Who’s Trading Public School Funding for a Tax Credit?

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Ever wonder why our roads and public school buildings are crumbling?

 

Ever wonder why schools can’t afford books, buses and nurses?

 

Ever wonder why classroom teachers are forced to buy paper, pencils and supplies for their students out of pocket?

 

Because businesses like Giant Eagle, American Eagle Outfitters, and Eat’n Park aren’t paying their fair share.

 

It’s a simple concept – you belong to a society, you should help pay for the roads, bridges, schools, etc. that everyone needs to keep that society healthy.

 

After all, as a stockholder, CEO or business owner, you directly benefit from that society. If it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have nearly as many customers – if any.

 

Many of us learned this kind of stuff in kindergarten or grade school.

 
But ironically programs that allow businesses to avoid paying their fair share are being used to short change many of those same kindergarten and grade schools.

 

In Pennsylvania, one such program is called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), and everyone from local banks to Duquesne Light to UPMC healthcare providers are using it to lower their taxes while stealing from the public school cookie jar.

 
Here’s how it works.

 
If you expect a tax bill of $X at the end of the year, you can donate that same amount to the state for the purpose of helping parents pay off enrollment at a private or religious school for their children. Then you get between 75-90% of that donation back.

 

So if your tax bill is $100 and you donate $100, you can get back $90 – reducing your total tax bill to a mere 10 bucks.

 

Heck! Since this money is classified as a “donation” you can even claim it on your taxes and get an additional refund – even to the point where you end up making money on the deal! Pennsylvania even allows a “triple dip” – so you get the EITC tax credit, a reduction in your taxable income, and a reduction in your federal taxable income. We actually pay you to shortchange us on your taxes!

 

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 businesses. It just really hurts nearly everyone else because it reduces the state’s general fund – by $124 million last year, alone.

 

When we give away hundreds of millions of dollars every year to religious and parochial schools, we have less money to spend on public schools, roads and all other services that benefit the majority of our citizens – especially the poor who rely more heavily on these services.

 
So why doesn’t the state just budget this amount of money directly to religious and private schools instead of ransacking the general fund after businesses donate it to the tax incentive program?

 

Because it’s illegal to give taxpayer dollars to religious and private schools. The establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids it.

 

The founders of our country didn’t want a state religion with schools teaching theological propaganda like we had in Great Britain. Moreover, they demanded tax dollars be spent with accountability to the whole public – something you cannot do in a private or religious school which isn’t set up for everyone but only those who choose and can afford to go there.

 

However, some smart ass thought of an alleged loophole. He said that if tax money is turned into a tax credit, it’s no longer tax money and it doesn’t violate the rules to spend it on religious and private schools.

 

So this is a fiscal sleight of hand meant to give businesses a tax break while boosting private schools.

 
Who’s guilty of hiding behind this loophole to bolster their bottom line while short changing ours?

 

Probably a lot of businesses you know.

 

Thankfully, their donations to the EITC Program are a matter of public record as is how much money returned to them as savings.

 

You can find a handy database of state businesses right HERE searchable by county compiled by Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

 

 

I happen to live in Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh region – the second highest area of the Commonwealth for these tax dodge…. I mean credits.

 

 

Across the county in 2017-18 (the most recent year for which data is available), Allegheny County businesses donated $15,741,544. They got back $14,180,261 in tax credits.

 
A quick search came up with these noteworthy businesses:

 
Fatheads – the Southside sports bar along Carson Street in Pittsburgh
Contribution: $ 10,000
Tax Credit: $ 9,000

 
AEO Management, Co. 
(American Eagle Outfitters Corporate Office in the South Side, Pittsburgh)
Contribution: $ 350,000
Tax Credit: $ 315,000

 
Apex Diamonds, Inc. (A Pittsburgh jeweler)
Contribution: $ 149,000
Tax Credit: $ 134,100

 
Cochran Motors, Inc. (car dealership in Monroeville)
Donation: $ 100,000
Tax Credit: $ 90,000

 
Deer Leasing Co. (freight and cargo business) THREE ENTRIES:
Donation: $ 444,444
Tax Credit: $ 400,000

 

Deer Leasing Co.
Donation: $ 221,111
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 

Deer Leasing Co.
Donation: $ 388,888
Tax Credit: $ 349,999

 
-Dollar BankTWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 225,000
Tax Credit: $ 202,500

 

Dollar Bank
Donation: $ 400,000
Tax Credit: $ 360,000

 
Duquesne Light CompanyTHREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 10,000
Tax Credit $ 10,000
(So 100% return on investment!?)

 

Duquesne Light Company
Donation: $ 50,000
Tax Credit: $ 45,000

 

Duquesne Light Company
Donation: $ 240,000
Tax Credit: $ 216,000

 

-Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Inc. (Corporate headquarters in Homestead)
Donation: $ 25,000
Tax Credit: $ 23,500

 

-Federated Advisory Services Company (Asset management company) – THREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 111,111
Tax Credit: $ 100,000

 

Federated Investment Counseling
Donation: $ 111,111
Tax Credit: $ 100,000

 

Federated Investment Counseling
Donation: $ 222,222
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 
Giant Eagle, Inc.TWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 833,333
Tax Credit: $ 750,000

 

Giant Eagle, Inc.
Donation: $ 221,111
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 
Glimcher Brokerage, Inc. (Real estate company) – TWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 380,000
Tax Credit: $ 342,000

 

Glimcher Group, Inc.
Donation: $ 300,000
Tax Credit: $ 270,000

 
HM Health Insurance Company (Camp Hill, Pa) – THREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 50,000
Tax Credit: $ 45,000

 

HM Health Insurance Company
Donation: $ 243,333
Tax Credit: $ 219,000

 

HM Health Insurance Company
Donation: $ 165,556
Tax Credit: $ 150,000

 
PNC Bank, N.A. – TWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 685,000
Tax Credit: $ 616,500

 

PNC Bank, N.A.
Donation: $ 148,303
Tax Credit: $ 133,500

 
Rohrich Imports, Inc. (Luxury Pittsburgh Car Dealership)
Donation: $ 60,000
Tax Credit: $ 54,000

 
The Buncher Company (property management company) – THREE ENTRIES
Donation: $ 416,667
Tax Credit: $ 375,000

 

The Buncher Company
Donation: $ 416,667
Tax Credit: $ 375,000

 

The Buncher Company
Donation: $ 221,111
Tax Credit: $ 200,000

 

The Huntington National BankTWO ENTRIES
Donation: $ 549,556
Tax Credit: $ 494,600

 

The Huntington National Bank
Donation: $ 111,111
Tax Credit: $ 100,000

 
UnitedHealthcare of Pennsylvania, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 

-UPMC Diversified Services, Inc. (Healthcare provider) – SIX ENTRIES
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 
UPMC Diversified Services, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 181,000

 

UPMC Diversified Services, Inc.
Donation: $ 190,000
Tax Credit: $ 171,000

 

UPMC Health Benefits, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 

UPMC Health Benefits, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 181,000

 

UPMC Health Benefits, Inc.
Donation: $ 200,000
Tax Credit: $ 180,000

 

But this leaves out the largest and shadiest group donating to the EITC Program – Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs).

