Since 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration restricted children younger than 14 from being employed, and put strict rules in place on when those younger than 18 may be employed, for how many hours and in what fields.
Today Republicans across the country seem poised to repeal those protections.
Meanwhile, child labor violations have increased by almost 70% since 2018, according to The Department of Labor. The agency is increasing enforcement and asking Congress to allow larger fines against violators.
How did we get here?
Corporate education reform.
It’s like the old adage: if a frog is suddenly dropped into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But, if the frog is gently placed in lukewarm water, with the temperature rising slowly, it will not perceive any danger to itself and will be cooked to death.
Here we have an entire industry of standardized testing that makes its money as a parasite on the public school system. The same multi-billion dollar corporations design the tests, grade the tests and then offer remediation when kids don’t pass the tests. It’s a classic captive market where the provider has no incentive but to perpetuate the conditions that increase its bottom line. Students aren’t the consumers of this product – school districts are – and they have no choice but participate. It’s encoded in federal and state law. They have to play along and are, themselves, judged by the results of that compliance.
The fact that the Covid pandemic has reduced adults willing to continue working in these fields for such low wages has only motivated the wealthy and powerful to fill those vacancies with younger-and-younger people who won’t understand how much they’re being taken advantage of and won’t complain.
“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”
We find the same rhetoric on the left as well as the right.
There’s plenty of fun to be had if you go to the Waterfront in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
There’s a Dave and Busters, Primate Bros, and even an AMC Loews’s multiplex movie theater.
But right across from the Barnes and Noble is a building with a neon green sign advertising its tenant – Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA).
This is the newest satellite office of the biggest cyber charter school network in the entire state! One of 51 locations statewide.
These are not your typical brick-and-mortar charter schools. They’re remote schools where students are taught at a distance via computer.
Like other charters, they’re still publicly financed, often privately run, and free from most safety precautions that ensure kids get a quality education at authentic public schools – things like being run by elected school boards, requiring entirely certified teachers, etc. But cyber charters don’t have to house children during the school day. They just need computers and Internet access.
Oh, sure! There’s an authentic public school in this neighborhood, too, right up the hill. It’s not located in nearly as trendy a spot though. Moreover, its four buildings were constructed around the 1970s and are crumbling down in places. But the new cyber charter school building looks like a palace!
“administrative offices, conference rooms, seminar areas, production labs and live session rooms. Some features include state of the art exterior lighting and signage, high-quality audio/visual and security equipment and 52 new perimeter windows to allow for ample natural lighting. The interior is complete with custom wall graphics, acoustical panels, wood plank ceilings, a fireplace and a Techworks room that provides users with a full digital experience.”
It’s hard to imagine why a glorified office building where students don’t attend school needs to be so fancy. Or why it needs to be located on such prime real estate. With such high rents. On the public dime.
CCA doesn’t sound like a school. It sounds like a tech company. And I guess it kind of is.
The K-12 cyber network’s Homestead building isn’t designed for students – it’s designed for executives. The people who make the big bucks work here – though maybe there are a few teachers holed up here and there behind computers typing away to their students through screens across the state.
Much of the responsibility for these students doesn’t seem to rest with teachers. It belongs to their “learning coaches,” adults responsible for assisting kids at home – usually parents or guardians.
According to CCA’s Website, learning coaches are expected to spend five hours each school day helping elementary students with coursework and monitoring lessons, and between two and three hours a day with students in middle school.
Why are we paying CCA again?
And how much are we paying them?
It turns out the so-called non-profit business, which in 2020 posted almost $39 million in net income, gets at least $10,000 per student. So given its enrollment figures, that’s at least $210 million a year – not counting additional money some districts have to provide. For each child from a district that enrolls in a cyber charter, the sending district pays the cyber a rate based on what the district spends on average per pupil – one rate for students in regular education and another for students with disabilities. This means that tuition rates paid to a particular cyber school can be vastly different.
CCA spends millions of dollars each school year on advertising. For example, in its 2018-19 IRS Form 990, a required disclosure for all nonprofits, CCA reported that it paid $8.5 million to Bravo Group, an advertising, marketing, and lobbying firm.
