Barely a week has passed since the School Reform Commission publicized its controversial, “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” and charter school leaders are letting it be known they will fight any plan that attacks per-pupil funding or forces charters schools to adopt an enrollment cap.
Specifically, charter school educators are taking umbrage with the SRC’s plan to slash $149 million from charter school funding, which represents a whopping seven percent drop in per-pupil funding. The plan also calls for a three-year freeze on per-pupil payments, and finally, the enforcement of a mutually agreed upon growth schedule. SRC officials believe it can balance its budget in five years if these and other cuts are implemented.
“In my view, the [budget] issue should not be balanced on the backs of charter schools. The reality is, I don’t go along with that, and it’s not acceptable,” said state Representative Dwight Evans, who was among the leaders of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago, when he introduced legislation supporting the charter model. “First, let’s be clear, this is supposed to be about kids and parents, and there’s nothing in the law that gives the SRC the legal ability to [arbitrarily reduce payments]. There is nothing in the act, one way or the other, for the district to do this.”
Evans was referring to the Act 22 Charter School Legislation of 1997, and most charter proponents point to subsection 17-1723 (d), which states that, “enrollment of students in a charter school or cyber charter school shall not be subject to a cap or otherwise limited to any past or future action of a board of school directors … or any other authority, unless agreed to by the charter school or cyber charter school as part of a written charter.”
“We fought 15 years to get that law passed; 15 years we fought for the parents to have options, and we won’t let the school district mess with the kids,” Evans said, crediting longtime educator and attorney Dr. Walter D. Palmer as being an early leading protagonist of the cause. “The school district has its own ineptness, but we will not let them do this.
“Politically, they must not think of bringing this through Harrisburg, because I wouldn’t support it,” Evans said.
Palmer, at the forefront of the charter issue for almost three decades and who served as major supporter of the mid-’90s legislation, recently took the school district to court over the district’s attempts to cap enrollment at his successful Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. According to Palmer, the school district has unfairly targeted the charter school system while ignoring both the achievements and gains made by the charters — and the district’s own mismanagement of resources and funds.
“The district has been repressive to charter schools for at least ten years,” Palmer said, placing much of the blame of the perceived public school — charter school friction at the feet of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former SRC chairman Robert Archie. “All of this is really an all-out assault on the charter school movement, but [the SRC] cannot circumvent the court.”
Palmer has defied the SRC’s cap measure by continuing to accept students, and billing the state directly. Twice, Palmer said, the courts have agreed with him, and ruled the district must reimburse Leadership Learning more than $1.3 million in outstanding per-pupil payments. The district is currently exhausting its appeals in that matter and Palmer expects a ruling sometime next month.
Palmer recently testified in a City Council hearing helmed by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is also the chair of Council’s education committee. There, Palmer made a series of suggestions to the SRC that he believes would help correct the problem.
“I suggested one of the things they do is completely dismantle renaissance schools, which are not charters. They are failed public schools that are reconstituted by the district and controlled by the district, but they then ask a charter school operator to come in and operate them; they are not charter schools,” Palmer said. “Then, I suggested they take those schools and turn them into promise academies. I also said they need to consolidate the mothballed schools; you have William Penn High School on Broad Street that’s sitting empty and costs a fortune to maintain.”
Some of the plans Palmer and other educators suggested — some going back years, if not decades — have finally made their way into the SRC’s reorganization blueprint, such as downsizing the central office; decentralizing certain services and generally trying to trim operations. But the decision to make these cuts came years after continual warnings.
Palmer said the school district really doesn’t have an excuse; the charter school legislation has been in place since 1997, and instead of working in conjunction with charter schools, it seems to him the district is bent on destroying them.
“Stop trying to bash charter schools,” Palmer said. “What we are experiencing now is a white hostile takeover of Black education in America. Folks have realized there are millions and millions to be made [in corporate education] right in the heart of the Black community, and this is happening in urban Black districts with Black folks on their watch.”
The issue of capped enrollment is very real; and doesn’t just affect Philadelphia and its stable of charter schools, as the Chester Upland Charter School recently won the right to uncapped enrollment. Basically, if a charter school is allowed uncapped enrollment, it can then theoretically build other schools to house the added enrollment, provided they meet staffing, safety and academic guidelines.
