factions of both parties are unchallenged each election cycle!

You know why children don’t know more about civics? Because they’re so disgusted and demoralized by the example you’ve shown them. When politics is nothing but a show, when hardly anything ever changes or actually gets accomplished in Harrisburg, you expect kids to get excited by citizenship!? HA!

All you know how to do is pretend. That’s what this is. Just throw another standardized test on the fire of our children’s education and you can act like you’ve done something.

May I remind you we’re still dealing with the last smoldering exit exam disaster you fostered on us – the Keystone Exams?

You spent $1.1 billion on these tests since 2008, and they’re a statewide joke! You required all students to pass these assessments in Literature, Algebra and Biology, but they’re so poorly constructed and confusing that only half of our students can pass all three. So you put them on hold for two years until you could decide what to do.

And before you even fix that mess, you actually have the gall to say, “Hey! Let’s make kids take ANOTHER test!?”

I know some of you mean well, but this suggestion is a disgrace.

It’s style over substance.

This isn’t a measure to reduce ignorance. It’s a measure conceived in ignorance that’s guaranteed to proliferate it.