During his budget proposal, Wolf suggested three main improvements.
First, he wants charter schools to use a new tiered funding formula to determine how much money they get for special education students enrolled in their schools. He estimates this would save $147 million annually.
Right now, charters get tuition based on the average amount the local public school spends on special education.
This incentivizes charters to enroll (and identify) children with minimal special needs. That way, the school gets more money than needed to help students learn and operators can pocket the difference.
It also incentivizes charters not to enroll students with greater special needs because operators won’t receive the money necessary to meet them.
This helps explain why charter schools in the Commonwealth typically enroll fewer and less needy special education students than authentic public schools do. Charters typically end up collecting $10,000 or more per student than they spend providing services, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public school advocacy group.
Wolf’s new proposal would more closely match the level of special education students need with the funding charter schools get for enrolling them, thus removing any financial incentives for selective enrollment of these students.
Second, Wolf wants to stop cyber charter schools from collecting the same amount of money for each student as brick and mortar schools get.
Cyber charters schools do not have school buildings to keep up. They do not have physical classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, gymnasiums, athletic fields, etc. In most cases, they have administrative offices and laptop computers given to students to use at their own homes.
Wolf figures that number should be a flat $9,500. That should save an estimated $133 million annually.
However, Wolf’s proposal is double the cost of providing a full-time education at home via computer. It reduces the waste, but his figure could still use a trim.
Finally, the governor proposes fixing the way we mediate financial disputes between charter schools and authentic public schools.
Right now, if a school district does not pay the tuition for its resident students who attend a charter school or there is some dispute between the two on tuition payments, the charter school turns to the state Department of Education (PDE) to reconcile the dispute. Wolf proposes several changes to increase fairness, accountability, and transparency in this process. For instance, he wants to require charter schools to report their expenditures and deductions so they could be included in deciding what the tuition should be at a given charter school.
“The level of hypocrisy from our governor knows no bounds,” she said in a written statement. “Charter school students and their families are not second-class citizens. These parents pay their taxes and their children attend a PA-designated public school. There is no reason why charter school students deserve less financial support than their district peers.”
Democratic legislators are set to introduce a 120-page proposal in Harrisburg that builds on it even further.
The legislation – House Bill 2261 to be introduced by Rep. Joseph Ciresi (D-Montgomery), and Senate Bill 1024, to be introduced by Senators Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) and James Brewster (D-Allegheny), would do the following:
Require charter school trustees and administrators to comply with the same financial and ethical reporting standards as school board members and district officials;
Require charter school meetings to comply with the Sunshine Act;
Require any company running a charter school to open up their records;
Establish a statewide, data-driven cyber charter school tuition rate;
Apply the state special education funding formula used by public schools to charter schools;
Require charter schools to use actual accounting and enrollment in calculating tuition – backed up by PA Department of Education – to make sure payments are fair, consistent, and promises are kept;
Require charter schools to carry enough insurance to take care of kids and families if the charter closes or the parent company goes out of business;
Create a standard state framework for charter school applications;
Standardize the method to change charter schools’ missions and goals to reward innovation and best practices, and ensure school districts have the tools needed to evaluate changes to charters;
Create a state grading system for charters to allow high-performing schools even more self-determination while focusing attention on low-performing schools;
Stop the creation of new cyber charter schools until the existing schools improve performance and require PDE to create enrollment and performance standards.
Here’s hoping that such common sense initiatives can find bipartisan support.
Businesses are on every corner, but they aren’t set up for the convenience of those living there.
Ethnic isolation – whether caused by poverty, legal coercion, safety in numbers or white flight – often puts the segregated at a disadvantage. It creates a quarantined economy set up for profiteers and carpetbaggers to get rich off the misery of the poor.
The system is set up to wring as much blood as it can from people forced to live as stones.
These businesses aren’t located in the suburbs or wealthy parts of town. You find them typically in the inner cities and poor black neighborhoods. They promise temporary help with one-time purchases and unexpected expenses, but in truth most are used to pay for necessities like rent or food.
They end up trapping users in a debt spiral where they have to take out payday loans to pay off previous payday loans. This is mostly because these loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations.
And these are just two of the most common features of this predatory economy – capitalist enterprises designed to enrich businesses for exploiting consumers beyond their ability to cope.
Others include high priced but limited stock grocery markets, fast food restaurants, gun stores, inner city rental properties and charter schools.
Think about it: (1) charter schools disproportionately locate in poor black communities, (2) offer the promise of relief from inequality but end up recreating or worsening the same unjust circumstances and (3) they are often owned by rich white folks from outside the neighborhood who profit off the venture.