“They’ve gotten to a point where the school district is bankrupt; why should charters have to pay for the school district’s inability to manage its budget?” said Dr. Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia. “And now, [the SRC] is giving us less. Are they expecting the charters to fail, since they are taking money away instead of rewarding us?”
Like Palmer’s school, MCSCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, and both its financial and academic records are strong. Joyner, like Palmer, is worried about the possibility of working with fewer funds.
“I am totally concerned about that,” said Joyner, who also serves as president and founder of Parents United for Better Schools, Inc. “The school district already takes almost 30 percent of the allotment given to us by the state. Now they want us to contribute more money when it’s not our failure. Charters are doing good, and there should be more support, not less.”
Joyner said she has a waiting list 7,000-plus students’ strong, which points to the academic prowess of her school. She believes that charters are a unique educational necessity that warrants saving.
“We’re talking about a school district that has failed,” Joyner said. “That budget didn’t just creep up on them like that — it’s been creeping up on them for years, and I am appalled no one saw that and did anything about it. We are already operating on much less than the public schools do. Now they are going to cut us, and expect us to do a better job with less.
“This is not fair to charter school operators, or the families we serve,” Joyner continued. “Because we are expected to do a better job than public schools — and we’ve shown that we are capable of doing that — we should have more support.”
Instead of aiming at charter schools, Joyner said, more attention should be paid to the district’s hierarchy and its plans for a new leader, since direction will no doubt come from on high. Joyner has been in education for more than 40 years, and senses a recurring pattern by the SRC.
“The district usually goes outside of Philadelphia to find a superintendent, and that has always been its first failure,” Joyner said. “My concern is we keep getting people who, on paper, can do these things, but come in and leave the district in a worse state. There are people right here in Philadelphia who can lead the district. I question [the SRC’s] motives.”
Reform continues to be the buzzword in education circles, and that buzz is becoming louder, thanks to a pair of developments.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett last week signed legislation that at once sets the commonwealth’s education budget and enacts several phases of public education reform. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Corbett’s budget invests more than $11.35 billion in the three layers of public education, and, coupled with recent legislation that will reform both charter school funding and teacher evaluations, will lead to a smoother running and more accountable public education system.
“In order to bring about systemic changes to public education, reforms must start with those who teach in and lead our schools,” Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said in a statement released by the DOE. “Governor Corbett’s initiatives will not only raise the bar for effective educators, they will ensure that every student has access to quality academic programs.
“This new approach will ensure that those who are responsible for educating Pennsylvania’s students have the knowledge and skills necessary to prepare students for postsecondary success,” Tomalis continued. “It will also provide important information for public schools to direct the more than $500 million invested each year into professional development to areas that will impact students.”
Pennsylvania now joins 22 other states in utilizing student achievement in evaluating its teachers.
Corbett’s budget has drawn considerable scorn for its use of education block grants that, in essence, decreases the overall education budget. But Corbett has repeated that painful cuts must be made in order to cut the commonwealth’s $700 million budget gap.
House Bill 1307 seems to fit right into these plans, as it further instigates education reform while providing the opportunity for the state to save money.
The bill, introduced by state Rep. Duane Milne, R-Chester County, amends the Public School Code of 1949. Milne’s legislation would pave the way for the state to take over distressed schools and districts, and immediately turn them into charter schools.
Milne’s plan would also call for the creation of an education chief recovery officer at the state level, a position not unlike that currently held by Thomas Knudsen, the CRO of the School District of Philadelphia.
According to the amendment, a school/district can be considered in a distressed financial state if it meets any of these criteria: has failed to pay its staff for ninety days; has outstanding tuition due to another school district that has gone unpaid as of January 1 of each school year; hasn’t paid its board of directors; has defaulted on bond payment; operates at a deficit greater that the value of its holdings, and has contracted a loan without DOE approval.
A takeover-handover of distressed schools into charter leaders is an idea long supported by Dr. Walter D. Palmer, a charter school pioneer who has taken the School District of Philadelphia to court over the district’s handling of certain charter school funding and enrollment issues.
Palmer says HB 1307 has a chance, if implemented correctly.