But, of course, these trips aren’t always of much educational value. They’ve gone to petting zoos, laser tag, bowling and kayaking. A parent of a CCA student even bragged on Facebook about using these funds for Dave and Busters Arcade, a Motley Crue concert, Eagles tickets, and family vacations to Universal Studios and Disney, according to Education Voters of Pa.
Can you imagine taking your kids to an expensive theme park, or going to see an NFL game, or seeing Motley Crue play “Shout at the Devil” on the public dime?
Only 28.8% of CCA students achieved proficiency on English Language Arts and Math PSSA exams on a two-year, combined basis, according to state Department of Education data. The school’s growth score was negative – so they actually regressed academically. They would have done better not to have even gone to school!
Moreover, the school’s graduation rate falls well below statewide averages and state goals. Its four-year cohort graduation rate is 53%; its five-year rate is 67%; and its six-year rate is 70%. For the 2018-19 school year, more than 10% of CCA students dropped out. That’s about twice as many as the average rate for charter schools and seven times as many as the average rate for authentic public school districts.
In short, the school’s performance ranks among the bottom 5% of schools statewide.
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022
CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.
High School Special Education Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 2, 2022
CCA started out as a great place to work. Unfortunately, it quickly went down hill. Management had little spies that taught among us and reported back. I felt like I was in grade school all over again. The number of students on any given caseload is 60+ students. It was almost impossible to progress monitor, make phone calls, and complete all necessary paperwork on time. The expectation was to work 12 hour days as well as nights and weekends. No life for you. As time went on management became very top heavy. If you had a target on your back you might as well hang it up. They don’t really help you to improve even though they say they do. Burn out comes quickly and upper management could careless. Professionalism does not exist in this place especially from upper management. CCA does not support you as a teacher. You can easily be replaced and they will. Pros Flexible Schedule Cons
Everything else….Management, Caseload numbers, Professionalism, etc.
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – October 12, 2022
What is the best part of working at the company? Teaching students and coworkers. What is the most stressful part about working at the company? Middle and upper management lack of communication, lack of flexibility, low pay. What is the work environment and culture like at the company? Not healthy. Upper management claims to listen but they don’t implement any suggestions. What is a typical day like for you at the company? 8-4 pm teaching, phone calls, grades, etc.
Administrative Assistant (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – August 9, 2022
Upper management at CCA is unprofessional, some downright rude, and has extremely poor communication. No training or onboarding process, upper management doesn’t seem to know or care what most employees do on a day to day basis, and the environment is unhealthy both physically and mentally. Disappointing that when concerns were even expressed to the CEO, no response was even given at all. There seems to me a mindset that if given bonus money; $1,00 to $5,000 taxed money, periodically, that everything is great, which is not the case and it doesn’t reflect anything other than a means to disperse unused profits, especially since it’s been given to employees regardless of their length of employment or job performance. CCA is lacking integrity and are not what they claim to be in media advertising or to parents.
Administrative Assistant (Current Employee) – Allentown, PA – July 5, 2022
“Equality” is not something that is known for the staff at this company. If you are not in the main office or a teacher you are treated like the “red headed step child”. They care more about money than making sure their staff is financially or mentally taken care of. Cons Pay, Flexibility
Family Mentor (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 5, 2022
This position can be fun but also compromising . You can be promised one area then it be changed to an impossible location. Taking too much time to be worth the pay. When location is favorable then the job is great.
Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 13, 2022
Great benefits, but at the cost of your sanity and peace. No work life balance. A constant push for in office/ in person during a Pandemic. If you’re single with no kids and no life this is a great fit. Pros Benefits and shiny buildings Cons
Success coach (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 16, 2021
The new managers don’t know anything but are supposed to be your supervisor. You don’t get paid when the kids aren’t there so the job is like part time pay. Pros Benefits are amazing! Cons No advancement, very little direction.
Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 20, 2021
Management says one thing and does another thing. Too many managers that don’t communicate with employees very well. Not understanding when personal issues arise Pros Great technology Cons Too many chiefs not enough Indians
Accounting Clerk (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 4, 2021
Never felt comfortable with coworkers from day one. Also management was very unpleasant and spent way more time than necessary watching employees at their desks. They had seriously ridiculous expectations on performance after only a few weeks on the job. It was expected that I would just know how to do something I had just been trained on and do that task perfectly. Not worth the stress and anxiety it caused. Pros Great benefits Cons Toxic work environment
Teacher (Former Employee) – Pennsylvania – December 19, 2020
Sounds and looks much better to work there than to actually work there. Stressful, lack of communication, no consistency, lack of professionalism, focus on avoiding legal issues is driving force, facade of supportive atmosphere and family like environment. Work life balance is zero. Pros Remote Cons Totally inconsistent and poor leadership
Career Facilitation Coordinator (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 29, 2020
CCA cannot be great under current leadership. During my time there, it became evident that students are not at the center of this organization, but instead, the selfish interests of senior leadership prevails (note: I use the term leadership loosely). Among many things, the culture of micromanagement is toxic, resulting in unbelievably high turnover in certain positions. In a functional organization, senior leadership would work to mitigate this issue. Here, matters such as this are swept under the rug. For whatever reason, certain “Directors” are protected and there is no accountability. Professionals are not treated as such and their expertise is grossly undervalued. HR is not objective and gossipy…especially at the senior level, which is extremely unprofessional to say the least. If you’re searching for an innovative and inclusive organization which promotes growth and cohesion, KEEP LOOKING. If you decide to interview, do your best to find out the history of your position. If offered a position, run far and fast. Pros Nice building Cons Zero accountability, culture of nepotism, inauthentic leaders
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – February 22, 2020
The school’s administration is very top-heavy. Teachers’ salaries are low compared to peers in brick and mortar schools. Workload among teachers is not fairly distributed. Teachers are required to award grades to students that do not reflect their learning. Students are awarded up to 35% of their grades for ‘participation’ that does not assure that actual learning took place. The hardest part of the job is not being able to engage the many students who use the cyber-school setting to avoid going to school. The administration does not put adequate resources to removing these students from the school.
Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2020
Teachers aren’t valued much. Young and inexperienced administrators hand picked if they are yes-men to upper administrators push teachers to the limit. Upper administration has alternative agendas, and the ‘school’ is a company to them. Office cubes are loud and not conducive to work.
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022
CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.
Instructional Assistant (Former Employee) – Ligonier, PA – July 7, 2019
I worked as an in-home IA with a special needs student. There was almost no guidance from the school as far as coursework, deadlines, etc. All of my student’s goals came from the BCBA, and the school had very little to offer in terms of direction. The first paycheck came two months late, and there were no benefits involved , as it was an independent contractor position. On the plus side, though, with the relaxed approaches to education, it was quite easy to allow the student to work on subjects that interested him, and it was nice to have that kind of independence when it came to planning the school days. Pros Flexibility, relaxed environment, student home-based options, pay. Cons Little guidance, hard to contact the school, communication in general.
Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 8, 2019
When I started at CCA back in 2009, the CEO was Dennis Tulli. He was a wonderful leader who truly cared not only about the students & their families but also every employee who worked for him. He made sure his staff was compensated fairly and provided free health care benefits (no monthly premium) for teachers & their families. Providing CCA met their yearly goals, generous monetary bonuses were given to all employees in September. When Dr. Tulli left and Dr. Flurrie took over, the culture slowly began to change. More and more responsibilities were added to all employees but especially teachers w/o any duties being removed. Night & weekend hours became mandatory but again, there was no compensation. Many veteran teachers, who were making a decent yearly salary, were forced out so they could be replaced by younger less experienced teachers at half the salary. Raises became smaller, w/the exception of this CEO & his senior leadership team, and bonuses all but disappeared. Dr. Flurrie made it known that all employees were replaceable so the theme became “be grateful you’ve got a job here”. Over a 2 year time frame, the culture slowly changed from a democracy, where you could voice your concerns or ideas and know you would be heard, to a micromanaged dictatorship, run from the top down. If you are an older woman, do not expect any advancement opportunities. This CEO primarily gives advancement opportunities to men and young, attractive women. Under Dr. Tulli and for the first year under Dr. Flurrie, there was very little turnover. Once Dr. Flurrie’s “honeymoon” period was over as a CEO, true colors began to show. From his second year to now, the turnover rate has continued to consistently increase. Keeping special education teachers has become a real challenge. We used to be able to work from home but the majority of those positions have been removed so plan to report to an office everyday. Bottom line, if you think CCA is better a option than the traditional brick/mortar schools, you are mistaken. This CEO has eliminated any incentives to choose this company over the traditional public school. – Pros New state-of-the-art building, travel expenses reimbursed, coworkers are generally very friendly/helpful people Cons CEO’s ever increasing ego, smothered by micromanaging administrators, no more work from home/bonuses, low salaries/negligible raises
Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – October 24, 2018
As the company continues to grow, so does the ego of the CEO and management. Little thought is considered for the professional teaching staff and all teachers are “replaceable.” Don’t even ask for a work from home day. I miss the old management style of Connections Academy.
Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 13, 2018
CCA is a growing school but be very careful as they grow what do they forget? The special education and general ed caseloads are so high but the school will not increase staff as they leave. Pros Health insurance, team atmosphere with team Cons Micro managed every step, no voice, top down management, non elected school board
Coworkers were wonderful, but the company is not run well and is frustrating and takes advantage of their workers. The highest levels of management are unaware of what the underlings are doing and don’t send a message that employees are valued.
Collaborrating with coworkers, supporting one another.
The worst most incompetent employees are the ones who get promoted.
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In fact, it’s one of the main reasons given for the American colonies fighting a war with Great Britain. No taxation without representation.
And most charter schools are guilty of it.
But not all!
There are charter schools run by elected school boards. They either choose this management system though it is not required by their charter or their charter explicitly requires it – like any other taxpayer funded school.
Does this excuse these charter schools from the same inequities as their more privileged brethren?
And this is an important point.
How does a charter school open in the first place?
Most authentic public schools were started many years ago by the communities where they operate.
Community members got together, agreed they needed a school, elected board members to manage it, collected tax money, etc.
Charter schools are much newer inventions that come about differently.
The operator then goes to the state, community or usually school district where they propose to open the charter (it depends on the state charter law) and puts forward a proposal. Then the state, community or board decides to approve or deny that proposal.
However, nearly every charter school law does not give local communities an unlimited right of refusal. After all, if they did, there would be hardly any charter schools in existence.
Think about it.
When an authentic public school district decides to open a charter school inside its borders, it is agreeing to give a portion of the tax dollars it already receives to the charter school. It is agreeing to run its existing schools on less money so the charter can open up.
Why would any authentic public school do this? Only if it saw a real need for a new school and did not want to open a new school, itself. That’s a pretty rare situation.
However, nearly every charter school law gives very narrow reasons that new charter applications can be refused. So most of the time, the district has no choice but to approve these proposals. And if a district does refuse, the matter often goes to a state charter approval board which almost always reverses the decision. The community says no – state functionaries say yes.
So even when one of these so-called good charter schools managed by an elected school board opens up, it does so by overruling the decisions of the community it serves.
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.
Charter schools equal higher taxes in districts that can afford it and a reduction in educational quality in those districts that can’t.
This is a situation the community did not ask for. The community did not demand a new charter school. A handful of charter operators did to enroll a handful of students.
And if anyone does find a yellowed document for one of these schools labeled “charter,” best to tear it up. You don’t need it since your charter school has no need of special agreements.
Keep in mind, this is long before we get into the specifics of how charter schools can (and often do) exploit children and communities.
If the very existence of your school is predicated on the existence of a charter agreement, that is inequitable.
It does not need to follow all of the rules that authentic public schools must.
These are rules about being accountable for how you spend tax dollars, having minimum academic standards, hiring qualified staff, etc.
If there really are some rules that charter schools should be freed from obeying, why not just free all taxpayer funded schools from these rules? You don’t need a special agreement. You need to renegotiate the state school code.
Otherwise, this is giving special treatment to some schools rather than others.
That is the point.
Charter schools – ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS – are inequitable by definition and design.
Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
The $660 billion federal initiative was intended to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans will be forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions such as retaining or rehiring employees.
Since Imagine writes the Environmental Charter’s operating budget, the management company ends up paying itself for a number of services.
After the school gets funding from state, federal and community taxes (this year including bailouts from PPP and the CARES act), it pays 12 percent back to Imagine. This came to $406,000 in 2009, according to an independent financial audit.