Who attends charter schools and where are they located?
The charter sector represents only a tiny fraction of students attending public school.
This doesn’t come close to a majority for any racial group. Consider the fact that authentic public schools enroll approximately:
•7 million black students (14% of the total)
•12 million Hispanic students (24% of the total)
•24 million white students (48% of the total)
More students of all ethnicities attend authentic public schools than charter schools – by orders of magnitude. However, those that are enrolled at charter schools are not distributed evenly. Charter schools do educate a disproportionate percentage of students of color – especially among Hispanic students.
Why? Do black and brown families seek them out or is it just the opposite – charters seek out melanin abundant children.
So like liquor stores and payday lenders, charter schools are disproportionately located in highly segregated, urban communities often with a majority black and Hispanic population. And since they are businesses (unlike their authentic public school counterparts), they literally target this demographic because it fits their profit model.
These are the people they think they can sell on the charter model. And they often do.
How do charter schools disadvantage the students enrolled there?
Like other vulture capitalist enterprises, they exploit the students they purport to serve by convincing people of color to accept fewer services than they already get at authentic public schools.
Charter schools are permitted to run without elected school boards. Decisions are often made by appointed bureaucrats behind closed doors. They are not required to hold public meetings or present school documents as public records. Parents have no way of having their voices heard except that they can take it or leave it.
Authentic public schools have to accept all students who live within their boundaries.
Charter schools are not required to accept all students who live in their coverage areas or even all who apply for enrollment. They can and often do cherry pick the easiest students to educate. The can dissuade special needs students or students with less stable families from applying by forgoing special services and/or requiring prerequisites like costly uniforms and parental voluntarism. Or they can simply choose whomever they wish from the applicant pool and claim the decision was based on a lottery that never needs to be audited for fairness.
But that’s just academics. There are even clearer economic indications of how charter schools squander the tax dollars that fund them while authentic public schools are more stable and provide better value for the money.
•In 2011 and 2012, the federal government gave $3.7 million in taxpayer dollars to 25 Michigan “ghost” schools that never even opened to students.
•In California, more than $4.7 million in federal taxpayer money was handed out to create charter schools that subsequently closed within a few years.
•In Ohio, out of the 88 schools created by planning and implementation grants under the federal “Charter School Program” (CSP) for state education agencies between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years; a further seven schools never even opened. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer dollars.
There is even more evidence that charter schools are not nearly as stable as authentic public schools.
So charter schools provide fewer services, worse results, and a greater chance of closure or wasting limited funding without even opening at all – not a good return on investment for students of color.
And who owns and operates these charter schools?
There has been very little research on this topic.
The most detailed information I could find comes from the charter school industry, itself, specifically the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”
According to the NAPCS, about one-third of charter schools in 2016-17 were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools. This includes KIPP, Success Academy, Green Dot Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Charter Schools.
The remainder (57%) are owned by what they call freestanding charter schools – which just means organizations that run only one school.
These institutions can be run by a wide range of groups including religious organizations and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce or economic development authorities.
They are a kind of “false consciousness,” an extension of the segregation economy exploiting black and brown children.
They are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods because operators think they can sell their educational model to people of color fed up with the inequality of their neighborhoods.
Yet they provide fewer services at greater cost to black communities – they convince impoverished minorities to give up the few educational guarantees they already have in favor of a worse situation. And the result is a continuation or worsening of the status quo while enriching vulture capitalists.
It’s a scam, a flimflam ripoff, a bamboozling hoax.
Like the liquor stores and payday lenders that dot the inner city landscape, charter schools are yet another way to exploit black people for the crime of putting their faith once again in capitalism to break their chains.
A few Democrats have offered plans that would increase accountability, but they’ve gotten no traction. And Republican plans have almost exclusively offered to make matters worse by dumping more money in the trough and putting up a thicker curtain so we don’t see the school privatizers eat.
So finally Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, took action on his own.
He has directed his Department of Education to circumvent the legislature to develop regulations that he says, “will level the playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools, strengthen the accountability and transparency of charter and cyber charter schools and better serve all students.”
His plan would:
•Allow districts to limit student enrollment in charter schools where students aren’t making academic gains.
•Require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, lack of athletics or other student characteristics.
•Make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools.
•Stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.
•Make charters submit to financial audits to state regulators, make them publicly bid contracts for supplies and services and use fair contracting practices.
•Provide greater oversight of charter school management companies so they can’t profit off of the students enrolled in the schools they’re managing.
•Seek more information about how prospective charters will be run in a new model state application to be used when charters seek to open up shop or renew existing charters.
•Require charters to accurately document their costs.
•Prevent charters from overcharging for services they provide to students.
