The email was from State Rep. Matt Gergely of McKeesport who just took office in February. Here’s the message from under the photo:
“Yesterday, I was honored to help present $465,000 in scholarship funds to many students enrolled in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program. Congrats and best of luck to all who will surely benefit from the scholarships that will be provided!
Big thanks to U.S. Steel and the Bridge Foundation for making these dollars a reality, to Sen. Jim Brewster for his continued collaboration, and to Cornerstone Christian Preparatory Academy for hosting the presentation.”
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.
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 up to $340 million a year.
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 nefarious character in the Ridge administration (the Governor was pro-school-voucher but couldn’t get the policy passed in the legislature) thought up a 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.
However, there’s an even more important reason they don’t call these things school vouchers. That term is extremely unpopular with voters.
I live in Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh region – the second highest area of the Commonwealth for these tax dodge…. I mean credits. The other is Philadelphia.
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.
According to the law, the state is not allowed to collect income information about people using these vouch… I mean tax scholarships. However, we know that a significant number of them are being utilized at private schools with average tuitions of $32,000 – far more than the few thousand dollars provided by the scholarships. They are apparently being used by wealthy and middle class students who can already afford private schools but are using public tax dollars to reduce the cost. I wonder how many already go to these schools before even taking the scholarship.
And you don’t even have to be a business to divert your tax dollars into the program.
The largest and shadiest group donating to the EITC Program are 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.
In Allegheny County, the largest are CASTA-SOS LLC and Pittsburgh Jewish Scholarship LLC.
Bridge Educational Foundation, a Harrisburg-based scholarship organization, operates the same way. On its Website, the organization claims to have provided $1,000 scholarships to more than 32,000 students in 61 state counties.
I just cannot understand why Gergely and Brewster are not only supporting this program but think that it will generate good will among voters.
They should be fighting to end this gaping hole in the state budget. They should be out there working their butts off to get adequate, equitable and sustainable funding for our public schools – not sitting on their butts congratulating themselves for helping religious and private schools get away with our hard-earned money!
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The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.
At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.
Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.
The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.
Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.
So what exactly is Propel celebrating?
Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).
I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?
In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.
For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.
According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.
When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.
However, individual attention is even harder to verify.
Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.
Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.
So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.
Unfortunately, it is definitively false.
According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.
So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.
Award Winning Arts Programs
Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.
In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”
What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?
Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.
Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.
In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.
Which brings us back to the beginning.
Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?
Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.
However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.
indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.
First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022 I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being. Pros Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits Cons Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure
Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022 My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.
In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one. Pros There were no pros. I can’t even make one up. Cons Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.
Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021 Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare. Pros There is not one pro I can think of. Cons Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”
Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022
Hr treats you bad Teachers treat you bad You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen Pros Nothing Cons You will be treated like you are worthless
Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021 Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible. Pros Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance. Cons Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff
Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021 Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator. Pros Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum Cons Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021 Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this. Pros Dedicated cohorts Cons Work-life balance off
teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020 There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment. When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.
Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020 Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.
Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020 Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.
Teaching children, benefits and compensation
Bad work/home life balance
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The basic thrust of the story is captured in the headline. It says that public schools throughout Pennsylvania have received an influx of funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but school directors are unnecessarily planning to increase taxes anyway.
For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has received $161 million in three rounds of federal disaster funding. Yet the district is still projecting a $38 million deficit this year.
Ideologues at the Harrisburg based Commonwealth Foundation don’t understand how that’s possible. They want to know why districts can’t just use the disaster funding to pay for continuing expenses?
Because it’s illegal. Duh.
Pittsburgh Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet explains:
“That’s one-time dollars. That money cannot supplant the general fund so the general fund is different. These are supplementary dollars that can’t be used for personnel or anything like that.”
Most of those funds will go to pay for after-school or summer school programs to help students with declining academics after they spent much of the past year at home, he continues.
Moreover, if districts spent that money (illegally) to fill pre-existing budget holes, all they’d be doing is kicking the can of funding deficits down the road a year or two.
Ideologues at the Commonwealth Foundation know that.
In fact, later on in the exact same story, they worry about this very thing.
At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth Stelle, Director of Policy Analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, says, “We see no reason why the federal funding is not more than enough to cover the needs of districts today.”
But then later in the same story she says, “I’m very concerned they’re going to spend that money on ongoing needs and we’ll be in a very difficult situation a couple years from now.”
