Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


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I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.

 

Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.

 

We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.

 

But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.

 

It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.

 

Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.

 

Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.

 

Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.

 

And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.

 

Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?

 

No.

 

Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 


The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.

 

Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.

 

Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.

 

Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.

 

But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.

 

Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:

 

“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”

 

So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.

 

Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

 

2000-01 – 2012-13

Non-Special Ed: $9,321

Special Ed: $16,903

 

2013-14

Non-Special Ed: $9,731

Special Ed: $16,803

 

2014-15

Non-special Ed: $10,340

Special Ed $20,112

 

2015-16

Non-Special Ed: $12,326

Special Ed: $25,634

 

2016-17

Non-Special Ed: $13,879

Special Ed: $29,441

 

2017-18

Non-Special Ed: $13,484

Special Ed: $25,601

 

2018-19

Non-special ed: $14,965

Special ed: $32,809

 

All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.

 

“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.

 

Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.

 

Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.

 

“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.

 

 “Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”

 

Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.

 

For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.

 

Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.

 

But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.

 

We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.

 

There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).

 

In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!

 

It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.

 

And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.

 

Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.

 

For instance, take Propel Homestead.

 

In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.

 

Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.

 

However, test scores are poor indicators of success.

 

Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.

 

And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.

 

So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.

 

And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.

 

They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.

 

This nonsense has to stop.

 

The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.

 

They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.

 

We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.

 

It’s time to stop the madness.

 

It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.

 


 

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PA Charter Schools Caught Gaming the System for $2.5 Million

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Should a charter school be reimbursed for a lease to itself?

 

 

That’s the question at the center of yet another scandal about the industry.

 

 

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found nine Pennsylvania charter schools taking $2.5 million from the state to pay themselves back for properties they already own.

 

“What we found in some of our audits the same people who own and operate charter schools create separate legal entities to own the buildings and lease them to their charter schools,” DePasquale says. “We keep finding it and supplying the information to the department and they do nothing with it.”

 

His office found this happening in nearly a third of the 40 charter school audits done since he took office in 2013.

 

This goes against Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) guidelines adopted 14 years ago, says DePasquale. A charter school is not eligible for lease reimbursement if it owns the building.

 

 

PDE spokeswoman Casey Smith agrees. Charter school CEOS “are required to sign a self-certification statement verifying that the charter school does not own the building and that the building is being used for educational purposes,” she says.

 

This is exactly the kind of malfeasance the U.S. Department if Education warned states to look out for as recently as 2015.

 

However, DePasquale found questionable lease reimbursements at Propel Schools in Allegheny County, School Lane in Bucks County, Chester Community in Delaware County, Perseus House of Erie County, Fell of Lackawanna County, Roberto Clemente of Lehigh County, Bear Creek Community of Luzerne County, Keystone Education Center of Mercer County and Evergreen Community of Monroe County.

 

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If this practice has been going on since the guidelines were enacted in 2002, many more charter schools also may have cashed in. DePasquale estimates charter operators could have bilked the state out of $10 million to $15 million over that time period.

 

 

It’s shocking that so many charter school operators would consider themselves entitled to state money for something that doesn’t cost them anything to provide. They are supposed to be running public schools, but they continually flaunt their ability to disobey the law at state expense. This money doesn’t do a thing to help students learn. It goes directly into charter operators’ pockets.

 

 

For education advocates, this is one of the most pervasive problems with the charter industry. Making profits is put before educating children. At traditional public schools, surplus earnings are not allowed by law. All taxpayer funding goes to provide services for the students. While staff earns a salary, no taxpayer money is ever allowed to be pocketed in excess to boost the bottom line. Extra money – if it appears – is saved to be spent the following year or later.

 

 

Charter advocates see it differently. They think competition is necessary to produce superior results, though the result is often a waste of tax dollars that could be put to better use helping our underfunded public schools.

 

 

In this case, lawyers for the charters in question say their clients have done nothing wrong.

 

These payments meet the letter of the law, says Alan Shuckrow, a lawyer for Propel, which took $376,922 in lease reimbursements of this kind.

 

“From Propel’s perspective, we’re following the law and if the law changes, we’ll comply with that law,” Shuckrow says.

 

It all depends on how you interpret the law, says Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

 

“The auditor general takes the position if the building is owned by a charter school then it’s not reimbursable and PDE says ownership is irrelevant to reimbursement,” he says. “I’m sure charters are working based on the recommendation from their legal counsel plus direction from PDE.”

 

DePasquale agrees with Fayich to a point. The auditor general says the fault isn’t so much with the charter schools for applying for these reimbursements. It’s with PDE for granting them in the first place, and then taking no action to get the money back.

 

DePasquale and his predecessor, Jack Wagner, pointed this out numerous times, he says, yet the department has “never made an attempt to clawback any of these funds.”

 

This is just one of many reasons he considers the Commonwealth’s charter school law the worst in the nation and in desperate need of reform, he says.

 

However, reform seems unlikely in a state where lawmakers typically put their own names to legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

Just such a “reform” bill was pushed during the adoption of the 2016-17 state budget, but it was dropped due to lack of support.

 

Known as House Bill 530, it would have allowed for unlimited proliferation of charter schools without input from the traditional public school districts or voters who would have to foot the bill. While it did provide a bit more oversight, the bill was an unforgivable giveaway to the industry at the expense of taxpayers.

 

Supporters are threatening to take the bill up again later this month.

 

 

If this is what lawmakers mean by reform, we’re in big trouble.

 

 

The problems are out in the open. Public servants like DePasquale keep pointing them out to us, but no one has the guts to stand up against a big business like this one – even if it hurts school children.

 

 

The PDE needs to stand up. Lawmakers need to stand up. Voters need to stand up.

 

 

Otherwise we in Pennsylvania will continue to sell our children short in favor of the immediate financial gain of corporate vultures disguised as educators.