Five Reasons to Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund

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You can’t raise taxes without a plan of how to spend the money.

 

But that’s exactly what voters in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are being asked to approve this Nov. 6.

 

Come election day, all voters in Allegheny County will be confronted with what’s been called the Children’s Fund, a referendum asking for a voluntary 5% property tax hike that allegedly would go to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids.

 

But there are no details about who will provide these services, who will be responsible for the money, exactly what else the money might be used for or almost anything substantive about it.

 

It’s just a check with “For Kids” scrawled in the Memo and everything else left blank.

 

The plan is highly controversial drawing criticism from across the Mon Valley including school directors, education advocates and even progressive groups like the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN).

 

Here are the top five reasons you should vote NO on the referendum:

 

1) It Raises Taxes Without Stipulating Where the Money Goes

 

Here’s what we do know.

 

The Children’s Fund would be financed by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, beginning Jan. 1.

 

That’s expected to generate roughly $18 million a year that would begin to be distributed in 2020.

 

If approved, it would change the county Home Rule Charter to establish the fund as part of county government. It would create a new office under the supervision of the county manager.

A Citizens’ Advisory Commission would “review and advise” the work of the new office, according to the proposed charter amendment.

 

However, County Council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald would have to do the work of actually creating all this stuff. They’d have to pass an ordinance establishing how this all works, what powers the advisory commission has, etc. They would have to determine whether the money goes to existing programs or new ones. They’d have to set up audits of the money every five years, conduct a study to recommend goals and a focus for how the funding is spent.

 

That’s an awful lot left undecided.

 

It makes no sense for voters to hand over the money BEFORE we figure all this other stuff out.

 

It’s not at all how good government works.

 

You’re supposed to define a problem or need and then come up with a plan to meet that need. You prepare a budget that justifies raising taxes and then you vote on it.

 

This is exactly the opposite. We’re getting the money before the plan of how to spend it.

 

That’s a recipe for fraud and financial mismanagement.

 

 

2) It’s Unclear Who Would Be In Charge of the Money

 

Who would be accountable for this money?

 

We know who gets to decide this – County Council and the Chief Executive. But we don’t know who they will pick or what powers they’ll delegate to these people. Nor do we know what kind of oversight there will be or what kind of regulations will exist for how it can be spent.

 

This is a blind statement of trust.

 

It’s like saying – “Here’s $18 million. Go buy us something nice.”

 

What if they mismanage the money? And what would that even mean for money with so few strings attached? And how would we know? How transparent would this process be?

 

It’s kind of hard to approve such a plan with so many variables up in the air.

 

3) The Campaign was Not Grass Roots

 

To hear supporters talk, you’d think this was a bottom up crusade created by, organized by and conducted by everyday citizens from our communities.

 

It wasn’t.

 

Sure, volunteers for the Children’s Fund went door-to-door to collect more than 40,000 signatures from voters last summer.

 

But they weren’t all volunteers.

 

 

Financial documents show that the whole initiative has been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

 

 

According to the Children’s Fund’s own campaign finance report, as of June there were three nonprofit corporations who donated $427,000 to the campaign: the Human Services Center of Turtle Creek gave $160,000, Pressley Ridge Foundation gave $150,000, and Allies for Children gave a donation of $45,000 and another for $72,000.

 

That’s like McDonalds spending a hundred thousand dollars to fix up the school cafeterias so it could land a multi-million dollar annual contract!

 

It’s a huge conflict of interest.

 

At very least, it’s purposefully misleading.

 

Many of those “volunteers” gathering signatures weren’t working for free. They were part of the $100,000 spent by the campaign to hire Vote Goal Organizing for paid signature collectors.

 

That doesn’t look like charity. It looks like philanthrocapitalism – when corporations try to disguise grabs for power and profit as philanthropy.

 

Corporations – even so-called nonprofit corporations – rarely do things out of sheer goodness. They’re acting in the best interest of the company.

 

I see no reason to think this “Children’s Fund” is any different.

 

4) It Works Around Instead of With Local Government

 

Though almost everyone agrees with the stated goals of the Children’s Fund, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

 

 

Two Pittsburgh Public School directors went on record in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about a lack of communication.

 

“First and foremost, we have not had any conversations with the organizers of the referendum,” board president Regina Holley said. “There are lots of ifs and whats that have not been answered.”

 

Kevin Carter, another city school director added, “In my role as a school board member, they didn’t talk to us about this at all.”

