Pittsburgh Christian Academy Tries to Become a Charter School to Cash in on Taxpayer Funding

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The line between public and private school is getting awfully thin in Pittsburgh.

 

City public school directors received a request from Imani Christian Academy, a religious school in the East Hills, to be allowed to transform into Imani Academy Charter School for the Fall term of 2019.

 

Though parochial schools have metamorphosed into charter schools in Florida, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., this would be the first such transformation in Pennsylvania, according to Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

 

The change would require Imani to give up its religious curriculum in exchange for being fully funded by taxpayer dollars.

 

However, there are numerous red flags in the school’s application that make one wonder if operators are being entirely honest about giving up a faith-based curriculum.

 

First, there is the proposal by the school, itself.

 

The application does not specify that religious values will be taught in the classroom. However, its personnel budget lists a comparative religion teacher on staff. The list of proposed teachers also includes a middle/high school religious studies teacher.

 

That’s not exactly common practice at most public schools though teaching about religion in a secular context is allowed.

 

According to the Anti-defamation League’s Website:

 

“Public schools may not teach religion, although teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted. The Bible may be taught in a school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document.”

 

Even so, it’s awfully convenient that a school whose mission statement currently includes “We share Christ with our children daily and seek to help them grow into mature Christians” would somehow magically become secular overnight.

 

If Imani’s charter is approved, it would be required to discontinue any religious component in its curriculum. The state school code requires even charter schools to be “nonsectarian in all operations.” The proposed academy would not be permitted to display any religious objects or symbols on the premises.

 

Yet one wonders who will check to make sure this actually happens.

 

Charter schools are not required to be nearly as transparent as fully public schools. They are not required to have open meetings of school directors, release their documents for public inspection or any of a host of other safeguards that you’ll find standard at the state’s hundreds of fully public districts.

 

Pennsylvania charter schools have had operators embezzle millions of dollars from taxpayers to buy private jets, apartments and jewelry. It took investigators years to uncover such graft.

 

Will the few auditors tasked with keeping charter schools honest even be equipped to determine whether parochial schools suddenly turned charter actually refrain from ministering to students?

 

According to Public Source, a nonprofit digital newspaper covering the Pittsburgh area, one of the qualities Imani is looking for in an operator for its charter school is the ability to use the school building after-school hours for religious instruction and activities.

 

So during the day, there will be an entirely secular K-12 school at the site of the present day parochial school that just happens to teach comparative religious studies. Then at a certain time of day, it will transform into an optional religious school offering church functions!?

 

This is a violation of the Separation of Church and State waiting to happen.

 

But it’s not only the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution that is in danger of being trampled.

 

Imani’s proposal is not fiscally responsible.

 

The charter application proposes its CEO/head of school be paid a salary of $145,000 a year for an institution that would enroll merely 230 students.

 

Pittsburgh Public School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet earns a salary of $210,000 a year and he oversees a district with 24,652 students!

 

The proposed academy would also employ a principal at $85,000 annual salary.

 

That’s not exactly good reimbursement of services for the outlay of cash taxpayers are expected to pay.

 

Imani has struggled financially for several years.

 

In 2014, the school had more than $400,000 in additional expenses over its revenue, according to its form 990 filed with the IRS. The very next year, it had a budget surplus of almost the same amount. By 2016 – the most recent year on file – its expenses again were more than its revenue – this time by more than $500,000.

 

Imani CEO and Head of School Paulo Nzambi explained  the up and down budgeting to state officials in 2017 this way. The parochial school relied on the state’s defacto school voucher program – the Education Improvement Tax Credit. However, payments were delayed resulting in the use of a line of credit to pay bills.

 

It’s just such financial uncertainties that are pushing Imani to become a charter school in the first place. Even with school vouchers, parochial schools rely heavily on tuition from parents. However, you always know where the money is coming from in a charter school. Like religious and private schools, these institutions are privately managed – but like public schools they’re funded entirely by taxpayers.

 

Before setting up shop, any new charter school in Pennsylvania must get the approval of the school board from the district where it would be located. If the board does not approve the application, charter school administrators can appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board.

 

Pittsburgh school board held a public hearing on Imani’s application in December and earlier this month. Next, the district’s review team will offer its suggestions on the application. District solicitor Ira Weiss says the board is scheduled to vote on the matter at its Feb. 27 meeting.

 

If approved, the district would be required to pay for each student at the new charter school based on the district’s per-student spending formula.

 

The Pittsburgh district already pays approximately $82.8 million – about 13 percent of its total budget – for charter school tuition.

 

Imani Christian Academy currently operates out of the former East Hills Elementary School building, which it purchased from the city school district for $1 million in 2008.