 

 

These “special purpose entities” are set up to represent individual donors so they can more easily divert tax dollars to private and parochial schools.

 

LLCs represent hundreds of individuals who allow the LLC to donate on their behalf and then they get the tax credits passed back to them. It’s a way to encourage the wealthy to get the tax cut and support school privatization without all the hassle of doing the paperwork themselves.

 

And most (if not all) of these LLCs are set up by religious organizations to boost their own parochial schools.

 

For instance, Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools is perhaps the largest LLC receiving EITC funds.

 

Across the state, these organization made $15.6 million in donations and claimed $14 million in tax credits.

 

In Allegheny County, the largest are CASTA-SOS LLC and Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship LLC.

 

CASTA was set up by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship benefits Jewish schools in the city.

 

Here’s how much they took from the state general fund last year:

 

CASTA-SOS I LLC
Donation: $ 509,500
Tax Credit: $ 458,550

 

CASTA-SOS II LLC
Donation: $ 460,890
Tax Credit: $ 414,801

 
Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship I LLC
Donation: $ 675,250
Tax Credit: $ 607,725

 

Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship II LLC
Donation: $ 750,000
Tax Credit: $ 675,000

 

EITC money went to almost 1,170 different organizations across the state. A fraction were YMCA’s, the Salvation Army and preschools. But the vast majority were private and religious schools.

 

Defenders of the project claim this money goes to fund “scholarships” for poor children to help defray the costs of enrollment at these schools.

 

However, a family making as much as $100,608 per year can qualify for an EITC scholarship for their child. A family with two children could make up to $116,216 and still qualify.

 

Consider this: one of the largest single recipients of this money in Allegheny County was the exclusive Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. The private secular school took in almost $1 million last year so that its wealthy students didn’t have to spend as much on enrollment.

 

Why are we subsidizing the rich?

 

Why are we robbing the poor to do so?

 

Why are we using public money to fund the teaching of climate denial, creationism, indoctrination in religious and political ideologies?

 

The short answer – our politicians are spineless and indebted to the people this benefits.

 

Just this summer, the Pennsylvania legislature AGAIN increased the limit for the program by an additional $25 million.

 

That’s the pattern. Every year, the Republican-controlled (and heavily gerrymandered) legislature can’t get their regressive policies passed Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. They need some Democrats to support their spending priorities. So they entice right-leaning Democrats with increases to these tax incentive programs in order to reach compromises.

 

The result – every year we allow more tax dollars to fly away to private and religious schools while further undermining funding for public schools.

 

But it could have been worse. Earlier in the year, the legislature passed a measure to increase the EITC Program by $100 million. Thankfully it was vetoed by Gov. Wolf. Unfortunately, he let the $25 million increase get through.

 

This is a problem that is not going away.

 

We need to let our lawmakers know in no uncertain terms that we do NOT support these programs. And this isn’t just Republican lawmakers. We especially need to pressure Democrats and even run challengers to those who are not progressive enough in the primaries.

 

And we need to let businesses who partake of the smorgasbord of tax credits that doing so will lose them our business.

 

If we want to stop theft disguised as “tax credits,” we have to start hitting these businesses where it hurts – in the pocketbook.

 

Because they certainly don’t feel it in their hearts.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Student Test Scores May Play a Smaller Role in Future PA Teacher Evaluations

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Pennsylvania lawmakers may have finally realized that treating teachers like crap isn’t a good way to improve public schools.

 

Across the country it’s getting harder to fill teaching positions with qualified educators. And that’s because of the way we treat the people who volunteer to educate the next generation.

 

You can’t raise expectations while taking away resources, union protections, and fair ways to evaluate their work.

 

And to his credit, state Sen. Ryan Aument seems to have finally seen the light.

 

In 2012, the Republican from Lancaster County was one of the leading proponents of the Commonwealth’s new teacher evaluation system which drastically increased the amount student test scores are used to assess educators.

 

But now Aument and other Republicans are proposing new legislation to cut back on these same measures.

 

Under the current system, only 50 percent of state teachers annual evaluations come from observations of what they actually do in the classroom. The rest comes from student test scores and other factors that are out of their control.

 

The proposed legislation would increase teacher observations to 70 percent of their evaluations and try to account for student poverty – in addition to student test scores – in the remaining 30 percent.

 

If passed, the new evaluation system would begin in the 2021-22 school year.

 

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Source: PSEA

The proposed legislation – Senate Bill 751passed in the Senate by a vote of 38-11.

 

However, the identical House Bill 1607 proposed by Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford County) was not considered in time before the legislative session ended. It is expected to come up for a vote in the fall.

 

J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, said that the governor generally supports the proposal. It has also been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

 

Each year teachers are judged either Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement or Failing. The first two are passing scores. The last two are not and require teachers to be more closely monitored, more frequently evaluated, complete a performance improvement plan and if improvements are not made, they can be fired.

 

If approved, the new bill would shorten the window when teachers are penalized for bad evaluations.

 

Under the current system, teachers who get two “Needs Improvement” ratings in 10 years can be sacked. The new bill shortens that period to four years. This incentivizes improvement and doesn’t hold a bad evaluation over a teacher’s head for a decade.

 

Moreover, the current law only allows principals to judge a very small percentage of their staff as Distinguished – the top of the scale. The proposed law puts no cap on this allowing them to give more honest and accurate evaluations.

 

Finally, there’s the issue of Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs. These are cumbersome and time consuming evaluations teachers are currently required to create and submit to their administrators for approval before conducting complicated performance measures of their classes that must be reviewed a second time by administrators as part of the annual evaluation.

