Every lawmaker says these things are extremely important – unless we’re talking about charter schools. Then they pass laws handing out stacks of cash with little to no oversight.
That’s exactly what the Pennsylvania School Code will do if the legislature passes it.
Schools in the Keystone State have had a rough year.
After a nine-month battle with the Republican controlled legislature, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf let a woefully inadequate budget passed by the legislature become law without his signature. However, he vetoed the fiscal code, which includes public school’s funding formula – how state money will be distributed to the Commonwealth’s 500 public school districts. Wolf still holds out hope that almost $1 billion in school budget cuts made by the GOP can be healed before a new funding formula locks them in.
Everything else about how our public schools are to be run is included in the school code. It was approved by the Senate but remains in committee in the House.
Back in February, both Democrats and Republicans supported some terrible provisions in the school code as a compromise to pass a state budget that would have healed much more of the spending cuts than what has now become law. Since an inferior budget was passed, there’s no reason for Democrats to continue to support a school code that basically rings the dinner bell for the most nefarious charter school practices imaginable.
If approved, charter schools across the state could open new buildings, add new grades, and expand their enrollment with almost no limitations. In Philadelphia, where the district is already under state control and more than a third of students already attend charter schools, the proposed school code would force many schools to be controlled by a new state operator – the Pennsylvania Department of Education – and convert many of them into charter schools – all still without ensuring those schools have adequate funding.
The Senate-approved school code reads like a smorgasbord of dishes to empower and shield charter schools from accountability.
Currently, charter schools are only allowed to operate after having a contract approved by the local school district where they’re located. Elected school boards get to decide if charters can operate and under what conditions. The proposed school code would change that. It would allow charter schools to amend their own contracts without the permission of the local district. So existent charters could do whatever they liked regardless of what they promised local school boards they were going to do in order to be approved in the first place.
The proposed school code would also allow for uncontrolled charter expansion. It would permit charter schools to add as many new schools and students as they please without permission of the local district. This is in effect a license for charters to expand without any oversight. They could gobble up their parent district and there’s nothing anyone could do about it.
Moreover, the proposed school code would allow charter schools to expand beyond district boundaries into neighborhoods that never approved them in the first place. It would create new Multiple Charter School Organizations (MCSOs) that can cross school district boundaries and expand across the entire state, all without any criteria for revocation or accountability.
When disagreements occur with charter schools and local school districts, the matter goes before the state Charter Appeals Board. However, the proposed school code would stack the board with members in favor of charter schools and against local districts.
As it stands, new charter schools get five years before they are subject to any accountability measures at all. Once approved, they have that time to operate any way they want before anyone comes around to make sure they’re doing a good job. The proposed school code doubles that grace period to ten years. New charters – including notoriously fraudulent cyber charters – would have a decade of free reign before undergoing a thorough review of their performance by their authorizers.
And then we come to special education. Since at least 2013, the legislature has known the way the state determines special education funding at charter schools is broken. It’s skewed so that charters get more money for special needs children than local districts. Moreover, this allotment has nothing to do with how much charters spend on their special education students or the severity of the disabilities. For example, in Philadelphia, charter schools get $23,000 for each special education student while the traditional public schools get $5,000. A bipartisan bill was drafted to fix the inequality, but it was killed by charter school lobbyists.
The proposed school code – which could have fixed the problem – just continues it for another year. It explicitly exempts charter schools from the rational and fair special education funding formula used by school districts.
And speaking of funding, the proposed school code continues the perverse practice of ensuring cyber charter schools get paid before local school districts. It was this provision that made sure even with statewide education budget cuts cyber charters didn’t suffer the same loss of funding.
As bad as all that is, it’s nothing compared to what the proposed school code does to Philadelphia City Schools.
The Senate bill implements a “State Opportunity Schools” program that only applies to Philadelphia schools. It mandates that up to 15 city schools a year would go from one majority state-controlled entity – the School Reform Commission (SRC) – to a different entirely state-controlled entity – the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Moreover, at least six traditional city public schools would have to become charter schools in three years.
It’s a boneheaded move done for no reason other than to punish poor, black students living in Philly. For instance, the proposed school code doesn’t grant any additional authority to PDE that the SRC doesn’t already have – so why make the change? What will PDE be able to do differently? If the SRC is doing a terrible job (Spoiler alert: it is) then why not give control of the district back to residents? Why not reestablish local control?
Moreover, the proposed school code provides no additional resources or funding to any Philadelphia schools. That’s been the problem with the district from the beginning. When you force schools to rely heavily on local property taxes to run, poor communities suffer. The proposed school code continues the proud Pennsylvania tradition of ignoring reality and blaming black and brown children for their parents poverty.
Much of this nonsense came from negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans to ensure a better budget for schools across the state. Republicans demanded increasing charter school handouts, fewer accountability measures and sacrificing Philadelphia Schools. And Senate Democrats agreed – even those serving Philadelphia.
However, since the GOP reneged on that budget deal, there is no reason on Heaven or Earth why the Democrats should continue to support this proposed school code. Republicans can pass this turd without them. If the GOP wants to give away mountains of taxpayer money to the charter industry, let them own it. That’s been something they have been increasingly unwilling to do.
And if this terrible school code does somehow make it through the legislature, Wolf should do the same thing with this steaming pile of feces that he originally did with the budget and recently did with the fiscal code – veto it.
Pennsylvania lawmakers need to stop serving special interest groups and start representing the taxpayers. Giving away a larger portion of our shrinking education funding makes no sense.
It is not accountable. It is not fiscally responsible. It is dereliction of duty.