Well, which is it Stelle? Are you worried about districts REFUSING to use disaster funds to pay for ongoing needs or are you worried that they WILL use disaster funds for this exact purpose?
WTAE should have had the journalistic integrity to ask her about her blatant contradiction in this story and her reprehensible positions on record. Or perhaps have the integrity not to invite such members of the lunatic fringe on their network and legitimize her position with coverage.
Unfortunately, producers are content to broadcast clickbait to get low information voters agitated against schools without any good reason.
I suppose it gets ratings.
If it bleeds it leads, and if it antagonizes it televises.
Sadly, WTAE wasn’t the only local television station to do so.
This at least was a more skeptical look at the same Commonwealth Foundation report.
But why run anything on the report to begin with?
Were the Flat Earthers busy? Was Q-anon out of conspiracies? Has no one spotted the Illuminati lately?
WPXI characterized the report less about COVID funding misuse than additional funds being unnecessary to begin with.
Reporters said the Commonwealth Foundation report concluded that state districts were not hurting from the pandemic in the first place. And then journalists went to local districts who flatly contradicted that statement with facts.
Gateway School Board President Brian Goppman, for example, said the district cut $3 million from its operating budget due to the pandemic. Moreover, the tax base, itself, has suffered from COVID. When businesses close, that’s less tax revenue to fund social programs like schools.
“Monroeville and especially our district… we get a lot of money from the businesses. Every day that we’re in the pandemic with these restrictions is another day we’re wondering if that business will be around tomorrow,” Goppman said.
And this doesn’t even factor in additional costs to hire more teachers and support staff to help students deal with a year and a half of less than ideal academics caused by quarantines and other safety measures.
They had on Jennifer Stefano, Chief Strategist and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, to talk about public school funding. Stefano is a former Tea Party member and frequent talking head on Fox News and other radical right propaganda networks who famously attacked the Head Start Program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent services for low-income families.
She could not have found a more friendly audience in Richert and Battle.
Moreover, Pennsylvania is one of the worst. The state government pays only 38% of the cost to educate children leaving the majority up to local communities to make up the difference. That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.
As we’ve seen, even when you look at per pupil spending across the state, you’re masking funding inequalities from district to district. You’re looking at an average of all spending, which ignores how little we spend at lower income schools and how much we spend at districts catering to rich communities.
Moreover, if we compare the percentage of GDP spent on education with other countries, you’ll see the US spends much less than comparable nations. For example, we spend about 5% of our GDP on schools compared with 6.4% in New Zealand, 6.9% in Finland, 7.5% in Iceland and 7.6% in Denmark.
Instead of pointing out the real problem and demanding the rich do their part, the Commonwealth Foundation covers for their billionaire masters. Partisans at the foundation ignore low taxes on the wealthy and blame high taxes on the poor and middle class on things like public schools.
And stories like these only go to further enrage taxpayers so that they’ll support tearing down the very systems that help keep them and their kids afloat.
No news organization should be falling for these lies.
WTAE, KDKA and WPXI should know better.
They are helping tear down media trust in this post truth age.
How ironic that in doing so they are helping destroy education – the one tool essential to navigating through such a landscape.
Find out more about state education funding shortfalls HERE.
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This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.
It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.
In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.
Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.
And for good reason.
The proposal was an absolute mess.
As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.
But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.
The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.
We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.
The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.
This was a terrible idea.
We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.
All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.
Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.
We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.
Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.
We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.
Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.
We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.
Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.
Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.
I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.
Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.
One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.
Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.
We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.
To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.
For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.
We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.
That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLYif those schools charters are in good standingAND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.
I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.
The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.
The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.
A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.
The $660 billion federal initiative was intended to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans will be forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions such as retaining or rehiring employees.
Since Imagine writes the Environmental Charter’s operating budget, the management company ends up paying itself for a number of services.
After the school gets funding from state, federal and community taxes (this year including bailouts from PPP and the CARES act), it pays 12 percent back to Imagine. This came to $406,000 in 2009, according to an independent financial audit.
The school also pays Imagine on a $250,000 loan that the charter operating company took out to launch the program. Payments come out to about $2,500 per month over 20 years with an interest rate of 10.524 percent.
The charter also pays Imagine rent on its building which was purchased in 2006 by Schoolhouse Finance – Imagine’s real estate arm – for $3 million.
Like the Environmental Charter, this so-called nonprofit hires a management company. In this case, it’s the infamous K12 Incorporated – a nationwide cyber charter network with a record of academic failure and financial shenanigans.