 

I can’t find anywhere in either bill that spells out that these SLOs would be discontinued, but that does appear to be the case. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the new proposals where in the current law they make up 20% of the total evaluation.

 

The only thing I see that’s even close to the SLO is the requirement under Section 1138.7. Overall performance rating. Part II:

 

“A classroom teacher shall provide documented input to an evaluator on the development of teacher-specific data measures and annual results of data. The documented input shall be included with documentation of the classroom teacher’s overall annual rating.”

 

However, I don’t think this is the same thing.

 

Despite bipartisan support, there are important groups calling for caution on the proposal.

 

Teachers in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh districts – the areas of the state with the highest percentage of impoverished students – say that they weren’t consulted on the bill and have not had time to fully consider it. Both groups belong to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

 

They worry that the poverty index included in the bill may not accurately account for  economic disparities and whether the proposal really reduces the influence of standardized testing on teacher evaluations. After all, test scores are part of the teacher specific evaluation which under the proposal would go from 15-20 percent of educator’s evaluations. It may be the elimination of the SLOs which rely on student performance that ultimately reduce student outcomes from the evaluation while slightly increasing standardized test scores.

 

In any case, educators and advocates should scour the proposed legislation in the summer months to ensure that legislators know the full impact of what they’ll be asked to vote on as early as September.

 

The proposal may have been initiated in part to deal with the nationwide plague of teachers walking off the job due to unfair legislative practices and the demonization of educators. Since 1996, the number of undergraduate education majors has declined by 55 percent. And, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the number of newly issued instructional teaching certificates in the Commonwealth has dropped by 71 percent since 2009. The state used to issue more than 14,000 new teachers licenses  annually. In 2016-17, the state only gave out 4,412.

 

Perhaps offering educators more equitable evaluations may help stem the tide – otherwise we’ll soon find our classrooms filled with students that no one is willing to teach.

 

Another reason behind the new proposal may be a reaction to previous bad legislation in Harrisburg.

 

It seems to be an attempt to numb some of the sting from a 2017 bill that ended seniority-based teacher layoffs in the Commonwealth and instead tied those decisions to these teacher evaluations.

 

Now teachers who receive Unsatisfactory evaluations – even if that only means they need improvement – are the first to go. It allows administrators to stack the deck against teachers they don’t like, teachers at the top of the pay scale or who advocate for policies different than those favored by the bosses.

 

Frankly, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

 

That bill was passed mostly by the Republican majority and though Wolf could have vetoed it, he chose to let it become law without his signature.

 

As bad as it is, it set a fire under legislators to at least create a better system for teacher evaluation which they seem to have actually taken seriously.

 

One concern lawmakers have with the current system is that it tends to penalize the best teachers and buoy the worst ones.

 

The best teachers get their evaluations dragged down if they work in low performing districts just as struggling teachers get theirs pushed up if they work in high performing ones.

 

It’s hoped that judging teachers more on what they actually do and trying to account for the poverty level of the students they teach will avoid this trap.

 

In truth, it’s unfair to judge teachers on student test scores at all. Mountains of research have concluded that such so-called Value-Added Measures (VAM) are inaccurate and discriminatory.

 

Relying on these measures even to a lessor degree opens the state and individual districts up to legal challenges as has happened in other states.

 

But at least this new suggestion improves over the present system in many ways.

 

We’ll have to see if Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teachers end up endorsing the plan and whether the House finally passes the measure and Wolf signs it.

 

Stay tuned.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pittsburgh School Board Candidate Anna Batista Takes Big Money From Special Interests

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“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”

-George Washington

 

Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting running for Pittsburgh School Board, is taking thousands of dollars in donations from big money interests.

 

A quick look at campaign finance reports on Allegheny County’s Website shows Batista took beaucoup bucks from school privatization lobbyists, real estate developers, lawyers, and financial advisors.

 

Meanwhile, her opponent Pam Harbin, a public school watchdog, is supported almost exclusively by grassroots donations.

 

 

Both candidates are running for District 4, which serves parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland. Since they’ve cross filed and will appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, the seat should be decided in the May 21 primary.

 

Batista and Harbin have raised similar amounts for their campaigns. Harbin has $33,412.95 while Batista has $32,414.

 

Batista has support from at least two troubling industries – school privatizers and corporate crusaders – which are nowhere to be seen in her opponents financials.

 

Particularly troubling to me are the charter school and voucher advocates.

 

Someone shouldn’t be running for a public school board with backing from the same vultures demanding public schools be dismantled and their assets and funding siphoned away to private industry. Charter schools cost the Pittsburgh Public district more than $85 million per year in tuition payments. While the district has no plans to open new public schools, it is forced to open new charter schools every time one of these publicly financed but privately run institutions appeals to the state Charter Appeal Board, further draining resources away from remaining public schools.

 

In fact, Batista is using “Students First” as a title on her campaign mailers. This is the name of a well-known school privatization group founded by infamous public school saboteur Michelle Rhee. The education justice movement across the country and here in Pittsburgh has been fighting Students First for years. They are infamous for dumping money into Pennsylvania politics to back legislators friendly to school privatization. No one who is serious about education justice would use this title: either Batista does not know about Students First, she knows and doesn’t care, or she is being intentional in signaling to privatizers that she is on their side.

 

Students First merged with 50CAN, a national group focused on vouchers and school privatization that grew out of ConCAN, started by Connecticut hedge fund managers. Betsy DeVos, now U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the merger and has done similar work for years through her own organization with the same privatization agenda. Here in Pennsylvania, the local branch is PennCAN. Their director, who also sits on the board of a local charter school asking for approval to set up shop in Pittsburgh, is one of Batista’s donors.

 

The largest donations are noted below. Chief among these are:

 

-Rachel Amankulor, PennCAN and Catalyst Charter School board member. (Pittsburgh Public School Board denied Catalyst’s application citing problems with its plan to accommodate students with disabilities, among other issues, but the state Charter Appeal Board overturned the board’s decision and the case may now go to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.)

 

-Catherine Axtman, spouse of William Axtman who sits on the Propel Charter School Board

 

-Kirk Burkley ($500) and Robert Bernstein ($250), of Bernstein- Burkley, a Pittsburgh law firm specializing in Business Law, Creditors Rights, Oil & Gas, Bankruptcy, & Real Estate. (Burkley ran against school board member Lynda Wrenn in 2015 – a race fought in large part around privatization issues!)