“For me, it’s a good thing. Although charters aren’t the cure-all for everything, it’s an option and gives parents choice,” said Palmer, founder of the North Philadelphia-based charter school bearing his name. “The problem I continue to have is of the corporate takeover. Don’t turn it over to corporations to run them. We don’t want Education Management Organizations [EMOs] to run these schools.”
The bill, however progressive, will not contribute financially to any of the affected school districts — and unless funding is part of any plan, it is doomed to fail, said Pennsylvania Senator Wayne D. Fontana.
“The drastic reduction in basic education funding imposed by the [Corbett] administration in last year’s budget has resulted in a growing number of distressed schools and has forced school districts to cut teachers, counselors and other essential staff, reduce the number of textbooks that can be purchased, eliminate arts and music programs and other extracurricular activities while class sizes grow,” Fontana said. “Unless we provide adequate funding and give school districts the resources they need, the list of distressed school districts across the commonwealth will continue to grow.
“It is important to remember that the biggest losers in all this are the students,” Fontana continued. “We owe it to our children to find solutions that enable them to get the best education possible. This legislation further compromises students in distressed schools, as it does not address the biggest need — which is adequate funding and support.”
An educational survey, along with a new report on national high school graduation figures, is bound to have an effect on how residents throughout the commonwealth look at public education — both its funding and academic achievements.
The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on request by StudentsFirst — a nationwide non-partisan, non-profit education reform think-tank founded in 2010 by former Washington, D.C., Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee — netted interesting results from its more than 800 calls to residents statewide.
Overall, the survey found that Pennsylvanians supported reform to teacher evaluations by a large margin, with 72 percent of the callers supporting it, while only 15 percent of the callers opposed; those polled also opposed the general “last in, first out” method of targeted layoffs (34 percent supported the notion, while 23 percent opposed it). Public Opinion Strategies also found that Pennsylvanians supported teacher effectiveness as a barometer over simple seniority, by a 62 percent to 32 percent margin.
More than half of the respondents — 53 percent — support public charter schools, while 23 percent were opposed to the charter school system. Interestingly, charter school support increased to 66 percent when callers were properly informed of the nuances of the charter school system.
These results also reflect the mood and sentiment of the educational landscape in Philadelphia, where charter school support has become a divisive topic. Charter school operators were recently caught off-guard by the introduction of charter school reform bill — HB 2346 — which would severely cripple that system’s funding and resources, while the School Reform Commission’s own five-year reorganization blueprint calls for a drastic pullback in the amount of funds going to the city charter schools from the school district. Many charter operators — including Dr. Walter D. Palmer — plan on challenging the legality of HB 2346.
But it’s not all fire and brimstone for the state of public education here, as the percentage of minorities graduating has steadily risen over the last decade. A joint study by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center recently found that in 2009 — the most recently completed data set — that there has been a 1.7 percent increase in the number of African-American high school graduates, and a 5.5 percent increase in the number of Latino graduates.
The aggregate numbers for Pennsylvania put it in select company, joining only nine others — Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - as the only states to enjoy a double-digit increase in overall graduation rates for the decade ending in 2009. The report also indicates that minority graduation rates fared even better during those ten years, as those groups enjoyed a 10 percent increase in its graduation rate.
As an example of Pennsylvania’s overall standing, the state is one of only six to graduate more than 80 percent of its high school students. Washington, D.C.’s school system graduates fewer than 60 percent of its high school students.
Against national averages, from 1999 to 2009, Pennsylvania ranked third by graduating 80.5 percent of all its students, trailing only New Jersey (87.4 percent) and North Dakota (85.9 percent). The state ranked fifth in the nation by graduating 78.2 percent of its male high school students, and ranked fourth by graduating 82.5 percent of its female high school students.
Pennsylvania didn’t rank as well in terms of minority graduation increases. In 2009, Pennsylvania graduated 59 percent of its African-American students, ranking it 21st in the country, and barely edging the national average of 58.7 percent. The averages for Hispanic students are even bleaker. According to the report, 58.7 percent of Hispanic high school students graduated in 2009, well behind the national average of 63 percent — and making Pennsylvania 23rd in the nation in that category.
Arise Academy, HOPE Charter and Truebright Science Academy are now on the clock.