 

The objections brought up here are really just the tip of the iceberg.

 

The proposal leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, though the new academy would be located within the geographical boundaries of the Pittsburgh Public School District, where would it get its students from? Would current students at the religious school get preferential enrollment – and what if they don’t already live in and pay taxes to Pittsburgh?

 

Let’s hope Pittsburgh school directors do the right thing and deny this request.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Destroying the Separation of Church and State is Beyond Stupid

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There is a special place in Hell for those trying to destroy the separation of church and state.

 

It’s kind of like:

 

Hey! Let’s turn this country into a Christian version of Iran!

 

Or:

 

If only my child’s school was more like a terrorist training camp!

 

Seriously, what the heck is wrong with you? Torquemada and Osama Bin Laden are not role models of 21st Century education.

 

But okay. In a way I get it. You’re a Christian fundamentalist, and you’re afraid secular education will turn your child against your faith.

 

Well, Number One, if your beliefs are so weak that just hearing an alternative will destroy them, then maybe they deserve to be destroyed. And, Number Two, that’s what religious schools are for! Reach into your pocket and pay for your little choirboy or choirgirl to be educated in the church basement. But I’m not using my tax dollars to help indoctrinate your child in whatever medieval mumbo jumbo you believe in.

 

You think the world was created in six days? You think the sun orbits around the Earth? You think the Earth is flat!? FINE! I’m not going to pay so your kids grow up just as ignorant!

 

Mixing religion with our public school curriculum is not a good thing.

 

When my kids take science, I want them to learn things based on empiricism and the scientific method – not whatever “truth” is enshrined in a holy book written before the germ theory of disease. The answer to a question about whooping cough isn’t “God did it.”

 

The same goes for literature. I want my child to read a wide variety of texts from various points of view, written by people of various faiths, from a multitude of cultures, genders and world views – not just a pantheon of iron age tribal chiefs and a smattering of cloistered feudal monks! I want my child to think about what she’s read and come to her own conclusions – not have “the truth” handed down to her from on high.

 

And when it comes to social studies, I want my child to understand history and government without the biases of the right wing taught as if they were the only logical ways to organize a society. I want my child to be a good citizen with a working knowledge of how government functions complete with a catalogue of the errors of past centuries. I don’t want my child molded to think a certain way and only that way so that she’ll vote a certain way and only that way.

 

Oh, and math? That’s just for boys.

 

It’s ironic that the advocates of school vouchers often couch their arguments in the language of liberty and choice when they’re really advocating for the elimination of those very things.

 

This isn’t about school choice. It’s about eliminating my child’s right to free thought. It’s about society pumping out a generation of religious zealot clones to feed the polling places of one political party so that they’ll vote against their own interests and keep the rich and powerful gobbling up 99% of the wealth.

 

But shouldn’t kids be allowed to talk about religion in school?

 

Sure. And they can and do right now in public school.

 

There is nothing to stop children from discussing their views about God and religion in school. They can even pray. No one will discriminate against them for it. That’s their right.

 

The only prohibition is against a religious discussion or prayer conduced by a teacher. When my students bring up God during a class discussion – and it happens – I let them talk. If they ask my views, I politely decline. I might say that some people believe this or some people believe that. But I never say what I believe.

 

Why would you want anything different? Do you really want teachers forcing their faith (or lack of faith) on your children? I suppose if you choose exactly the kind of school with teachers who think exactly like you, then this doesn’t matter. But isn’t it better to let kids figure out their own theologies perhaps with help from you, their parents?

 

When it comes to facts, an education professional is just what the doctor ordered. When it comes to opinions – and faith is the ultimate opinion – children should be free to think for themselves. If you want a religious leader to lend his or her normativity, that’s up to you. But don’t step on other parents who have different worldviews, cultures, faiths.

 

And please don’t give me this crap that the words “separation of church and state” don’t appear in the Constitution. Neither do the words “self-protection” appear in the Second Amendment, but you still cling to your guns on the excuse that they keep you and your family safe.

 

The separation of church and state is a long-standing interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has been upheld time and again. You may call yourself a “conservative” for going against it, but actually you’re the very definition of a radical. It is I who is being conservative in defending it.

 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

 

The same can be said of those with torches and pitchforks gathered around the separation of church and state. They seek no freedom other than the freedom to discriminate against those unlike themselves.

 

They are our racists, sexists and xenophobes. They are those prejudiced against anyone who thinks thoughts unsanctioned by their clergy. They seek to pour cement over the social structure and keep it in place with ignorance.

 

We must fight them to our last breath because if they win… God help us!