Proposed Pennsylvania School Code is Massive Giveaway to Charter Schools

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Accountability.

Fiscal responsibility.

Every lawmaker says these things are extremely important – unless we’re talking about charter schools. Then they pass laws handing out stacks of cash with little to no oversight.

That’s exactly what the Pennsylvania School Code will do if the legislature passes it.

Schools in the Keystone State have had a rough year.

After a nine-month battle with the Republican controlled legislature, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf let a woefully inadequate budget passed by the legislature become law without his signature. However, he vetoed the fiscal code, which includes public school’s funding formula – how state money will be distributed to the Commonwealth’s 500 public school districts. Wolf still holds out hope that almost $1 billion in school budget cuts made by the GOP can be healed before a new funding formula locks them in.

Everything else about how our public schools are to be run is included in the school code. It was approved by the Senate but remains in committee in the House.

Back in February, both Democrats and Republicans supported some terrible provisions in the school code as a compromise to pass a state budget that would have healed much more of the spending cuts than what has now become law. Since an inferior budget was passed, there’s no reason for Democrats to continue to support a school code that basically rings the dinner bell for the most nefarious charter school practices imaginable.

If approved, charter schools across the state could open new buildings, add new grades, and expand their enrollment with almost no limitations. In Philadelphia, where the district is already under state control and more than a third of students already attend charter schools, the proposed school code would force many schools to be controlled by a new state operator – the Pennsylvania Department of Education – and convert many of them into charter schools – all still without ensuring those schools have adequate funding.

The Senate-approved school code reads like a smorgasbord of dishes to empower and shield charter schools from accountability.

Currently, charter schools are only allowed to operate after having a contract approved by the local school district where they’re located. Elected school boards get to decide if charters can operate and under what conditions. The proposed school code would change that. It would allow charter schools to amend their own contracts without the permission of the local district. So existent charters could do whatever they liked regardless of what they promised local school boards they were going to do in order to be approved in the first place.

The proposed school code would also allow for uncontrolled charter expansion. It would permit charter schools to add as many new schools and students as they please without permission of the local district. This is in effect a license for charters to expand without any oversight. They could gobble up their parent district and there’s nothing anyone could do about it.

Moreover, the proposed school code would allow charter schools to expand beyond district boundaries into neighborhoods that never approved them in the first place. It would create new Multiple Charter School Organizations (MCSOs) that can cross school district boundaries and expand across the entire state, all without any criteria for revocation or accountability.

When disagreements occur with charter schools and local school districts, the matter goes before the state Charter Appeals Board. However, the proposed school code would stack the board with members in favor of charter schools and against local districts.

As it stands, new charter schools get five years before they are subject to any accountability measures at all. Once approved, they have that time to operate any way they want before anyone comes around to make sure they’re doing a good job. The proposed school code doubles that grace period to ten years. New charters – including notoriously fraudulent cyber charters – would have a decade of free reign before undergoing a thorough review of their performance by their authorizers.

And then we come to special education. Since at least 2013, the legislature has known the way the state determines special education funding at charter schools is broken. It’s skewed so that charters get more money for special needs children than local districts. Moreover, this allotment has nothing to do with how much charters spend on their special education students or the severity of the disabilities. For example, in Philadelphia, charter schools get $23,000 for each special education student while the traditional public schools get $5,000. A bipartisan bill was drafted to fix the inequality, but it was killed by charter school lobbyists.

The proposed school code – which could have fixed the problem – just continues it for another year. It explicitly exempts charter schools from the rational and fair special education funding formula used by school districts.

And speaking of funding, the proposed school code continues the perverse practice of ensuring cyber charter schools get paid before local school districts. It was this provision that made sure even with statewide education budget cuts cyber charters didn’t suffer the same loss of funding.

As bad as all that is, it’s nothing compared to what the proposed school code does to Philadelphia City Schools.

The Senate bill implements a “State Opportunity Schools” program that only applies to Philadelphia schools. It mandates that up to 15 city schools a year would go from one majority state-controlled entity – the School Reform Commission (SRC) – to a different entirely state-controlled entity – the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Moreover, at least six traditional city public schools would have to become charter schools in three years.

It’s a boneheaded move done for no reason other than to punish poor, black students living in Philly. For instance, the proposed school code doesn’t grant any additional authority to PDE that the SRC doesn’t already have – so why make the change? What will PDE be able to do differently? If the SRC is doing a terrible job (Spoiler alert: it is) then why not give control of the district back to residents? Why not reestablish local control?

Moreover, the proposed school code provides no additional resources or funding to any Philadelphia schools. That’s been the problem with the district from the beginning. When you force schools to rely heavily on local property taxes to run, poor communities suffer. The proposed school code continues the proud Pennsylvania tradition of ignoring reality and blaming black and brown children for their parents poverty.

Much of this nonsense came from negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans to ensure a better budget for schools across the state. Republicans demanded increasing charter school handouts, fewer accountability measures and sacrificing Philadelphia Schools. And Senate Democrats agreed – even those serving Philadelphia.