 

-Allison McCarthy, Vice President of Teach for America; Catalyst Charter School Board Member; and Broad Academy graduate (Eli Broad is a major privatizer who started the Broad Academy of which Devos is a graduate.)

 

-Nathaniel Yap, spouse of Brian Smith, Catalyst Charter Founder and CEO ($1,000)

 

And then we come to the big business partisans.

 

Many of these advocate for tax deferment programs to entice businesses into the Pittsburgh area on the condition that they are allowed to escape paying taxes or pay at a reduced rate for a certain number of years. Programs such as Tax Incremental Financing (TIFs) put a heavier burden on the schools than other public resources. They cost the school district 50% as opposed to the county and city, which only lose 25% of their owed taxes each.

 

Local politicians like County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto  – though Democrats – are chief advocates of these types of neoliberal, business friendly programs. While the city and county have nothing to do with Pittsburgh Public Schools, they do often expect the School Board to rubber stamp TIFs. The School Board is an independent taxing body, but they are rarely brought to the table at the beginning of the process.

 

Corporate donors include:

 

-Friends of Rich Fitzgerald ($500)

 

-People for Bill Peduto ($2,000)

 

-Gregg Perelmann, Walnut Capital ($1,000)

 

-Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital (Developers of Bakery Square and other projects that have received a number of TIFs)

 

-Helen Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna

 

-John Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000 plus in-kind) (His office in the Squirrel Hill business district is worth thousands)

 

-Paul Katz, Brandywine Agency ($250)

 

-Patricia Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000)

 

-Rod Werstil, McKinney Properties ($500)

 

-Kevin McKeegan, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP (Pittsburgh Real Estate Law)

 

-Luke Meyers, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates (New York Real Estate Law)

 

-Nancy Finkelstein, Schulte Roth & Zabel (Finkelstein’s Linkedin Profile includes this quote: “I have concentrated my practice on representing private equity funds, investment banks, hedge funds, financial institutions, finance companies and high-net-worth individuals in a wide variety of transactions, including financings, debt restructurings, leveraged acquisitions, and collateralized loan facilities.”)

 

-Steven Massey, Federated Investors

 

-Richard Lerach, Gateway Financial

 

-William Sheridan, Reed Smith LLP (“Represented managed care defendants in obtaining dismissal of antitrust conspiracy and monopolization claims.”)

 

All of this is truly troubling for someone running to serve as a school board director.

 

Compare Batista’s financials with that of her opponent Harbin.

 

In at least two instances, Harbin won endorsements and donations from organizations Batista had been courting.

 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers gave Harbin $5,000 instead of Batista.

 

Likewise, Unite! Pittsburgh gave Harbin $1,500 over Batista. This is State Rep. Summer Lee’s PAC. The organization supports candidates running on a criminal justice slate who are committed to ending the school-to-prison, poverty-to-prison, and addiction-to-prison pipelines.

 

Other notable donations to Harbin’s campaign include:

 

-Women for the Future Pittsburgh ($500)

 

-Friends of Chelsea Wagner ($500) (Wagner is Allegheny County Controller and one of the founders of Women for the Future Pittsburgh)

 

-Michael Fine ($2,800) physician for the Veterans Administration

 

-Kathy Fine ($2,800)  Michael’s wife and long-time education justice activist who fought against the closing of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School.

 

-Nancy Bernstein ($1,000) J Street Board Member (J Street organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure and democratic.)

 

These are exactly the kind of donations you’d expect from a grassroots candidate – labor unions, progressive political promoters and activists.

 

Full disclosure: Though I live just outside of the Pittsburgh area, I am not unbiased in this race. I consider Harbin a friend and fully support her run for school board.

 

However, the donations outlined in this article are all facts. Feel free to go to the county Website and see for yourself.

 

Our children deserve better than Batista – a school director in the employ of the same forces out to sabotage education and pick the remains clean for their own individual ends.

 

Call me crazy, but I think children should be an end in themselves.

 

School board candidates who put themselves up for sale like Batista don’t deserve your vote. They’ve already sold theirs to the highest bidder.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pam Harbin Wants to Go From Pittsburgh School Board Watchdog to School Board Member

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My friend Pam Harbin is trying to undergo a startling metamorphosis.

 

 

She wants to transform from an education activist into a Pittsburgh School Director.

 

 
Now that Board President Lynda Wrenn is stepping down after 4 years, city voters in District 4 will have to decide whether Harbin can make the change. The election is on May 21.

 

 

Residents in parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland already know Harbin as a fierce warrior for children’s civil rights, the plight of disabled kids and authentic public schools.

 
I’ve known Pam, personally, for years in my own role as an education activist. Though I don’t live in the city, I’ve participated in numerous collective actions to fight for the schools all our children deserve. And right beside me in every case – often in front of me – was Pam.

 

 

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I may not live in the district, but I wish I could vote for her. Harbin is an amazing leader with boundless energy, piercing intelligence, a deep knowledge of education policy, an advanced degree in finance and marketing, and an impressive track record of education justice achievements.

 
“I am deeply concerned for our system of public education,” she says. “The status quo isn’t working for all children. Thankfully, there are many people here in Pittsburgh and across the country who are fighting for investment in, and transformation of, our public schools. Unfortunately, their efforts are hindered by the well-funded organizations who fight for public school disinvestment, privatization, and for the elimination of teachers’ right to unionize.”

 

 

 

For the past 12 years, Harbin has been at the forefront of every major battle for the future of Pittsburgh’s public schools and the rights of its students.

 
Harbin was instrumental in pushing city school board directors to enact a suspension ban from Pk-2nd grade for minor non-violent conduct. She successfully fought to stop the district from implementing a physical restraint protocol that wasn’t trauma informed. She successfully fought against a policy that would have allowed school police officers to carry guns. She supported a successful Sanctuary Schools Policy for immigrant students. She also supported changes to the districts policies that would better welcome and include Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ students, including a change that allows students to use the bathroom that best fits their own gender identity.

 
Harbin and her coalition of local activists even made national news when they stopped the district from contracting with Teach for America, stopped the closing of 10 schools (after 23 were previously closed), pushed the board to hire a new Superintendent using an inclusive process that relied heavily on community input, and led the fight for a Community School Policy and the creation of 8 Community Schools.

 
Harbin has two challengers in the election: Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting and Ashley Priore, a 19-year-old first year student at the University of Pittsburgh studying Business and English, who started a successful after school chess program for girls.