In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California. The state claimed K12 had reported incorrect student attendance records and otherwise lied about its academic programs. The company ended up settling with the state for $2.5 million with an additional $6 million to cover the state’s investigation and K12 voided $160 million in credits it had given to the affiliated schools to cover the cost of their contracts.
Hill House offers a blended model with in-person teachers and virtual classes somewhat different than most K12 schools.
Penn Hills School Board – a duly elected body, not government appointees – outlined criticisms of the charter that do not put the entrepreneurial venture in a positive light.
Penn Hills School Board said the charter had failed to produce current student rosters, failed in record management, failed to accurately maintain student tuition payments, improperly billed the school district for special education students, failed to maintain and develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs), had poor academic growth and is under a Department of Education Corrective Action Plan setting forth 31 areas of needed improvement.
Finally, the charter school sucks away necessary funding from the authentic public school. The Penn Hills School District paid Imagine about $3 million in 2014-15. Costs increased to $12 million a year and continue to rise.
Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has spoken out of both sides of her mouth on the issue. She has insisted that charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid – all the while advising charter schools also to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.
Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, did not mince words.
“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees…worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools.”
ProPublica has put all the information into an easy to use search engine. Just enter a zip code and it will display all the businesses located there that received PPP loans.
This includes high tuition private prep schools like Sewickley Academy and Shady Side Academy both of which got $2 – $5 million, Winchester Thurston School which got $1 million – $2 million, and the charter schools listed above.
That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.
However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.
After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.
In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.
But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?
There-in lies a tale.
America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.
They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.
According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.
This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”
In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.
“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.
Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.
Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.
Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.
I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.
NEW YORK CITY
New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.
While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.
“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”
In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.
In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.
“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.
Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”
However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.
Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:
“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”
Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.
Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.
Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.
Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help. Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.
The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.
Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.
In addition they have been found to increase racial segregation, cherrypick students, increase administrative overhead and discriminate against students with special needs.
But the state passed a law in 1997 allowing charter schools and there is nothing Pittsburgh Public Schools can do but continue to pay for them.
School directors, administrators, teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens can lobby their representatives in Harrisburg to fix these problems, but until they do there is little local districts can do.
However, the fact that charter schools increase local taxes is beyond doubt.
Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for nearly two decades.
The state government, local school districts and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. Districts and state workers made all their payments. Employees put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.
But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, a larger percentage of the cost has fallen on local school districts.
It’s a problem of Harrisburg’s making and – frankly – the legislature should be buckling down to find a solution.
What they should do is increase taxes on the wealthy and pay their damn bills.
We had a contract with employees when they were hired. We can’t renege on it now that they’ve retired.
Once again this is something Pittsburgh Public school directors and administrators have no control over. It will take a combined effort by local communities across the Commonwealth to lobby Harrisburg to get off its ass and fix the problem it made.
Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), Dr. Hamlet has suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.
It wouldn’t heal the budget shortfall all by itself, but it would certainly help.
The proposed tax increase would mean paying an additional $23 for a property valued at $100,000.
This is not an unbearable burden.
Some complain that it would push city residents to move – but really anywhere else you move will have higher taxes! Anyone who packs up and moves away will not be doing it for financial reasons.
I am thankful that board members Veronica Edwards, Pam Harbin, Devon Taliaferro, and Sylvia Wilson understood that by voting for both the proposed budget and the tax increase.
Kevin Carter, at least approved the spending plan, but he abstained from voting on whether the district should raise taxes, explaining later that he promised his constituents that was something he wouldn’t do.
Board members Cindy Falls, Bill Gallagher, Terry Kennedy, and Sala Udin voted against both measures.
Here’s hoping they find the courage to do what’s right after the holidays.
But even if they do, there is much more we must accomplish – and it requires everyone.
City residents need to rise up and demand their representatives put out the raging dumpster fires they keep lighting.
The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.
Who would have thought Presidential hopefuls would care enough about public schools to address education issues and answer our questions?
Who would have thought it would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet?
And – come to think of it – who would have EVER thought it would happen in my hometown of Pittsburgh!?
But it did.
I was there – along with about 1,500 other education activists, stakeholders and public school warriors from around the country.
It was an amazing day which I will never forget.
Perhaps the best part was getting to see so many amazing people in one place – and I’m not talking about the candidates.
There were members of the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, Journey for Justice, One Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and so many more!