In a meeting late last week, the School Reform Commission took no action on the district’s recommendation to not renew their charters, meaning these schools only have one full academic year to change the minds of officials in the SRC and Office of Charter Schools.
“The vote speaks for itself in regard to the performance of the schools, and the vote represents the SRC’s continued commitment to support high quality schools and programs, and close programs that are low performing,” said school district spokesman Fernando Gallard. “This is being done across all public schools, and that is the message the SRC sent with this vote.”
The SRC’s decision means these schools will remain open until their current charter runs out at the end of the 2012–2013 academic year. Charters are renewable every five years.
School district officials have repeatedly promised to close schools that were either low performing, had ongoing precipitous drops in enrollment or operated in dangerous and obsolete buildings — and it has delivered on that promise by closing eight public schools at the end of this school year. But few could have predicted charter schools would be among the sacked schools, especially when it wasn’t previously announced that charter schools were under consideration for closure.
“The SRC’s decision underlined the need to do this on a very fast track, and [the board] felt that they couldn’t wait and do this slowly and piecemeal,” Gallard said. “So that is why [the SRC] has taken this step, and this is the first time it has done this in many years — to not renew these three charter schools.”
Truebright CEO Dr. Bekir Duz believes that not only is Truebright a success, it will prove over the next academic year that it can continue to meet and exceed standards.
“This was only the first meeting; it was procedural and [the SRC’s decision] does not close the school,” Duz said, noting that the SRC plans to hold another meeting in June to further discuss the schools’ fate. “This is the first step in the process, and it really gives Truebright an opportunity to present evidence to the school district.
“The school will operate in 2012 and is accepting applications.”
Duz may have a chance. A statement from the school district read in part, that the “SRC will be postponing a vote on the recommendations for charter school renewals in order to best plan a process that takes into consideration the financial and legal conditions that may affect future decisions around growth and cost of charter schools.”
Duz believes if the SRC had the proper data to begin with, Truebright wouldn’t even be considered for non-renewal.
“We have a very strong case. We have been operating for five full years, and Truebright has established a strong financial record, and the SRC has recognized that,” Duz said. “We have stable governing and leadership, and we will prove it to them."
That these charter schools have to go through such lengths alone is a travesty, especially when considering the type of work charters do, said Dr. Walter D. Palmer, a career educator and founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School.
“You’ve got a number of charter schools out there doing special types of work. The one thing not taken into consideration is that these particular schools are working with the most problematic students in the entire state of Pennsylvania,” Palmer said. “They have lost their education to the state, and [these charters] are being asked to get these kids back on track in a very short period of time.
“Very few charter schools make progress in the first several years; they need to be given an opportunity, because you can’t turn around these kids in one or two semesters or in two to three years.”
Palmer believes that charter schools like his and others take students with behavioral or mental health issues who often hail from depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods. In taking on such students, these schools should be cut some slack.
“We need these schools, because they are doing what these other schools don’t want to do,” Palmer said, pinning the blame squarely on the SRC, and an educational system based more on a colonial-style of testing, grading and teaching. “You have to give them more than three years to turn it around.
“How can you reverse 50 years of bad educational management [by the school district] and expect these schools to turn around in three years?”
A sense of statewide bipartisanship — driven by a mutual disappointment in the education funding cuts included in Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, and fueled by constituent outrage throughout the commonwealth — has led Democratic state Rep. James Roebuck to support Republican state Rep. Mike Fleck’s introduction of House Bill 2364, known as the Charter and Cyber Charter School Funding and Accountability bill.
Roebuck, the House Education Committee Democratic Chairman, is co-sponsor of the bill, which has four broad points that, if taken one way, would reform charter school finances and ostensibly prop up the sagging financial infrastructure of public schools statewide.
Taken another way, these measures could be seen as an all-out assault on the charter school system, unfairly punishing it for the failings of public schools.
According to documentation provided by Roebuck’s office, HB 2364 would limit unassigned funding balances for charter schools, bringing them more in line with traditional reserve limits held by public school districts; remove the so-called “double dip” in pension funding; limit the amount of special education funding charter and cyber schools receive, and require all charters throughout the state to undergo year-end audits conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“At a time when public schools are still coping with last year’s state education funding cuts and local property taxpayers want to avoid another round of trickle-down tax hikes, it’s only fair to taxpayers for all schools to play by the same rules,” Roebuck said in a statement released by his office. “These reforms should be in effect starting with the 2012–2013 school year. We can provide this relief immediately to school districts and their taxpayers. These reforms would provide at least $45.8 million in savings for the coming school year, and probably much more beyond that.”