 
But despite facing a crowded field, Harbin has earned every organizational endorsement she has sought thus far, including the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, the Young Democrats of Allegheny County, the Stonewall Democrats and the Network for Public Education—an organization that frequently reposts my own writing as an education blogger and which is on the frontlines of education justice nationwide.

 

 

 

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Harbin is one of the most experienced education leaders ever to run for school board in the city. She co-founded the Education Rights Network (ERN), a parent-led organization working for fully resourced, inclusive and quality education for students throughout Pennsylvania. The ERN is part of One Pennsylvania, an organization that unites low income and working class activists to tackle the fundamental economic justice and political problems of local communities.

 
“Our members are workers, students, parents, seniors, people with disabilities, and retirees who are excited to learn, collaborate, and build power,” she says. “We follow the money, confront the power, and make the change.”

 

 

ERN is a member of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, a coalition of community, faith, and labor organizations working together to create sustainable public schools in Pittsburgh—an alliance which Harbin also helped to found in 2013. Great Public Schools is affiliated on the national level with the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools.

 
Harbin is also a member and past Co-Chair of the Pittsburgh Local Task Force on the Right to Education (LTF), a parent-majority organization that works with administrators of Pittsburgh Public Schools and community agencies to improve services for students with disabilities.

 
And she serves on the board of directors and was past President of Evolve Coaching (formerly Arts for Autism Foundation of Pittsburgh), supporting individuals with disabilities and their communities through education, employment, and the arts.

 
No one else in the race—and maybe in the whole city—has a resume like Harbin’s.

 
Harbin believes her years of leadership for and service to Pittsburgh students and families have provided her with the needed foundation for a transition from community leader to school board member. She has attended or streamed more than 2,000 hours of school board meetings. She has served on Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) district-wide advisory committees, including the Community Schools Steering Committee, Envisioning Educational Excellence Advisory Committee, Parental Involvement Policy Committee, Excellence for All Steering Committee, and the Special Education Delivery Model Advisory Committee. And through these many committees and organizations Harbin has helped more than 100 individual families secure an IEP or a 504 plan for their children—in part because she understands better than most the byzantine world of public school special education services.

 
No one is better suited to this position than Harbin. I literally wish we could clone her and have her fill every vacancy on the board. She is that qualified, that experienced, and that effective.

 
If this sounds a bit like a love letter, it kind of is.

 

 

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I have many fond memories of fighting the power alongside Pam Harbin. I remember organizing events through Yinzercation with Pam, even canvasing local candidates door-to-door with her and my (then) 9-year-old daughter. No matter what, you could always count on Pam to be there for children.

 
“When our public schools are strong, our children and community thrive,” she says. “We have many great Pittsburgh Public Schools, teachers, and programs. But, in each school, there are children who can’t excel because their individual needs have not been met. We must do better.”

 

 

“We must remove the barriers that keep all of our children from fulfilling their dreams. This requires transformational, sustainable change in policy and practice at the local, state, and national level.”

 

 

If anyone can make that change happen, it’s Harbin. As someone who has a degree in finance, who is an experienced negotiator and a proven coalition builder, she is uniquely qualified to do so from within the board as she has been successful doing so from outside of it.

 

 

She has an ambitious set of goals and priorities if elected:

 

 

-Strengthening relationships between all stake-holders with an emphasis on child wellness.

 

-Defining success beyond standardized test scores to include authentic education practices, addressing trauma, disengagement, hunger, the quality of school food programs, the condition of our buildings and bathrooms, and children’s need for exercise and play.

 

 

-Achieving smaller class sizes and a smaller ratio of kids to adults in each building with more teachers, counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals, nurses, librarians, and other staff that keeps the building functioning at its best.

 

 

-Restoring funding to art, music, physical education, and other programming that keep kids wanting to come to school.

 

-Stopping criminalization and over-policing of students, and stopping the use of ineffective punishments that keep children away from their learning and put them on the track to drop out, to jail, and to poverty.

 

 

-Intentionally recruiting, retaining, and supporting educators of color and those who identify as LGBTQ.

 

 

-Working to make teacher mentoring, new teacher induction, and professional development better to make the very best use of teachers’ time and address key gaps in preparation to teach the wide spectrum of students in the district.

 

 

-Making teacher evaluation fair and consistent, not based solely on test scores or value added models.

 

 

-Ensuring teachers (and all school staff) are well paid, treated fairly, and valued for the critical work they do for children every day.

 

 

-Protecting collective bargaining rights so teachers (and all staff) have a voice to improve their schools – because teaching conditions are students’ learning conditions.

 

 

-Investing in the proven Community Schools model and work collaboratively with community partners to bring resources to each school.

 

 

-Working at the state level to force our legislators to finally provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for public education and stop efforts to dismantle public education through vouchers and other privatization schemes.

 

 

-Building coalitions to improve the flawed state Charter School Law – Charter Schools must have more accountability for the delivery of education to all students, including disabled children, English Language Learners, and kids who are homeless or who are in foster care.

 

 

angel and pam

 

 

I could literally go on about Pam for another 10,000 words. Easy.

 

 

But let me close with this.

 

Harbin began her journey as an education leader when she started advocating for her own children at their first elementary school—Liberty elementary in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She found that she could make a difference for a few children at a time by throwing herself into volunteer work at the school.

 

 

But then she realized that if she wanted to make a difference for more than just a few children that she needed to work with others. Indeed, to do this work effectively Pam has had to work with people of different backgrounds, races, opinions and ideologies. She has had to listen to others, to compromise, to build bridges, and to prioritize common goals in each of her coalitions. In short, she gets things done.

 

 

And she’s been doing that for more than a dozen years.

 

 

Not because she has no choice. Not because anyone is paying her to do so. Not because doing so is bringing her any riches or fame.

 

 

But because it has been the right thing to do.

 

 

And that’s the best endorsement I can imagine.


NOTE: Special thanks to Professor Kathleen M. Newman who helped edit this article.

 

Click HERE to join Pam’s campaign!


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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What Will It Take to Get Equitable School Funding in Pennsylvania – a Statewide Teachers Strike!?

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What if every public school teacher in Pennsylvania refused to come to work on Monday?

What if instead they took to the streets with signs and placards, bullhorns and chanted slogans.

Maybe:

“Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This Unfair Funding Has to Go!”
Or:

“What do we want!? FAIR FUNDING! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!”

The problem is that from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, the Keystone state has the most unequal school funding system in the country. And no one in Harrisburg seems able and/or willing to do a damn thing about it.