 

“When you leave your largest school district in the region out of this conversation, are you doing this around children?” he asked, citing that the district serves 25,000 students daily.

 

This has been a common thread among officials. No one wants to say they’re against collecting money that’s ostensibly for the benefit of children, but it’s hard to manage the money if you’re not part of the process.

 

And it’s not just protocol. Many are worried that this lack of communication may be emblematic of how the fund will be run. If organizers aren’t willing to work with local governments to get the job done, how will they know what each community needs? How will they meet those needs? Is that even what the fund will really be about?

 

Richard Livingston, Clairton school board president, noted concern that the money collected might not be spent evenly throughout the county. For all he knows, it could just be spent in the city or in select areas.

 

Indeed, this is not the best way to start any endeavor funded by all, for the benefit of all children.

 

 

5) It’s Redundant

 

While it’s true that the county could use more funding to meet the needs of students, numerous organizations already exist that attempt to provide these services.

 

 

There are a plethora of Pre-K, after school tutoring and meal services in the Mon Valley. In fact, much of this is done at the county’s various neighborhood schools.

 

If organizers were only concerned with meeting these needs, why form an office within county government that would have an appointed advisory commission? Why not just increase the funding at the local schools and/or organizations already doing this work?

 

In fact, this is exactly the reason the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network is against the initiative.

 

According to the organization’s statement:

 

 

“At PIIN, we believe that the faith community is a sacred partner with our public schools, and we have long been supportive of both the community schools model and increasing state funding to provide an excellent, high-quality education to every child in our region. We believe in funding for early childhood learning, after school programs, and nutritious meals. However, we cannot support a ballot initiative that creates an unnecessary entity, with an unknown advisory board, and an unclear process for directing our tax dollars.

 

This is why we are urging our membership to reject the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative at the polls this November.”

 

 

 

Another related organization, Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, also released a statement with “several specific concerns” about the potential fund. These include how the money would be distributed, which organizations would benefit from it, and questions about its redundancy.

 

Several pre-K programs already exist but are not fully funded, the organization noted. Why don’t we just fund them?

 

The group is a coalition of the Education Rights Network, One Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, and the Service Employees International Union.

 

The group’s statement noted concerns but fell short of urging an outright NO vote.

 


The bottom line is that many people are concerned about inadequate funding for children’s programs.

 

But this “Children’s Fund” is not a solution to that problem.

 

This is the creation of another bureaucracy that can take our tax dollars and do almost whatever it wants with them.

 

There is no guarantee it will help kids.

 

In fact, it looks a lot more like a power and money grab by corporate interests, many of whom would prefer to privatize our school system.

 

This November, when you go to the polls, do the right thing for our kids.

 

Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund.

 

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There is Virtually No Difference Between Nonprofit and For-Profit Charter Schools

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Stop kidding yourself.

 

Charter schools are a bad deal.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re for-profit or nonprofit.

 

It doesn’t matter if they’re cyber or brick-and-mortar institutions.

 

It doesn’t matter if they have a history of scandal or success.

 

Every single charter school in the United States of America is either a disaster or a disaster waiting to happen.

 

The details get complicated, but the idea is really quite simple.

 

It goes like this.

 

Imagine you left a blank check on the street.

 

Anyone could pick it up, write it out for whatever amount your bank account could support and rob you blind.

 

Chances are you’d never know who cashed it, you’d never get that money back and you might even be ruined.

 

That’s what a charter school is – a blank check.

 

It’s literally a privately operated school funded with public tax dollars.

 

Operators can take almost whatever amount they want, spend it with impunity and never have to submit to any real kind of transparency or accountability.

 

Compare that to a traditional public school – an institution invariably operated by duly elected members of the community with full transparency and accountability in an open forum where taxpayers have access to internal documents, can have their voices heard and even seek an administrative position.

 

THAT’S a responsible way to handle public money!

 

Not forking over our checkbook to virtual strangers!

 

Sure, they might not steal our every red cent. But an interloper who finds a blank check on the street might not cash it, either.

 

The particulars don’t really matter. This is a situation rife with the possibility of fraud. It is a situation where the deck is stacked against the public in every way and in favor of charter school operators.

 

But most people don’t want to take such a strong stance. They’d rather find good and bad people on both sides and pretend that’s the same thing as impartiality.

 

It isn’t.

 

Sometimes one side is just wrong.

 

Policymakers may try to feign that there are good and bad charter schools and that the problems I’m talking about only apply to the nefarious ones.