However, since the GOP reneged on that budget deal, there is no reason on Heaven or Earth why the Democrats should continue to support this proposed school code. Republicans can pass this turd without them. If the GOP wants to give away mountains of taxpayer money to the charter industry, let them own it. That’s been something they have been increasingly unwilling to do.

And if this terrible school code does somehow make it through the legislature, Wolf should do the same thing with this steaming pile of feces that he originally did with the budget and recently did with the fiscal code – veto it.

Pennsylvania lawmakers need to stop serving special interest groups and start representing the taxpayers. Giving away a larger portion of our shrinking education funding makes no sense.

It is not accountable. It is not fiscally responsible. It is dereliction of duty.

Pennsylvania Breathes Sigh of Relief As Crappy GOP Budget Becomes Law

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The majority won in Pennsylvania this week.

After 9 months of bipartisan bickering, the state finally has a 2015-16 budget.

And it’s almost exactly the same spending plan favored by the majority.

The majority of lawmakers, that is.

Voters, however, wanted something much different.

They wanted it to heal almost $1 billion in cuts to public schools. They wanted it to be balanced and not to spend more than it takes in. They wanted everyone to pay their fair share.

But lawmakers disagreed and took the entire Commonwealth on an extended game of chicken while schools had to scrimp and borrow just to stay open.

Like any public spectacle, the conflict centered around two teams: Republicans and Democrats.

The Republicans refused to raise taxes, even after they had previously reduced state revenue to a place where it could no longer provide the services taxpayers expect. The Democrats wanted to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations who were getting away without paying their fair share, thereby increasing services to a point citizens have come to expect.

The result? Nine months of finger pointing.

The GOP-controlled legislature passed the same budget over-and-over again, while Gov. Tom Wolf (a Democrat) kept vetoing it.

There was a brief moment when they almost agreed on a compromise budget, but GOP lawmakers just couldn’t stomach a tax increase if it didn’t include an almost definitely Unconstitutional measure to shortchange state workers pensions.

This week Wolf agreed to let pretty much the same Republican budget become law without his signature. Otherwise, some of the state’s more than 500 school districts would have had to close. He said he hopes to focus on next year’s budget which is due at the end of June.

Wolf came into office on a tidal wave of support from across the state to unseat the previous Republican governor. The people couldn’t have been more clear – fairly fund education and get the fiscal ship in order. But since state legislative districts were redrawn under the previous administration to gerrymander lawmakers, voters were silenced.

Which brings us to the inescapable question: why are voters putting up with this?

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

The above quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sums up the proper relationship between governors and governed.

Our lawmakers aren’t afraid of us. Are we afraid of them?

The budget passed this week does increase education by $200 million. but that’s still far below what Republicans cut five years ago. Apparently, they aren’t afraid voters will make them pay a price for this. They don’t think we have the guts to unseat them in their safe gerrymandered districts.

They figure that since most of the voters in their districts are registered Republicans, they won’t have to answer for shortchanging school children – especially those at poor districts which receive more state support.

They figure other Republicans like themselves don’t care about poor black kids. Are they right? You tell me, Pennsylvania!

Likewise, they think GOP constituents don’t care if the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. They think we’ll buy the lie that business works kind of like getting pandas to mate at the zoo. We have to do everything we can to make them comfortable or else no little panda cubs.

So the rich and corporations get sweetheart deals while the rest of us – even Republicans – have to tighten our belts. What say you, Pennsylvania? You buying that?

While no one thinks the budget should be unbalanced, they are betting you will let them push the blame onto the other party. There is a $2 million deficit because Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes. Never mind that they opposed measures to fairly make up the difference. Never mind that they have no problem cutting services so that you don’t get your taxes worth from state government.

Well, Pennsylvania? Are you swallowing that whooper!?

We’ve become used to blaming our politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans love to rag on our elected officials.

But it’s not really their fault.

It’s ours.

We’ve let it get this way.

Sure, the odds are stacked against us. Corporate money floods legislators campaigns so they can buy endless ads convincing us to vote against our own interests. Legislative districts are drawn so that a minority of Pennsylvanians get a majority say.

But we still have the last vestiges of a functioning Democracy here. We still hold elections, and they still have consequences.

If lawmakers felt like they would be held accountable, it would change their actions. Why do you think they didn’t enact that terrible pension plan last year when the GOP controlled both the legislature and the governor’s mansion?

They were afraid of taking the blame. They were afraid voters of both parties wouldn’t put up with it. Republicans only had the guts to push it through if they could force Democrats to vote for it, too. That way, people would have no choice but to blame both parties and not just the GOP.

We need to make them feel that same fear for under-resourcing our schools. When Republican voters in gerrymandered districts show up to their legislators offices en mass and demand equitable school funding, that’s when things will change.

When Republican voters care as much about poor black kids as they do about rich white kids, that’s when things will change. When Tea Party citizens demand the rich pay as fair a share of the tax burden as they do, then things will change.

But so long as we pretend politics is a sporting event and you have to stand by your team, things will remain as they are.

