I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.
Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.
We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.
But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.
It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.
Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.
Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.
Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.
And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.
Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.
Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?
Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.
The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.
If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.
Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.
Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.
Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.
But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.
Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:
“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”
So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.
Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).
In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.
According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:
Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:
2000-01 – 2012-13
Non-Special Ed: $9,321
Special Ed: $16,903
Non-Special Ed: $9,731
Special Ed: $16,803
Non-special Ed: $10,340
Special Ed $20,112
Non-Special Ed: $12,326
Special Ed: $25,634
Non-Special Ed: $13,879
Special Ed: $29,441
Non-Special Ed: $13,484
Special Ed: $25,601
Non-special ed: $14,965
Special ed: $32,809
All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.
Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.
“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.
Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.
Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.
“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.
“Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”
Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.
For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.
Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.
But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.
We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.
There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).
In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!
It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.
And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.
Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.
For instance, take Propel Homestead.
In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.
Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.
However, test scores are poor indicators of success.
Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.
And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.
So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.
And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.
They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.
This nonsense has to stop.
The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.
They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.
We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.
It’s time to stop the madness.
It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.
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38 thoughts on “Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District ”
This is happening in so many places. It’s interesting that charters used to be in large cities, but now they are sneaking into the smaller towns and suburbs. Thank you, Steven.
Thank you for commenting, Nancy. I see this article as kind of a case study. This is what’s happening in my neck of the woods, but I know something similar is happening in so many other places, too. I hope it will serve as a conversation starter. Maybe then others will recognize what’s happening in their neighborhoods in my description of my community school.
Reblogged this on Politicians Are Poody Heads.
[…] Steven Singer, a teacher-blogger in Pennsylvania’s Steel Valley Schools, details exactly how Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding charter schools is decimating his local school district’s budget—and depleting public school district budgets across the state. Pennsylvania law prescribes that a child leaving for a charter school carries away from the public school budget the entire amount that district spends per-pupil. Singer adds that, “the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools,” but that former Governor Tom Corbett cut out the reimbursement as part of a 2011 state budget cut. Without tying special education funding to the real costs for serving children with a range of special needs, Pennsylvania also subtracts from the public school budget and sends to charter schools a flat amount for each special education student. The incentive is for charter schools not to accept students with the most serious disabilities and to leave those expensive-to-educate students in the local public schools. […]
[…] Steven Singer doesn’t research or data to describe what is happening to his school district. He sees it. It is being gobbled up outsiders intent on turning public schools into charter schools and voucher schools… […]
[…] Only 6% of all U.S. students attend charter schools, yet with little accountability, selective enrollment, and the ability to pocket taxpayer money as profit, they cannibalize the funding necessary for the 90% that attend authentic public schools. […]
[…] Is it fair to Ma and Pa Taxpayer that they are forced to bear the extra burden of reproducing these services for a handful of students? […]
[…] aren’t just charter schools or private and parochial schools cashing in on vouchers siphoning tax money away from children and […]
[…] for this data metric and do that much more work because my district has lost even more funding to the vampire charter school in our neighborhood. Or lawmakers have compromised away another several hours of my time to do […]
[…] teaches in Pennsylvania. In this post, he describes the dangers that privatization poses to his school […]
[…] But taxpayers do take issue with it when it’s the call of the state legislature gathering a different kind of swine around public tax dollars. […]
[…] My own Western Pennsylvania district has been flagged by the Commonwealth for increasing chronic absences. In the state, this is defined as students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We’ve been put on an improvement plan – which basically means an employee at the state Department of Education wagging his finger and telling us to get better or else. […]
[…] roughly the same at other districts in the Mon-Valley. Steel Valley Schools, where I work as a middle school teacher, has budgeted a $6 million payment to charter schools this year – 16% of our spending […]
[…] dollars with zero accountability, zero transparency and as much deregulation as possible. They are the continued destabilization of public education in the knowledge that the edifice cannot stand without support […]
[…] a child goes to a neighborhood charter school, the public school district has to pay that charter school to educate him or her. If the child has such special needs that make it necessary for him or her to attend a school […]
[…] In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley. […]
[…] Charter school costs are one of the largest expenses the district pays annually. […]
[…] I have seen the damage charter schools can do in my career at the Steel Valley School District in Munhall. We have a Propel charter school in our community. Just three years ago, the Propel franchise […]
[…] We need a state legislature willing to take on the charter school industry and at very least stop making it compete with authentic public schools for funding. […]
[…] 5) Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District […]
[…] off the children they serve, ability to cherry pick students enrolled in them, propensity for draining funding from neighborhood public schools, frequently poor academic records, and inclination to increase racial and economic […]
[…] is infamous for allowing some of the most permissive charter school policies in the nation, which destabilize authentic public schools and force local tax increases and reductions in student service… while charter operators get […]
[…] given that the Charter Review Board is made up of six members – charter school advocates chosen by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett – any pretense to impartiality is […]
[…] The freedom and autonomy to forgo high stakes standardized testing? Not having to compete with charter and voucher schools that get to play by different rules skewered in their […]
[…] No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse. […]
[…] But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice. […]
[…] Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these […]
[…] No more prep schools. No more parochial schools. No more prestigious academies. No more charter schools. No more home schools. […]
[…] will pay $2.8 billion in charter school tuition this year. Why does the state keep opening these expensive privatized institutions that have less fiscal accountability than our authentic public schools? Again the ideology of far right lawmakers is funded by you and […]
[…] directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do […]
[…] doesn’t this new plan help push more educators into the charter school network? Isn’t it open to funding more charter schools and calling it teacher […]
[…] In this context, the colonizers aren’t foreign governments but hedge fund managers and other investors who treat the charter school in the same manner as real estate or stocks, playing a gambler’s game of speculation while local taxpayers are left with the tab and the lion’s share of risk. After all, if the speculators lose, they are out a certain dollar amount. If the charter school fails, the community loses a quality education for its children. Moreover, money that should have been spent according to community needs and priorities—hiring school nurses… […]
[…] Charter schools create burdens for their communities. They siphon tax dollars from the existent public schools without reducing costs by much at all. So the authentic public school board is forced to make a hard decision – cut services for students and run with their reduced tax revenue or increase taxes to make up the difference. […]
[…] Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools … […]
[…] I teach at Steel Valley Middle School nestled among residential homes on top of the hill. There’s no Panera nearby, but there is Munhall MiniMart just up the street. […]
[…] Enter Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Harrisburg based conservative and libertarian think tank that pushes for the destruction of any common good – especially public schools. […]
[…] These are ventures proposed primarily by outsiders who see an opportunity for themselves. Maybe they have only good intentions and want to meet this or that need that they see going unmet by the authentic neighborhood school. But instead of asking the public’s permission to follow their self-appointed plan, they barge in and force the opening of a charter school with the additional tax burden this often requires. […]
[…] this help? Just the opposite. Now you have two schools vying for an even smaller pot of funding but one of these schools (the charter) doesn’t have to follow the regulations the others school […]