 

But that’s a delusion.

 

There is no good way to write a blank check and leave it on the street to the whims of passers-by.

 

Most apologists want to draw the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit charters.

 

But as Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

The law is full of loopholes that allow almost any organization – not just charter schools – to claim nonprofit status while enriching those at the top.

 

We live in an age of philanthrocapitalism, where the wealthy disguise schemes to enrich themselves as benevolence, generosity and humanitarianism.

 

So-called “nonprofit” charter schools are just an especially egregious example. No matter what label you pin to their name, they all offer multiple means to skim public funding off the top without adding any value for students.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

 

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

 

All I have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then my management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

It’s really that simple! I turn over nearly all of my public tax dollars to the management company that then uses it to operate the school – and keeps whatever it doesn’t spend.

 

 

Heck! It doesn’t even matter who owns the company! It could even be me!

 

The law actually allows me to wear one hat saying I’m nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat I’m wearing at the time!

 

SO I get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

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SOURCE: Florida Sun Sentinel

 

I may even be able to buy things with public tax dollars through my for-profit management company and then if my “nonprofit” school goes belly up, I get to keep everything I bought! Or my management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and I reap all the reward. And I’m still graced with the label “nonprofit.”

 

Oh, and speaking of spending, being a “nonprofit” doesn’t stop me from the worst kind of real estate shenanigans routinely practiced by the for-profit charter schools.

 

Both types of privatized institution allow for huge windfalls in real estate. If I own property X, I can sell it to my charter school (or management company) and then pay myself with tax dollars. Who determines how much I pay for my own property? ME! That’s who!

 

And I can still be a nonprofit.

 

Think that’s bad? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Thanks to some Clinton-era tax breaks, an investor in a charter school can double the original investment in just seven years!

I can even get the public to pay for the same building twice! And even then taxpayers still won’t own it!

 

But that’s the complicated stuff. There’s an even easier way to get rich off the public with my “nonprofit” charter school, and operators do it all the time: write myself a fat check!

 

After all, I’ve gotta’ pay, myself, right? And who’s in charge of determining how much I’m worth? ME!

 

I can even pay myself way more than my counterparts at traditional public schools who oversee exponentially more staff and students.

 

For instance, as New York City Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza is paid $345,000 to oversee 135,000 employees and 1.1 million students. Meanwhile, as CEO of Success Academy charter school chain, Eva Moskowitz handles a mere 9,000 students, for which she is paid $782,175.

 

And this is by no way a unique example.

 

There are just so many ways to cash in with a charter school even at a so-called “nonprofit” – especially if I want to dip my toe into legally dubious waters!

 

I could do like the almost exclusively “nonprofit” Gulen charter schools and exist solely as a means to raise money for an out-of-favor political movement in Turkey.

 

I could use charter funds to finance other businesses. I could decide to discontinue programs that students receive in traditional public schools such as providing free or reduced lunches but keep the cash. I could fake enrollment and have classes full of “ghost students” that the local, state and federal government will pay me to educate.

 

Fraud and mismanagement are rampant at charter schools because we don’t require them to be as accountable as their traditional public school counterparts.

 

If a traditional public school tried this chicanery, we’d almost certainly catch it at the monthly meetings or frequent audits. But charter schools don’t have to submit to any of that. They’re public money spent behind closed doors with little to no requirement to explain themselves – ever.

 

And all of this – nearly every bit of criticism I’ve leveled against the industry – doesn’t even begin to take into account the educational practices at these types of schools.

 

There is plenty of evidence that charters provide a comparable or worse education than children routinely receive at traditional public schools.

 

Where it is comparable, the issue is clouded by selective enrollment, inadequately servicing students with special needs and generally encouraging the hardest to teach to get an education elsewhere. Where it is worse, it is colossally worse, robbing children not just of funding but what is likely their only chance at an education.

 

But we don’t even need to go there.

 

We only need the issue of fiscal responsibility to bring down this behemoth.

 

Charter schools are no way to run a school. They are a blatant failure to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.

 

Traditional public schools are the best way to run a school. They protect the public’s investment of money and resources while providing a quality education to students.

 

So all this talk about nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is either a mark of supreme ignorance or a ploy for weak willed politicians to weasel their way out of taking a stand on an issue whose merits are obvious to anyone who knows what really happens in our education system.

 

It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on this expensive fraud.

 

 

It’s time for the charter school experiment to end.

 

 

And it’s way passed time to support fully public schools.


 

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