•Make charters pay to cover the state’s costs for implementing the charter school law.
•Recoup money from charter schools for the time and services the state provides when it reviews applications, distributes payments and provides legal and administrative support to them.
It’s a bold step for a governor, but apparently Wolf is tired of waiting on a dysfunctional legislature to actually legislate.
The problem is Wolf has to be more than a governor. He has to be a goalie.
The state House and state Senate are deeply gerrymandered and controlled by Republicans.
Every year, lawmakers pass mostly crap bills written by Koch Brothers proxies only to be vetoed by Wolf.
And that’s pretty much how things work in Harrisburg.
However, this time Wolf wasn’t content to just guard the net. He actually took the puck down the ice, himself, and made a slap shot on the opposing team.
Can he do this? Is he still operating within the law?
Time will tell – though I’d argue that in the absence of legislative action, he is within his job description.
Moreover, this is only a first step.
Wolf, himself, has said that more needs to be done by the legislature. Even after his executive actions, much needs to be done to make charter schools function properly in the Commonwealth.
Specifically, Wolf asked the legislature to pass a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, cap enrollment in low-performing charter schools until they improve, subject charter management companies to the same transparency rules that districts must follow, and create a fair, predictable and equitable charter school funding formula.
I suppose if there are some that are functioning well for students, they can be grandfathered in, but they should be funded separately. When two districts have to compete for the same funding, the students lose.
“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.”
“Charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In fact, she was the reasons many educators thought Obama was going to be a breath of fresh air for our schools and students. Everyone thought she was a lock for Education Secretary should Hope and Change win the day. But when he won, he threw her aside for people like Arne Duncan and John King who favored school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.
Hammond and her colleagues Peter Cookson, Bob Rothman and Patrick Shields talk about magnet and theme schools.
They talk about open enrollment schools – where districts in 25 states allow students who live outside their borders to apply.
They talk about math and science academies, schools focusing on careers in health sciences and the arts, schools centered on community service and social justice, international schools focused on global issues and world languages, and schools designed for new English language learners.
They talk about schools organized around pedagogical models like Montessori, Waldorf and International Baccalaureate programs.
And these are all options within the public school system, itself.
She notes that 33% of all charters opened in 2000 were closed 10 years later. Moreover, by year 13, that number jumped to 40%. When it comes to stability, charter schools are often much worse than traditional public schools.
However, after noting these negatives, Hammond and co. go on to provide wiggle room for privatization. They discuss how state governments can do better making sure charter schools don’t go off the rails. They can provide more transparency and accountability. They can outlaw for-profit charters and put caps on the number of charters allowed in given districts and states, set rules on staffing and curriculum – all the kinds of measures already required at traditional public schools.
But the crux of their objection is here:
“In a recent commentary in this column, authors Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris erroneously asserted that our report aims to promote unbridled alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated school districts. Quite the opposite is true.”
In other words, they continue to lump privatized schools like charters in with fully public schools.
They refuse to make the essential distinction between how a school is governed and what it does. So long as it is funded with public tax dollars, it is a public school.
That’s like refusing to admit there is any difference in the manner in which states are governed. Both democracies and tyrannies are funded by the people living in those societies. It does not then follow that both types of government are essentially the same.
But they go on:
“The report aims to help states and districts consider how to manage the broad tapestry of choices available in public schools in ways that create quality schools with equitable access and integrative outcomes.”
Most tellingly, the authors admonish us to, “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” (Emphasis mine).
The way a school is governed is not FOR ADULTS. It is FOR CHILDREN. That is how we do all the other things Hammond and co. suggest.
“Work to ensure equity and access for all.”
That doesn’t just happen. You have to MAKE it happen through laws and regulations. That’s called governance.
“Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities and resources.”
That’s governance. That’s bureaucracy. It’s hierarchy. It’s one system overlooking another system with a series of checks and balances.
“Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”
Again, that doesn’t just happen. We have to write rules and systems to make it happen.
And even in the few cases where charter schools don’t give all the decisions to unelected boards or voluntarily agree to transparency, the charter laws still allow them to do this. They could change at any time.
It’s like building a school on a cliff. It may be fine today, but one day it will inevitably fall.
“A democratic education means that we educate people in a way that ensures they can think independently, that they can use information, knowledge, and technology, among other things, to draw their own conclusions.”
Now that’s a Linda Darling-Hammond who knows the manner in which something (a state) is governed matters. It’s not just funding. It’s democratic principles – principles that are absent at privatized schools.
“Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers.”