The school also pays Imagine on a $250,000 loan that the charter operating company took out to launch the program. Payments come out to about $2,500 per month over 20 years with an interest rate of 10.524 percent.
The charter also pays Imagine rent on its building which was purchased in 2006 by Schoolhouse Finance – Imagine’s real estate arm – for $3 million.
Like the Environmental Charter, this so-called nonprofit hires a management company. In this case, it’s the infamous K12 Incorporated – a nationwide cyber charter network with a record of academic failure and financial shenanigans.
In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California. The state claimed K12 had reported incorrect student attendance records and otherwise lied about its academic programs. The company ended up settling with the state for $2.5 million with an additional $6 million to cover the state’s investigation and K12 voided $160 million in credits it had given to the affiliated schools to cover the cost of their contracts.
Hill House offers a blended model with in-person teachers and virtual classes somewhat different than most K12 schools.
Penn Hills School Board – a duly elected body, not government appointees – outlined criticisms of the charter that do not put the entrepreneurial venture in a positive light.
Penn Hills School Board said the charter had failed to produce current student rosters, failed in record management, failed to accurately maintain student tuition payments, improperly billed the school district for special education students, failed to maintain and develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs), had poor academic growth and is under a Department of Education Corrective Action Plan setting forth 31 areas of needed improvement.
Finally, the charter school sucks away necessary funding from the authentic public school. The Penn Hills School District paid Imagine about $3 million in 2014-15. Costs increased to $12 million a year and continue to rise.
Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has spoken out of both sides of her mouth on the issue. She has insisted that charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid – all the while advising charter schools also to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.
Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, did not mince words.
“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees…worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools.”
ProPublica has put all the information into an easy to use search engine. Just enter a zip code and it will display all the businesses located there that received PPP loans.
This includes high tuition private prep schools like Sewickley Academy and Shady Side Academy both of which got $2 – $5 million, Winchester Thurston School which got $1 million – $2 million, and the charter schools listed above.
So for 12 months, there will be no state cuts to basic and special education or block grant programs for K-12 schools. Nor will there be state cuts to pre-kindergarten programs or colleges and universities receiving state funding such as community colleges.
That’s really good news in such uncertain times.
School directors can get their own financial houses in order for 2020-2021 without wondering whether the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.
The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligations thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the costs.
In rich neighborhoods, the local tax base can pick up the slack. In middle class neighborhoods, they can try. But poor communities end up relying more on the state to help or else their kids (who already have greater needs growing up in poverty) have to do without.
Those with greater problems are not given more money to deal with them. Instead, the money is being divided nearly evenly.
If you think that’s fair, imagine dividing $10 so a rich person, a middle class person and a poor person could get lunch. They’d each get $3 and change. The poor person can eat off the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. The middle class person can use it to pay for tip at a sit-down restaurant. And the rich person can light his cigar with it on the way to a fine dining establishment.
In the case of theCOVID-19 stimulus money, each school district will get a minimum of $120,000 while each intermediate unit, career and technical center, charter school, regional charter school and cyber charter school gets $90,000. If there is any money left over, those funds will be distributed to school districts based on 2018-19 average daily membership.
However, why should cyber charter schools receive this money at all? They don’t have any extra costs for transitioning to distance learning. That is their stock and trade already. Moreover, they don’t have buildings that need deep cleaning or remodeling. This money is a no strings gift to such enterprises while other educational institutions go wanting.
Moreover, brick and mortar charter schools almost always serve smaller student populations than authentic public schools. Why should they receive a flat $90,000? Wouldn’t it be better to given them a portion of this money based on the number of students they serve and the degree of poverty these kids live in?
In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same among authentic public school districts, too? Why should a rich district where almost everyone already has wi-fi and personal technology devices get the same as a poor one where these services are much less widespread? Why should the state give the wealthy as much help as those who can’t meet their basic obligations to children without it?
It’s not like the Commonwealth doesn’t already have a measure to allocate funding more fairly. The legislature passed a bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula that we could have used to ensured districts would have received funding proportionate to the needs of their students.
The fact that the legislature neglected to use it here shows too many in the Republican majority are not committed to equity. In fact, they revel in being able to bring unnecessary money to their wealthier districts.