Nor is anyone going to do much again this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t mention it once last week during the Democrat’s first budget speech to the legislature after being re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not exactly ignoring the issue. His newly proposed budget asks for a $200 million increase in education funding.

But that’s far from what’s needed to heal the billions of dollars schools lost during the massive budget cuts of Tom Corbett, the former Republican governor, nor does it address the underlying inequity of how we fund these schools in the first place.

Sadly, failing to fix education funding gaps is par for the course in Harrisburg.

Every year Democrats complain about the problem, suggest repairing it, and then are denied everything but an incremental increase by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Every year, that is, until this one.

This is the first time Democrats have seemingly given up on solving the problem and just proposed the incremental increase that they suspect Republicans will approve.

It’s a pitiful situation to accept as status quo.

One could argue that it’s the electorate’s fault. After all, if they keep voting for Republicans that make it clear they don’t support equity in education, that must represent the will of the people.

Except it doesn’t. Fair funding is popular among voters everywhere in the Commonwealth. And it’s one of the reasons they elected and re-elected Wolf. However, when it comes to state government, legislative districts are so gerrymandered, the will of the people gets ignored.

In November, Democrats got 381,000 more Pennsylvania votes than Republicans to represent them in the state House. But Republicans still kept the majority.

So what can you do when your voice is smothered by red tape?

You can turn to the Democratic governor who is the only thing stopping the opposition from gutting schools even further. You can ask him to push lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get off their collective asses and do their jobs.

But Wolf does not seem ready to spend his political capital in this way.

According to an Associated Press article by Marc Levy:

 

“For his part, Wolf’s office says he remains open to a discussion with the Legislature on making school funding fairer. However, someone else may have to carry the torch.”

Just who could this “someone else” be?

As usual, it may have to be the Commonwealth’s teachers.

As in every state, when governments and communities can’t or won’t do right by their children, educators step up.

We buy classroom supplies, we feed the hungry, we dry the tears, and when all else fails we put our jobs on the line and strike until school boards, legislatures and governors do the right thing.

Some have suggested that’s what’s needed here.

There have been at least nine large-scale teachers strikes across various states in the last 12 months. This includes actions in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and – most recently – Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

They began in Republican dominated states but have spread to those governed mostly by Democrats.

The Denver strike ended Thursday morning with an agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. After three days on the picket line, teachers may be returning to their classrooms having achieved their goals.

In today’s climate of dark money and political gridlock, collective action seems the only way to get anything done.

Perhaps we need an army of the state’s 123,000 educators to walk out of their classes in unison demanding fair funding for our most vulnerable students.

Such a move would be unprecedented. To my knowledge, teachers strikes in the Commonwealth have always involved educators and staff at one of the hundreds of districts, not a unified action of teachers throughout the state. A movement on this scale would require cooperation and buy in from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And union bosses are rarely motivated to endorse such measures without being forced to it by grassroots pressure from members.

Moreover, it would put teachers unions in a dangerous position. Each district contract has a no strike/no lockout clause guaranteeing that membership won’t walkout during the life of a contract. Where we’re seeing these major nationwide strikes either the contract has expired like in Denver and Los Angeles or they’re so-called “Right-to-Work” states without these explicit worker protections.

It’s doubtful the state could actually fire and replace the more than 100,000 teachers in its employ, but the worst case scenario for a state-wide strike in Pennsylvania would be the invalidation of all existing contracts, the loss of arbitration, grievances, collective bargaining and even putting retirement at risk.

That’s a lot to ask of educators – though creative organizers could find ways to avoid or mitigate the risk – for instance with a sick out or mass demonstrations on weekends or holidays.

I – for one – am sick of watching my middle school students overstuffed into classrooms with crumbling infrastructure and meager resources while a few miles down the road the rich kids have small classes and schools that look like palaces. I’ll bet there are a lot of teachers and parents who feel the same way.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take to the streets.

Perhaps it’s long past time.

When I say the state is the most inequitable in the country, that’s not hyperbole.

It’s according to several studies done over multiple years by groups like the Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Education.

More than any other, the Keystone State gives a boost to rich kids and a boot to poor ones.

Why?

You have to understand where the money comes from to educate kids in America.

Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhoods.

The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligation thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the cost.

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

In rich neighborhoods, this is no problem. In middle class communities, it’s not much of one. But in poor communities, there isn’t enough money to make up the difference. Their kids have no choice but to do without.

So kids from rich communities get everything. Kids from middle class communities get most of what they need. And kids from poor communities get whatever scraps are left at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s trickle down economics – Pennsylvania style.

And it’s an intolerable situation!

According to an Associated Press analysis of 2016-17 state data on school district spending, middle class districts spend as much as $673 more per student than poor districts. Rich districts spend about $4,300 more per student.

 

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. That’s a significantly larger difference than the next-closest state, Vermont, where the spending difference between rich and poor schools is only 18 percent. Three other states — Illinois, Missouri and Virginia — have gaps of 17 percent.

 

pa funding inequality

 
We can’t keep kicking minorities and the destitute to the curb. We can’t keep giving the rich and middle class every opportunity to succeed while depriving the poor of that same chance.

Wolf, the Democrats and a few Republicans have tried several times to fix the problem.

First, they attempted large increases in education funding to catch up to where funding would be if the Corbett cuts hadn’t happened coupled with the rising costs caused by inflation.

In 2015, the governor proposed a $400 million increase but funded it with a tax increase on the rich that almost all Republicans refused.

Then he tried to bring the state share of education funding up to 50% by using a more equitable tax plan. He proposed cutting property taxes in poorer districts and replacing them with higher state taxes elsewhere. However, Republicans saw it as an opportunity to completely eliminate property taxes and cut school funding even further. It ended in a stalemate and another incremental education increase.

If the legislature wouldn’t approve the necessary spending increases to heal the cuts it made under Corbett, Wolf at least wanted lawmakers to approve dividing the money up more fairly among the state’s 500 school districts.

A funding formula had been approved four years ago to reflect changes in school district attendance and wealth that had been ignored for a quarter century. This would result in more support for poorer schools and less for wealthier ones.

And there’s the sticking point. Lawmakers wouldn’t approve a plan that would provide less funding to 70% of the state’s districts – but neither would they increase school spending to make up the difference.

You’d think that such legislative gridlock might make voters lose hope. However, there is a mass movement of people at the grassroots level demanding change for our children.

Most notably, the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.