Democrat. Republican. Tea Party. Progressive. These are nothing but labels that divide us. Throw them away.

Turn off the TV. Stop listening to talk radio. Crumble up the op-ed.

Go to the voting booth with the only thing that matters.

Vote with your heart.

Pennsylvania GOP Lawmakers Demand Seniority For Themselves But Deny It For Teachers

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Seniority.

Somehow it’s great for legislators, but really bad for people like public school teachers.

At least that was the decision made by Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House Tuesday. They voted along party lines to allow schools to furlough educators without considering seniority.

But the House’s own leadership structure is largely based on seniority!

Hypocrisy much?

Most legislative bodies in the United States from the federal government on down to the state level give extra power to lawmakers based on how long they’ve been there.

Everything from preferential treatment for committee assignments to better office space and even seating closer to the front of the assembly is often based on seniority. Leadership positions are usually voted on, but both Republicans and Democrats traditionally give these positions to the most senior members.

And these same folks have the audacity to look down their noses at public school teachers for valuing the same thing!?

As Philadelphia Representative James Roebuck, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said, “If it’s wrong for teachers, why is it right for us?”

If passed by the state Senate and signed by the Governor, the law would allow public schools to lay off teachers based on the state’s new and highly controversial teacher evaluation system.

Teachers with a “failing” ranking would go first, then those with a “needs Improvement,” label.

This system is largely untested and relies heavily on student standardized test scores. There is no evidence it fairly evaluates teachers, and lawsuits certainly would be in the wings if furloughs were made based on such a flimsy excuse.

Value-Added Measures such as these have routinely been criticized by statisticians as “junk science.”

It’s kind of like giving legal favor to the management practices of Darth Vader. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” when one of his minions displeased him, he choked them to death with the Force.

No second chances. No retraining. No due process. One misplaced foot and you’re gone.

Pennsylvania’s proposed method isn’t quite so harsh, but it’s essentially the same. You’re fired because of this flimsy teaching evaluation that has no validity and can really say whatever management wants it to say.

Technically, things like salary are not allowed to be considered, but given the unscientific and unproven nature of this evaluation system, management could massage evaluations to say anything. Administrators didn’t mean to fire the teachers with the highest salaries but those voodoo teaching evaluations said they were “failing.” What are you gonna’ do? OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

While seniority is not a perfect means of selecting who gets laid off, at least it’s impartial. Moreover, teachers who have lasted in the classroom longest almost always are highly skilled. You don’t last in the classroom if you can’t hack it.

Being a public school teacher is a highly political job. Your boss is the school board and members are elected by the community. While many school directors have the best interests of their districts at heart, favoritism, nepotism and political agendas are not unknown. Teachers need protections from the ill-winds of politics so they can be treated fairly and best serve their students. Otherwise, it would be impossible – for instance – to fairly grade a school director’s child in your class without fear of reprisal.

As it stands, state school code specifically mandates layoffs to be made in reverse seniority order, also known as “first in, last out.” Pennsylvania is one of six states that calls for this to be the sole factor in school layoff decisions.

It’s unclear how the legislature could pass a law that contradicts the school code without specifically voting to alter the code which governs the Commonwealth’s public schools.

Moreover, it may be illegal on several additional counts. Public school districts have work contracts with their teachers unions. The state can’t jump in and void those contracts between two independent parties when both agreed to the terms of those contracts. Not unless there was some legal precedent or unconstitutionality or violation of human rights or SOMETHING!

Get our your pocketbooks, Pennsylvanians. If this law is somehow enacted, you’re going to be paying for years of court challenges.

And speaking of flushing money down the toilet, the law also allows school districts to furlough employees for financial reasons. At present, layoffs are allowed only when enrollment drops or by cutting programs wholesale.

This is especially troubling given the legislature’s failure the past four years to fairly fund its public schools. Ninety percent of school districts have had to cut staff in recent years, either through attrition or furlough, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

So this law makes it easier to rob poorer schools of funding. If it were enacted, districts could fire teachers and reduce programs to pinch pennies. Now they are constrained to keep the highest possible level of quality for students regardless of funding shortfalls. This puts them at odds with the legislature and forces them to demand fair funding for their districts. Under this new law, school boards could more easily ensure that some students get a higher quality education than others in the same district!

Oh! We increased class size for the struggling students (most of whom are poor and minorities) but decreased it for the advanced classes (most of whom are rich and white).

Finally, we get to the issue of viability. Will the state Senate pass this bill?

Maybe.

The House passed it without a single Democrat voting in favor. The Senate is likewise controlled by the GOP. However, Gov. Tom Wolf is a Democrat and has said he’s against it. Seniority issues, he said, should be negotiated through the local collective bargaining process.

So once again we have partisan politics reigning over our public schools – Republicans actively trying to sabotage our public schools and fire their way to the top! Democrats vainly trying to hold the line.

Couldn’t we all just agree to value our public schools and public school teachers?

Or at very least couldn’t we all agree to give others the same benefits we demand for ourselves?

You know. Things like seniority!