THE COMING STORM
These measures from the state legislature are a start at addressing the financial impact of the Coronavirus crisis.
In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.
That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.
The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.
The $13.5 billion in CARES Act stimulus provided to states is a fraction of the $79 billion that the federal government provided during the Great Recession. U.S. Congress needs to step up federal aide to protect our children and ensure their educations aren’t forfeit for economic woes they played no part in causing.
Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for those who take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, this is less money for the rest of us to pay for much needed services. We lost $124 million in 2018-19, alone, to this program. Yet the legislature still voted to increase the program by $25 million last year.
We cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private and parochial schools while our authentic public schools which serve more than 90% of our children are underfunded.
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.
“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”
How did we get here?
Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.
Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.
That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.
This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.
I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.
With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.
DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq
So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.
In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.
Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.
But some of it is deeply disturbing.
For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”
They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.
-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.
-take notes about the test to share with others.
Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:
By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.
As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.
Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.
As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.
-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.
So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.
Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]
If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.
The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.
Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.
This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”
Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.
But that’s just how it is used in schools today.
The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.
It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.
It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!
And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!
This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.
In the short term, this is good news.
As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.
On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.
However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.
A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to make sure that the health and welfare of our students is first and foremost, front and center. And we’re not going to allow and ask students to return to school in an unsafe environment. We’re preparing for the best, but we’re planning for the worst.”
Turzai was so infuriated by this statement that he wrote a letter to Rivera – which the Pittsburgh area representative immediately shared with the media – he went on right wing talk radio to complain, and he posted a video on his Facebook page.
You know a Boomer is really mad when he goes on the social media.
Though his comments include his usual greatest hits against public schools and those greedy teachers, Turzai’s main point was simply science denial.
On Facebook, after a long list of activities that he said kids enjoy doing like sports and lab experiments, he said this:
“All of those can be done safely, and [kids] are not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue. The fact of the matter is kids can develop herd immunity, and if you [Rivera] have not yet developed a plan where we can safely educate kids in schools, then you are going to have to rethink education forward…”
So there you have it, folks.
Turzai wants Pennsylvania to reopen schools on time whether scientists and health experts think it’s safe or not because – Turzai knows best.
Pennsylvania’s village idiot thinks he knows best about schools.
“Pediatric COVID-19 patients might not have fever or cough. Social distancing and everyday preventive behaviors remain important for all age groups because patients with less serious illness and those without symptoms likely play an important role in disease transmission.”
So if we reopen schools before it is safe to do so, we run the risk of (1) kids dying, (2) kids becoming carriers and bringing the disease to any adults they come into contact with who are much more susceptible and (3) teachers and school staff getting sick and dying.
He’s trying to show he’s just as stupid as Donald Trump. The President says we should all drink bleach to get rid of COVID-19? Well Turzai says we should let our kids get sick and die or make us sick.
Republicans truly have become the party of stupid.
The media helps covidiots like Turzai by uncritically reprinting his outrageous lies.
Turzai is like a man who calmly says it’s not raining outside while a thunderstorm beats down on the neighborhood. Instead of pointing out the truth, the media simply reports what Turzai said and at most gives equal weight to a meteorologist. But there is no OPINION about facts! And whether scientific consensus holds with his crackpot conspiracy theories about how the Coronavirus spreads or not IS a fact.
He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.
So I moved on.
We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.
Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.
“Melanie?” I say.
“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”
She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.
But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?
My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?
Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.
The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.
I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.
It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.
For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.
That kind of thing happens all the time.
And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.
In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.
There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.
It’s okay if a few children die to start up the economy.
That is literally the opinion being offered by media influencers and policymakers as Coronavirus social distancing efforts continue passed the 30-day mark.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve closed down all nonessential businesses while people self quarantine at home waiting for the curve of infection to plateau and then drop off. Medical experts tell us this is the only way to ensure there are enough ventilators and hospital beds for those who get sick.
Yet there is a concerted effort by the Trump Administration and plutocrats everywhere to get business back up and running. And to do that, they need the schools to reopen so parents can return to work.
They literally want to reopen schools as soon as possible – even if it isn’t 100% safe.
And if that means students, teachers and parents die, at least their sacrifices will have been worth it.