This Linda Darling-Hammond is a fighter for teacher autonomy – a practice you’ll find increasingly constrained at privatized schools. In fact, charter schools are infamous for scripted education, endless test prep and everything Hammond used to rail against.
“In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
I wonder what this Linda Darling-Hammond would say to the present variety. Privatized schools are most often test prep factories. They do none of what Hammond used to advocate for. But today she’s emphatically arguing for exactly the kind of school she used to criticize.
“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”
Isn’t this how they routinely teach at charter schools? Memorize this. Practice it only in relation to how it will appear on the standardized test. And somehow real life, authentic learning will follow.
“Students learn as much for a teacher as from a teacher.”
Too true, Linda Darling-Hammond. How much learning do you think there is at privatized schools with much higher turnover rates, schools that transform teachers into glorified Walmart greeters? How many interpersonal relationships at privatized institutions replacing teachers with iPads?
That’s less than two years in jail for defrauding tens of thousands of students and multiple districts across the Commonwealth.
In addition, once he serves his time he’ll be on probation for 3 years.
And even though there is no mystery about the amount of money he defrauded from the Internal Revenue Service by shifting his income to the tax returns of others – $437,632, to be exact – the amount he’ll have to pay back in restitution is yet to be determined.
One would think that’s easy math. You stole $437,632, you need to pay back at least that amount – with interest!
And what of the $8 million? Though I can’t find a single explicit reference to what happened to it in the media, it is implied that the money was recovered and returned to Pa Cyber.
Yet there seems to be no discussion of a financial penalty for embezzling all that money. If my checking account dips below a certain balance, I’m penalized. If I don’t pay the minimum on my credit cards, I’m charged an additional fee. Yet this chucklehead pilfers $8 million and won’t be docked a dime!? Just paying it back is good enough!?
But what makes this sentence even more infuriating to me is the paltry jail time Trombetta will serve.
They each got three years in prison, seven years probation, $10,000 in fines and 2,000 hours of community service.
So in America, cheating on standardized tests gets you a harder sentence than embezzling a fortune from school kids.
I’m not saying what the Atlanta teachers and administrators did was right, but their crime pales in comparison to Trombetta’s.
Think about it.
Atlanta city schools have suffered under decades of financial neglect. The kids – many of whom are students of color – receive fewer resources, have more narrowed curriculum and are forced to live under the yoke of generational poverty.
Yet their teachers were told to increase test scores with little to no help, and if they didn’t, they’d be fired.
I can’t imagine why they tried to cheat a system as fair as that.
It’s like being mugged at gunpoint and then the judge convicts you of giving your robber a wooden nickel.
The worst part of all of this is that we haven’t learned anything from either case.
High stakes standardized testing has become entrenched in our public schools by the newly passed federal law – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
And though Trombetta resigned from his post as CEO of PA Cyber in September 2013, cyber charters are as popular as ever.
You can’t turn on the TV without a commercial for a cyber charter school showing up. You can’t drive through a poor neighborhood without a billboard advertising a virtual charter. They even have ads on the buggies at the grocery store!
Yet these schools have a demonstrated track record of failure even when compared to brick-and-mortar charter schools. And when you compare them to traditional public schools, it’s like comparing a piece of chewed up gum on the bottom of your shoe to a prime cut of filet mignon.
Keep in mind there are only 180 days of school in Pennsylvania!
That means cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.
When it comes to reading, the same study found cyber charters provide 72 days less instruction than traditional public schools.
That’s like skipping 40% of the school year!
And this isn’t just at one or two cyber charters. Researchers noted that 88 percent of cyber charter schools produce weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.
They concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.
AND THAT’S ALL LEGAL!
In Pennsylvania, nearly 35,100 of the 1.7 million children attending public schools are enrolled in cyber-charter schools. With more than 11,000 students, PA Cyber is by far the largest of the state’s 16 such schools.
If Trombetta had just stiffed Pennsylvania’s students that much, he wouldn’t have been in any trouble with the law.
However, he got even greedier than that!
He needed more, More, MORE!
Justice – such as it is in this case – was a long time coming.
Trombetta was first indicted back in 2013 – five years ago.
He was facing 11 counts of mail fraud, theft or bribery, conspiracy and tax offenses related to his involvement in entities that did business with Pa. Cyber. He pleaded guilty to tax conspiracy almost two years ago, acknowledging that he siphoned off $8 million from The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.
He has been free on bond all this time.
His sister, Elaine Trombetta, agreed to cooperate with prosecution, according to federal court filings. She pleaded guilty in October 2013 to filing a false individual income tax return on her brother’s behalf and has yet to be sentenced.
It was only yesterday that her brother – the kingpin of this conspiracy – was ultimately sentenced.