I wish I could bottle up that feeling of commitment to our children and hope in the future.
Perhaps that’s kind of the point behind this article.
So much happened and there is so much worth noting, let me put my impressions down as a series of takeaways or lessons for us to savor between now and the primary election – maybe even until the general.
But I suppose that doesn’t matter so much because few people know who Michael Bennet is anyway.
3) Pete Buttigeig is Too Smart Not to Understand Education – Unless He’s Paid Not to Understand
Mayor Pete came off as a very well spoken and intelligent guy. But he also seemed about as credible as wet tissue. He said a bunch of wrongheaded things. For instance, he said that “separate has never, ever been equal,” but he supports charter schools. Separate but equal is their business model.
I used a gender neutral bathroom for the first time at the forum. I figured I just had to pee so it didn’t matter. Inside were nothing but bathroom stalls – no standing urinals. People of all genders were in there using the facilities and it didn’t matter at all. In fact, it just made sense. It only seems strange because of what we’ve grown to expect. Gender neutral is just logical – no one uses the bathroom for anything but… using the bathroom. Try it and you’ll see – it’s the most logical and natural thing in the world.
5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!
Warren simply electrified the room as soon as she entered it. She was at least as smart and well-spoken as Mayor Pete, but she was credible, too. She said all charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as authentic public schools. She said public school money should stay in public schools. She had detailed plans for how to fix what ails or school systemincluding a two cent wealth tax (three cents if you’re a billionaire) to pay for universal child care, universal pre-kindergarten, better pay for childcare workers, broader pell grants, and SO much more.
I was even more impressed with her in person and she got a standing ovation from the crowd. She would make a great President.
6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!
If Warren electrified the audience, Bernie was like a nuclear explosion. I don’t think anyone stayed in their seat when he entered. Fists pumping in the air, applause, chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” It was clear who the audience appreciated most.
And he was amazing. He said we need to break our dependence on property taxes to fund our schools. He said the problem with testing is we spend too much time teaching to the test. There are better ways to assess learning. He said we need a revolution in how we feel about education and learning. We’ve got to respect the educators who provide that education. He talked about criminal justice and unions and a broader range of issues and in more depth than any other candidate.
Steyer is a billionaire self-funding his campaign in a time when voters are sick to death of the rich controlling our politics. He’s like a fox warning us all about foxes. It doesn’t make me want to vote for him. It makes me wonder if he thinks I’m lunch.
9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected
And the winner of most improved image is Klobuchar – by a mile. She came off so authentic and honest. She started with an emotional story about her mother – a teacher – which naturally lead into some really smart policy suggestions. And saying that she’d fire Betsy DeVos in seconds after becoming President and replace her with an educator was nice, too. I’m not saying I think she can or should win the nomination, but I’m glad she’s in the race and I hope we see more of her.
10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump
Biden came tottering onto the stage late like a friendly but lost old man. He flashed the charm and told us what his policies were but he couldn’t explain why he supported a single one of them.
He was the worst public speaker all day. His words rambled this way and that. At one point he told the audience to stop clapping so he could explain why he wanted to fully fund special education, but then he went off on a digression and got lost. At one point he rhapsodized about all the terrible teachers out there and said teachers touch students’ lives – “metaphorically speaking.”
Dr. Denisha Jones – an amazing activist and friend – asked him a pointed question about standardized testing and whether he was against it? He told her she was “preaching to the choir” but then rambled on for moments more about … something. I don’t know what.
Biden seems more like someone with Alzheimer’s Disease than aspirations to the chief executive. If he won, his wife or someone else would really be making the decisions. He isn’t well. And all you have to do is hear him speak for a few minutes to see it.
Bottom line: I don’t think he could beat Trump.
As terrible as Trump is, he can speak more coherently than Biden. That’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true.
So there you have it – my top 10 takeaways from the education forum.
It was a great way to spend a Saturday.
The candidates left knowing exactly where the education community stands. They know what they need to do to get our votes – and many of them are actively trying to do that.
We have several candidates that would make good Presidents – and several who stand a good chance against Trump.
Here’s hoping that we all learn our lessons and use them to win back our government in 2020.
If you missed the event, you can still watch it here:
The candidates who are expected to attend Saturday’s forum include: Former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; billionaire businessman Tom Steyer; and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
All the presidential candidates who either qualified for the October debate or hold statewide office were invited to attend, according to organizers.