“I just saw a nice piece in [British medical journal] The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”
Dr. Oz walked back the comment after popular backlash, but I believed him the first time. Many people would find that acceptable.
Dr. Phil McGraw (who unlike Dr. Oz is not a licensed doctor) said the following on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle:
“The fact of the matter is, the longer this lockdown goes on, the more vulnerable people get. And it’s like there’s a tipping point. There’s a point at which people start having enough problems in lockdown that it will actually create more destruction and actually more deaths across time than the actual virus will itself.”
He then compared coronavirus deaths to deaths from smoking, swimming pools and car crashes – which critics pointed out result from mostly voluntary behavior.
Once again, Dr. Phil walked back his comments after public outrage. And once again, I saw where he was coming from – because it’s clear where these celebrity talking heads are getting their information.
You find the same opinion tucked into many otherwise informative articles about the virus and education.
Education Next published a piece by Walton Family Foundation advisor and American Enterprise Institute fellow John Bailey with this precious little nugget tucked in its middle:
“Currently, the public health benefits of school closures and home quarantining outweigh the costs. But at what point does that equation flip? When do the economic, societal, and educational costs outweigh the public health benefits of these aggressive social distancing actions?”
The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.
Children have a more difficult time with the constant hand washing and separating themselves at least 6 feet apart recommended by health experts. This is one of the justifications for closing schools in the first place. If we reopen schools too quickly, it could jumpstart another wave of infections.
In fact, that’s exactly what the Imperial College of London found in its own modeling study on likely U.S. and U.K. outcomes.
School closures can be effective to help suppress the transmission rates and flatten the curve, the report concluded, IF CONTINUED OVER FIVE MONTHS.
That’s a long time. But it gets worse.
In the absences of mass vaccinations – which may be as much as two years away – the study found the virus is likely to rebound for a second and third wave.
Despite the science, every state has a different date in mind for when schools will reopen.
Since the beginning of April,a total of 21 state departments of education (including Pennsylvania’s) have decided to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year until at least August or September. Six states plus Washington, D.C., still have plans to reopen their schools before the end of the month.
Beyond the question of WHEN to reopen schools is the even more complicated one of HOW or IF.
President and chief executive of the National Association of State Boards of Education Robert Hull said administrators across the country are asking not how – but if – schools will reopen in the fall.
“Everybody says we hope we return to normal,” Hull said. “It’s not going to return to normal anytime soon because the new normal is going to be different.”
Multiple possibilities are being considered.
A major factor will be how well districts can test incoming students for infection.
If US schools all had digital thermometers (as they do in Singapore), students temperatures could be taken before letting them in to the building. Anyone running a fever could be sent home.
Some policymakers are even considering spot checking students throughout the day with thermometers and using video cameras to trace the path of any students running a temperature to tell who they may have come into contact with before being identified. However, this seems pretty disruptive to me and – especially in the younger grades – might terrify students and make them conversely feel less safe in school because of the very efforts done to ensure their safety.
One thought provoking proposal is reducing class size to no more than 10 students.
This would also have educational benefits allowing teachers the ability to give more one-on-one instruction. However, most classes are double or triple this size now. Few school buildings are large enough to double or triple the number of classrooms needed at the same time.
One solution to this is that children could attend on alternate days or on a half day basis – one group in the morning, another in the afternoon. The drawback is that this would reduce the hours students are in class. Lessons would either have to be cut down to essentials or some part of assignments may have to go online.
Just ensuring that students aren’t all in the hallway at the same time would be a challenge. Class dismissals might be staggered or perhaps the teachers would move from room-to-room while the students stay put.
Moreover, the simple act of busing students to-and-from school is likewise complicated. If students sit further apart on the bus, that means each district needs either more buses at the same time or double the time to transport students at arrival and dismissal.
But without it, the economy cannot get back under way.
When schools closed in March, many districts switched to some kind of distance learning. Teachers put assignments on-line and even teach through Internet meeting sites like ZOOM. Continuing this in some form – for part or all of the day – is also being considered. However, it causes as many problems as it solves.
Parents need to be able to get back to work. Many can’t stay at home taking care of their children indefinitely. And they can’t leave their kids to their own devices while trying to learn via computer, device or app.