Roebuck claims the auditor general in 2010 reported that charters had $108 million in reserve funds, while nearly half of all charters held reserves far above the public school’s mandated cap of 12 percent of annual budget; he also claims the school districts throughout the state have paid charters a total of $795 million while being reimbursed only $227 million from the state.
Pennsylvania School Boards Association Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel said the new bill, if signed into law, would add a greater degree of accountability and oversight to charter school management.
“Charter and cyber charter funding formulas must be reflective of actual instructional expenses, predictable and based on logic,” Gentzel said through a statement released by the PSBA. “HB 2364 provides much needed charter school accountability to protect taxpayers and school entities from escalating costs.”
The Fleck-Roebuck bill makes no mention of how much money, if any, of these recouped funds will go to the School District of Philadelphia; with a $218 projected budgeting deficit for the next school year, it would seem Philadelphia alone would absorb much of those funds.
According to the School Reform Commission’s five-year “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” the district already planned on trimming $149 million from the $839 million projected charter school budget. It also plans on reducing per-pupil payment by 7 percent for the coming year.
“In addition to the direct fiscal reforms, I am pleased the bill retains local control of charter school approval,” said Roebuck. “Unlike competing legislation, that would strip away that local authority and place it in the hands of bureaucrats in Harrisburg.”
With all the cuts to charter funding already in place, career educator and charter school pioneer Dr. Walter D. Palmer is dismayed both by HB 2364 — and Roebuck’s support of it.
“I am very disappointed that Roebuck has taken this position. I met with him two weeks ago to lobby for more support of charter schools, and on top of that, he attended a meeting with the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools,” Palmer said. “What happens is — and it’s not just Roebuck, but school unions, teachers and other folks who want to maintain the status quo end up undermining [charter] schools.
“Charter schools are a reality, and are not going away.”
Palmer said he will most likely support Corbett’s educational reform policies; the irony of such a stance isn’t lost on Palmer.
“Isn’t it ironic that a Republican governor and the Republican-controlled House are champions of school choice? We’re not captive to any political party, and you make allies on both sides of the aisle,” said Palmer, noting that he would challenge the legality of HB 2346 should it be signed into law. “I am totally opposed to the Fleck bill, and I hope the Philadelphia Democratic delegation gets on board and comes to the realization that charters and here, and here to do a good job.”
The startling results of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandated recalculations of the Adequate Yearly Progress — AYP — of all the charter schools in the commonwealth has caused immediate fallout, now that the recalculations show only 28 percent of all charter schools met AYP, as compared to 49 percent determined under the calculations made last fall.
According to the School Boards Association of Pennsylvania, the recalculation led to 34 fewer charter schools making AYP; that drop from 77 charter schools to 43 represent a 21 percent decrease. With the recalculation, no cyber charter school in the commonwealth made AYP, seven fewer charters attained the “making progress” designation, while 27 more charters received the “warning” designation. Finally, the recalculation also shows that a further nine charter schools are in either of the two stages of “corrective action.”
While the USDE nor the Pennsylvania Department of Education mentioned the names of the schools that failed to meet AYP under the new calculations, Truebright Science Academy Charter school is one of the handful of charters that have made AYP in consecutive years — a strong showing on its own, but made more impressive given the fact that not too long ago, there was talk that the state wouldn’t renew Truebright’s charter.
For Truebright CEO Bekir Duz, the recalculations have both good and bad points, but were overall meaningless for his school, as it has made AYP under both calculation methods.
“We were confident in our PSSA performance, and we are only bolstered by this new information from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It is further proof that Truebright’s curriculum and staff are successfully educating students to the highest standard in Pennsylvania,” said Duz.
Truebright is but one example of a charter school thriving in spite of the recalculation and a growing anti-charter school movement. In addition to AYP, Truebright continues to meet the state’s standard for Pennsylvania Academic Growth in both reading and math.