The lawsuit – now in its fourth year – is scheduled for trial before the state Supreme Court in 2020. So at best, relief is still a ways in the future. Many are hoping justices will order the legislature to dramatically increase its investment in public schools. But the outcome is certainly not a sure thing.

Could striking teachers in red and blue states be showing us in Pennsylvania the solution?

Might it be time to raise our teacher voices in the purple states, too?

And is there a path to equity through collective action that doesn’t hang teachers out to dry?

 


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pittsburgh Christian Academy Tries to Become a Charter School to Cash in on Taxpayer Funding

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The line between public and private school is getting awfully thin in Pittsburgh.

 

City public school directors received a request from Imani Christian Academy, a religious school in the East Hills, to be allowed to transform into Imani Academy Charter School for the Fall term of 2019.

 

Though parochial schools have metamorphosed into charter schools in Florida, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., this would be the first such transformation in Pennsylvania, according to Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

 

The change would require Imani to give up its religious curriculum in exchange for being fully funded by taxpayer dollars.

 

However, there are numerous red flags in the school’s application that make one wonder if operators are being entirely honest about giving up a faith-based curriculum.

 

First, there is the proposal by the school, itself.

 

The application does not specify that religious values will be taught in the classroom. However, its personnel budget lists a comparative religion teacher on staff. The list of proposed teachers also includes a middle/high school religious studies teacher.

 

That’s not exactly common practice at most public schools though teaching about religion in a secular context is allowed.

 

According to the Anti-defamation League’s Website:

 

“Public schools may not teach religion, although teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted. The Bible may be taught in a school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document.”

 

Even so, it’s awfully convenient that a school whose mission statement currently includes “We share Christ with our children daily and seek to help them grow into mature Christians” would somehow magically become secular overnight.

 

If Imani’s charter is approved, it would be required to discontinue any religious component in its curriculum. The state school code requires even charter schools to be “nonsectarian in all operations.” The proposed academy would not be permitted to display any religious objects or symbols on the premises.

 

Yet one wonders who will check to make sure this actually happens.

 

Charter schools are not required to be nearly as transparent as fully public schools. They are not required to have open meetings of school directors, release their documents for public inspection or any of a host of other safeguards that you’ll find standard at the state’s hundreds of fully public districts.

 

Pennsylvania charter schools have had operators embezzle millions of dollars from taxpayers to buy private jets, apartments and jewelry. It took investigators years to uncover such graft.

 

Will the few auditors tasked with keeping charter schools honest even be equipped to determine whether parochial schools suddenly turned charter actually refrain from ministering to students?

 

According to Public Source, a nonprofit digital newspaper covering the Pittsburgh area, one of the qualities Imani is looking for in an operator for its charter school is the ability to use the school building after-school hours for religious instruction and activities.

 

So during the day, there will be an entirely secular K-12 school at the site of the present day parochial school that just happens to teach comparative religious studies. Then at a certain time of day, it will transform into an optional religious school offering church functions!?

 

This is a violation of the Separation of Church and State waiting to happen.

 

But it’s not only the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution that is in danger of being trampled.

 

Imani’s proposal is not fiscally responsible.

 

The charter application proposes its CEO/head of school be paid a salary of $145,000 a year for an institution that would enroll merely 230 students.

 

Pittsburgh Public School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet earns a salary of $210,000 a year and he oversees a district with 24,652 students!

 

The proposed academy would also employ a principal at $85,000 annual salary.

 

That’s not exactly good reimbursement of services for the outlay of cash taxpayers are expected to pay.

 

Imani has struggled financially for several years.

 

In 2014, the school had more than $400,000 in additional expenses over its revenue, according to its form 990 filed with the IRS. The very next year, it had a budget surplus of almost the same amount. By 2016 – the most recent year on file – its expenses again were more than its revenue – this time by more than $500,000.

 

Imani CEO and Head of School Paulo Nzambi explained  the up and down budgeting to state officials in 2017 this way. The parochial school relied on the state’s defacto school voucher program – the Education Improvement Tax Credit. However, payments were delayed resulting in the use of a line of credit to pay bills.

 

It’s just such financial uncertainties that are pushing Imani to become a charter school in the first place. Even with school vouchers, parochial schools rely heavily on tuition from parents. However, you always know where the money is coming from in a charter school. Like religious and private schools, these institutions are privately managed – but like public schools they’re funded entirely by taxpayers.

 

Before setting up shop, any new charter school in Pennsylvania must get the approval of the school board from the district where it would be located. If the board does not approve the application, charter school administrators can appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.

 

Pittsburgh school board held a public hearing on Imani’s application in December and earlier this month. Next, the district’s review team will offer its suggestions on the application. District solicitor Ira Weiss says the board is scheduled to vote on the matter at its Feb. 27 meeting.

 

If approved, the district would be required to pay for each student at the new charter school based on the district’s per-student spending formula.

 

The Pittsburgh district already pays approximately $82.8 million – about 13 percent of its total budget – for charter school tuition.

 

Imani Christian Academy currently operates out of the former East Hills Elementary School building, which it purchased from the city school district for $1 million in 2008.

 

The objections brought up here are really just the tip of the iceberg.

 

The proposal leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, though the new academy would be located within the geographical boundaries of the Pittsburgh Public School District, where would it get its students from? Would current students at the religious school get preferential enrollment – and what if they don’t already live in and pay taxes to Pittsburgh?

 

Let’s hope Pittsburgh school directors do the right thing and deny this request.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Ten of 15 Cyber Charter Schools in PA Are Operating Without a Charter – Close Them All

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Cyber charter schools are an experiment that failed.

 

 

It’s time to pull the plug and recoup our losses.

 

 

First, let’s get straight exactly what we’re talking about here.

 

 

Like all charter schools, these are contracted institutions. In fact, that’s what charter means – they’re independent businesses that sign a deal with the state to teach kids.

 

 

So they’re publicly financed but privately run. And in the case of cyber charters, they agree to educate children online without the benefit of a physical building.

 

 

Students access lessons via computer or other device, submit work electronically, get virtual feedback and assessment.

 

 

At best, these institutions are the grade school equivalent of the University of Phoenix – good only for independent, self-motivated learners. At worst, they’re the kiddie version of Trump University – a total scam.

 

 

In Pennsylvania, 10 of the state’s 15 cyber charter schools are operating with expired charters, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 

That’s incredibly significant – especially for an industry that enrolls about 35,000 students across the state.