Along with Sen. Sanders, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best of any candidate who has ever sought the Democratic nomination. However, you seem to equivocate on standardized testing and national academic standards. On the one hand, you say that you’re against high stakes testing, but on the other you speak about putting an emphasis on student careers, and aligning high school graduation requirements with that of colleges. You even say you’d direct “the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.” This sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s Race to the Top which held school funding hostage to regressive reforms and Common Core which used standardized tests to determine what would be taught in schools. My question is this: please explain exactly if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing and Common Core fit in with your education policies?
If anyone has any other suggestions, please post them in the comments. And if someone else this weekend or later in the campaign season happens to get a chance to query one of the candidates, feel free to use one or all of what I have compiled here.
My hope is that this interest in education isn’t just a political stunt but will translate to better school policies no matter who wins the election in 2020.
The city has a surplus due to construction of new high-end apartments. City Council could have budgeted some of this money to pay for the parks. Instead, leaders like Peduto were too cowardly to take the blame, themselves, and put it out as a question to voters.
When the city was placed under Act 47 state oversight, the formula was changed to give a quarter percent more to the city from the school’s allotment – thus 1.75% went to the schools and 1.25% went to the city.
Pittsburgh left Act 47 in 2018 but the wage tax distribution has remained the same.
“Why in the heck can’t the school board balance their budget?” Peduto said. “Where is all this money going?”
Answer: Some of it is still going unnecessarily to fill your municipal coffers.
“If they are looking to have part of the city’s wage tax, then they should be willing to open the books and let the state come in and do exactly what we had to do through Act 47, which was difficult restructuring for the future. If we didn’t have that, the city would be bankrupt.”
So let me get this straight. In order to give back the revenue the schools generously loaned the city, you need a look at their finances? I sure wouldn’t lend you a dollar or else I’d have to show you my tax returns and checking account just to get the loan repaid.
“If they simply say, ‘We’re going to take your revenue to fix our hole,’ and not be the leaders that they were elected to be in making tough decisions like raising taxes, then I have no time for that, absolutely none, and I will fight them in Harrisburg.”
How generous! That’s like threatening to go to Mom and Dad to settle your dispute. A real leader would know he was in the wrong and just pay up.
This isn’t the first time Peduto has clashed with city schools.
He seems to think his role as mayor supersedes that of the school district which operates independently through an elected nine-member board.
“They have to remember they’re a board. They’re not a government. They’re no different than the water board or the Port Authority board or the airport board. They’re a board of education. Their job should be solely making sure that kids are getting a good education. When there becomes labor strife in the city, labor strife that could affect the economic development of the city for years to come, they need to move out of the way and let [elected] leaders lead.”
Dr, Hamlet said this was a “bargaining process, not a political” one, and that Peduto needed to let administration continue the process of bargaining with the teachers – a process that resulted in a new contract without a strike.
The relationship has been chilly even before Hamlet was hired in 2016.
Like many charter schools, the Hill District institution is incredibly segregated. According to ProPublica, 96% of students are children of color. It has no gifted program, offers no AP courses, has no students taking the SAT or ACT test, no calculus classes, no advanced math, no physics, geometry, chemistry or 8th grade algebra courses.
Peduto said he would lobby for additional funding for city schools in Harrisburg but district solicitor Ira Weiss said the mayor never followed through.
Peduto proposed increasing school revenue by helping to rent out unused school space. That hasn’t happened, either, said Weiss.
Peduto suggested increasing student after school programs by working together with the district and others like the YMCA and the Student Conservation Association. While a few such programs do exist, there is no broad collaboration, said Errika Fearby Jones, the executive director of Dr. Hamlet’s office.
Peduto’s summer reading program with the city and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh likewise never materialized – though the library runs its own program.
Moreover, Peduto’s plan to restart the Generations Together program with the University of Pittsburgh to promote cross-generational learning never happened either. Pitt shut down the program in 2002.
Curtiss Porter, who served as Peduto’s chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer during the first year of his administration, blames the problem on a disagreement about who should be in charge.
The city and school district had a good working relationship when he was there, he said, but there was “a clear demarcation” between the two bodies, which made it difficult to implement some of Peduto’s ideas.
“At critical junctures…the school district made it clear that they were willing partners but that they did not have to bow to the city,” he said. “[They] made it clear the city had no jurisdiction over education.”
And that disconnect appears to continue today.
Peduto is engaged in an ignorant and arrogant power struggle with city schools that helps no one.