If no one answers a question, was it even asked?
Way back on August 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) quietly posted a little notice on the PA Bulletin Website asking for public comment on the state’s charter school law.
This is not exactly a high traffic site.
It’s a state-run page that includes proposed rules, notices, proclamations, court rulings, actions and executive orders.
Unless you work for the state, are a journalist or a policy wonk, you probably didn’t see it.
Since then, there has been little fanfare, no hoopla, nothing much in the media about the notice at all.
But this is a huge opportunity for residents fed up with the nonsense the school privatization industry has been getting away with in the Commonwealth for decades.
Pennsylvania has one of the worst charter school laws in the nation.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded but privately operated.
Though there are about 180 of these privatized institutions throughout the state with more than 137,000 students, that represents only about 6 percent of the kids enrolled in public school.
Yet the state funding system pits authentic public schools against charter schools for the financing needed to stay open.
Charter schools siphon money from authentic public schools serving the neediest students creating a deficit spiral. Money gushes out of public districts which have to cut teachers and programs to patch budget gaps which in turn result in even more parents pulling their children out of the public schools and trying to enroll them in charters.
Though the legislature used to help authentic public schools by reimbursing them for 30% of the charter school costs, that funding has been eliminated.
Meanwhile, the charter school law has barely changed at all since it was enacted in 1997.
Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to correct that with sweeping reforms in 2020 – even if it means bypassing the gerrymandered and gridlocked legislature with executive orders.
But before he can begin, he needs to hear from commonwealth voters.
Charter schools are backed by billionaires like Betsy DeVos, Bill Gates and the Walton Family. To hold these privatized schools accountable, he needs tangible proof that he has voter support.
So the more comments he receives demanding action, the better the chances that gets done.
PDE has set no deadline for comments, but to make the most difference, we have until the end of the year – Dec. 31, 2019 – to make our voices heard.
There are two ways to do it. You can:
1) Write a letter to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera at:
Pedro A. Rivera
Office of the Secretary
Pennsylvania Department of Education
333 Market St.
Harrisburg, PA 17120
2) Email your letter to Special Assistant to the Secretary Adam Schott at:
Comments can be as long or short as you want, but here are some suggestions to keep in mind when writing.
1) Begin by telling who you are.
2) Explain the problem with charter schools briefly. Use real world examples if you can. There’s nothing wrong with referring to a newspaper article or blog. And if you can mention specifics from your school district, all the better.
3) Make suggestions for reform. You can address anything, but PDE is specifically looking for comments on these topics:
· Charter school applications: Strong regulations would require the application be comprehensive, set high standards, ensure only operators with needed skills are approved and maintain maximum local control.
· Admissions policies: Strong regulations would ensure charters conduct fair lotteries that don’t allow cherry picking. Schools should be located in areas that are accessible to poor students and those relying on public transportation. Charters should be required to create recruitment plans for specific groups of vulnerable students including EL students, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and students in foster care.
· Accountability for boards of trustees: Strong regulations would aim to prevent financial wrongdoing, eliminate conflicts of interest, and impose stronger penalties for the misuse of public funds.
· Information on charter management companies: Strong regulations would end high fees paid to charter management companies and increase transparency of boards, budgets, costs and contracts.
· Insurance, financial and accounting standards: Strong regulations would ensure there were independent auditors and accountants as well as increased transparency.
· Funding: This is about the subsidy redirection process that forces PDE to pay charters directly when they dispute a bill with a school district. Strong regulations would ensure all disputed funds go into an escrow account rather than just being paid.
· Academic accountability: Strong regulations would ensure all charters should be part of a performance system that is used in renewal and revocation decisions. The lowest performing charter schools should be subject to closure without appeal.
Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization working to promote public education throughout the Commonwealth, published this suggestion:
“We are recommending that your comments include the following:
1. We strongly support the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s decision to develop these regulations.
2. The regulations must end the conflicts of interest, financial self-dealing and lack of transparency that occur in the charter sector today. Charters must be held accountable for their performance in operations, finance and academics.
3. We strongly support local control over charter school opening and closing. Elected school boards know the needs of the community the best and are responsible to taxpayers and families.
4. The charter school law acknowledges that charter schools have an impact on the finances of school districts. The districts should be able to consider that impact when making decisions to open or renew a charter.”
Here is the letter I will be sending:
Dear Pedro A. Rivera:
Thank you for seeking comments from Pennsylvania residents about our 22-year-old charter school law.
I live in the Pittsburgh area and am both a public school teacher and the father of a public school student.
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 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
So here are the reforms I think we need to make.
There is zero reason why there should be charter schools at all. We do not need to spend public tax dollars on schools that are privately operated. If a school takes public money, it should be run by the public – specifically an elected school board. So we should repeal the charter school law in its entirety. We should be like Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky and West Virginia and have zero charter schools.
Of course, that leaves us with the question of what to do with the charter schools that already exist here. First, we have to commit to a complete moratorium on any new charter schools – ever. Then we need to decide what to do with those that already exist.
I think we should do a thorough audit of each of them. Any charter school that fails the audit, closes. They should have to prove they haven’t been wasting taxpayer funds and are providing a real service to students and families. They also should not be drawing any kind of profit from their efforts.
If we have any charter schools that meet these stipulations, we should reform them into fully authentic public schools. They should have to be run by elected school boards. They should have to abide by every rule authentic public schools already do – fully transparent, public meetings, accept all students in their coverage areas, etc.
Finally, any funding shortfall caused by keeping these schools in existence would have to be subsidized by the state. They would not get any funding that goes to the existing authentic public school. The charter schools that we are transforming into authentic public schools would have to be funded by an additional revenue stream from the state – and this may require an increase in state taxes. No one wants that but it’s the only fair way and will help reduce the number of ex-charter schools we rehabilitate.
I realize my suggestion goes against what we have always done and may provoke heated opposition. But I think it is what is best.
Moreover, if we have to find a compromise position, this is where we start from. If we must keep charter schools in Pennsylvania, they should be as transparent as authentic public schools, they should have to be run by elected school boards, they should not be able to make a profit (regardless of their tax status), they should have to accept all students in their coverage areas, and they should be fully funded by the state and not as parasites to authentic public schools.
Thank you for considering my position. There are thousands of parents, teachers, students and community members who feel as I do and we will work to support your efforts and/or push you to do right thing.
If you live in Pennsylvania, I strongly encourage you to send a letter (whether by email or snail mail) today. Feel free to borrow as much as you like from what I have here.
Together we can make a difference for our children and our communities. Please share widely and encourage your commonwealth friends and family to raise their voices as well.
From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, it’s time we were heard.
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