 

These are charter schools operating without a charter. They only get the right to operate because a local school district or the state has signed a contract allowing them to do so.

 

If you hire a plumber to fix your toilet, you give him the right to enter your house and do what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean the plumber can walk in anytime he feels like it. There is a limited term of service. Once that term is up, the plumber needs to get out.

 

In the case of these cyber charters, the authorizer is the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).

 

Charters are initially issued for three to five years. They are an essential contract between the schools and the supervisory body. The school details how it will operate, what curriculum and education strategies will be used, etc.

 

 

The state has the option to revoke the charter if the school violates its agreement or fails to meet requirements for student performance or fiscal management.

 

 

After the initial period, charters must be renewed every five years in the state.

 

 

Yet for the majority of the Keystone state’s cyber charter schools, this has not happened. The charter agreements have been left to lapse without any decision being made by state officials to renew or cancel them.

 

 

Some of the reluctance to decide may stem from the fact that the state Charter Appeal Board – the body which decides on appeals of charter applications – are all serving out expired terms, themselves.  They were all appointed by the previous governor, Republican Tom Corbett, a notable privatization ideologue.

 

 

The current Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat now elected to his second term of office, still hasn’t gotten around to appointing new ones.

 

 

Another issue gumming up the works could be staffing issues at PDE that make it impossible to handle the reviews in a timely manner. It could be because the cyber charter schools have not provided all the data required of them by the state for the review to be completed on time. Or it could be because state officials are struggling with a fair and adequate metric with which to assess these schools.

 

 

CYBER CHARTER’S DISMAL ACADEMIC RECORD

 

 

To be frank, the latter option has to weigh heavily on state auditors. After all, it’s no secret that these schools are an educational disaster. On-line schools in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico are all being closed by their respective states.

 

Study after study consistently shows that cyber charters are much less effective than traditional public schools – heck! They’re even less effective than brick and mortar charter schools!

 

A recent nationwide study by Stanford University found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading instruction than traditional public schools.

 

Keep in mind that there are only 180 days in an average school year. So cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

 

The same study found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

Student-to-teacher ratios average about 30:1 in online charters, compared to 20:1 for brick and mortar charters and 17:1 for traditional public schools.

 

 

Researchers concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.

 

And these results were duplicated almost exactly by subsequent studies from Penn State University in 2016 (enrolling a student in a Pennsylvania cyber charter school is equal to “roughly 90 fewer days of learning in reading and nearly 180 fewer days of learning in math”) and the National Education Policy Center in 2017 (cyber charters “performed significantly worse than feeder schools in both reading and math”).

 

Even the state’s own data shows lower graduation rates and standardized test scores at cyber charters than at traditional public schools.

 

According to a 2015-16 state PDE report, about 86 percent of public school students across the Commonwealth finished high school in four years. During the same time, only about 48 percent of cyber charter school students graduated in four-years.

CYBER CHARTER’S COST TOO MUCH

 

But providing such a poor service to Pennsylvania students is only one reason these schools are problematic. They’re also ruinously expensive.

 

 

They cost taxpayers more than $463 million in 2016-17 alone.

 

The state charter law grants these schools as much money per pupil as brick and mortar schools, yet their costs are much less having forgone a physical building and all that goes with it.

 

So cyber charters get whatever the local per-pupil expenditure is. It doesn’t matter if a district spends $8,000 on each student or $20,000. Whatever the amount, that goes to the cyber charter.

 

However, the cost of educating kids is drastically reduced online. Their programs are bare bones compared with what you get at a traditional public school. Most online charters don’t have tutors or teacher aides. They don’t offer band, chorus or extra-curricular activities. You don’t have to pay for any building costs, grounds, upkeep, large staff, etc. But the funding formula ignores this completely. Cyber charters get to keep the difference – whatever it is. In fact, they have an incentive to keep as much as possible because they can do almost whatever they want with it. That includes putting it into operators’ pockets as profit!

 

And when it comes to special education funding, it gets worse. In Pennsylvania, our funding formula is so out of whack that charters schools of all stripes including cyber charters often end up with more funding for students with special needs than traditional public schools get. However, because of this loophole in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania online charters have been increasing the number of special education students they enroll and even working to label as many of their students as possible as needing special services on the flimsiest of pretexts.

 

According to a report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), tuition for special education students is often twice as much at cyber charter schools than at traditional public schools.

 

CYBER CHARTER FRAUD

 

Unsurprisingly, these conditions have lead to rampant fraud and malfeasance.

 

Just this past year (2018) the head of the largest cyber charter chain in the state was sentenced to jail for siphoning $8 million from his school into his own pockets.

 

PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta was found guilty of tax fraud in relation to the theft of public funds. He used that money to buy an airplane, a $900,000 condo, houses for his girlfriend and mother, and nearly $1 million in groceries and personal expenses, according to the grand jury. Trombetta allegedly set up numerous for-profit and nonprofit businesses to provide goods and services to the cyber charter. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

 

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She was well known for student test scores and had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

 

It’s no wonder the state has been tardy renewing these schools’ charters!

 

Frankly, there is no good reason to continue lavishing taxpayer dollars on a system of education that provides  subpar services at an exorbitant expense and is subject to runaway fraud.

 

But lawmakers have always been reluctant to do the right thing.

 

After all, there are a slew of wealthy investors who want to make sure the money train of taxpayer dollars keeps flowing to their shady businesses. And lawmakers who enable them are assured hefty campaign contributions.

 

The only chance we have of saving our children from this monstrous abuse of power and saving our wallets from this shameful waste of funding is if voters make their intentions known.

 

The people of Pennsylvania need to stand up and demand an end to the cyber charter school experiment.

 

We need lawmakers with the guts to stand up to big money and rewrite the state’s charter school law.

 

And that’s part of the problem. The law is a joke.

 

It’s more than 20 years old and was only amended once in 2002 to allow cyber charters.

 

Subsequent attempts at requiring more accountability have resulted in horrible compromise bills that would have made the situation much worse and – ultimately – no vote.

 

With Ohio and California, Pennsylvania was in the “big three” cyber-charter states in 2016, accounting for half of cyber charter enrollment nationally, according to the industry’s authorizers’ association. While 35 states and the District of Columbia allow full-time cyber charter schools, eight do not, including neighboring New Jersey.

 

The right course is clear.

 

We just need a people-powered movement to force our lawmakers to do it.

 

Either that or replace them with those who will.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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