According to the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS), Truebright showed moderate evidence of exceeding the state standard for academic growth in math at the high school level and met the state standard for academic growth in reading at the high school level. The PVAAS website also shows that Truebright’s graduation rate hovers near 100 percent, while traditional neighborhood schools are graduating students at a rate closer to 60 percent.
“The news from PDE combined with our track record of academic success is ongoing proof that Truebright Science Academy Charter School is a valuable and lasting addition to the City of Philadelphia,” said Duz. “Truebright made AYP on initial calculations in September, and then the state decided to recalculate, and Truebright maintained AYP under those recalculations, and we are grateful about that. But we were expecting this.
“I think in Philadelphia, 23 charter schools out of 80 made AYP under the recalculation, compared to 43 in the original calculation. But when you compare it to district-run charter schools, only 19 percent of those made AYP, and right now, 29 percent of [non-school district] charter schools made AYP, so charters are still doing better than [traditional] public schools.
“But the recalculation also proves that both charters and the school district have a lot of work to do.”
It’s properly measuring that work that leaves charter operators puzzled by the move to recalculate the AYP scores, given that charter schools operate under a unique set of rules and often take in students with severe learning, behavioral and societal deficiencies.
“We take the failing students from failing schools and bring them into our schools, and we are held accountable the same way [the traditional school districts are]. They have to take into consideration the demographics of these children, the economics, if they are fed properly, if the come from a single-parent household or what they are exposed to in their community,” said Dr. Walter D. Palmer, founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School and one of the trailblazers in the fight to establish school choice and the charter school system in Pennsylvania. “I think the federal government is wrong. Charter schools should be measured as a district, not as individual schools. The state got that and understood it. But because of pressures from the unions and special interests who petitioned the federal government, the recalculation came about.
“Withstanding all of that, there are still a significant number of charter schools that are doing better than public schools.”
Confusion and the uneven measuring system, Palmer says, plague the AYP system itself. For example, if a charter school is judged on 20 AYP measurements and fails at any of the 20, then that charter school is designated as having not made AYP.
“There is a hostile white takeover of black education in urban centers across America, and the public needs to be educated on AYP, as it has a number of fields in it. If I had 20 AYP fields to look at, including attendance, consistently providing lunch and college-bound rate and I missed one, I wouldn’t make AYP,” Palmer explained. “So, look at the fields. Say I have 98 percent attendance rate, 95 percent of our graduates are college bound, had a 100 percent graduation rate for three years running and 100 percent testing proficient-to-advanced — but I failed to put how many free lunches I provided — as a charter school operator, I failed.
“And the public says, “Ah, look, another failing charter school. We really need the state to help us develop a tool that really demonstrates the charter school reality, and it cannot be a one-size-fits-all measurement,” Palmer added, noting that a proper measurement would include safety, student interaction and parental satisfaction. “Using the same criteria [used for traditional public schools] is a fallacy.”
Proponents of the statewide charter/cyber-charter reform bill have reloaded, and this time, they are carrying even more potent ammo: a scathing Special Report from Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner — one that is sure to add weight to the Charter School and Cyber Charter Reform and Accountability Act, championed by State Rep. Mike Fleck and a few of his colleagues.
While the Fleck-authored House Bill 2364 simply lays out options the commonwealth can undertake to stem what supporters consider the overfunding of charter schools — such as limiting unassigned fund balances, removing the so-called “double dip” in pension funding, limiting the amount of special education funding and requiring end-of-year audits — Wagner’s report outlines the consequences if Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, the General Assembly, and Pennsylvania Department of Education fail to act.
According to Wagner’s report, Pennsylvania spends roughly $3,000 more per student to educate a child in a charter school — and more than $3,500 per student in cyber charter schools — than it does on students enrolled in traditional public schools. By using those figures, Wagner’s report concluded the state could save $315 million by bringing the per-student expenditure more in line with that of traditional public schools. Wagner’s report also found that an additional $50 million could be saved through the elimination of the double-dip pension funding loophole.
“With the tightening of school budgets and funding available to school districts throughout the state, Pennsylvania’s flawed and overly generous funding formula for charter and cyber charter schools is a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford,” Wagner said. “While I have long supported alternative forms of education, as the state’s independent fiscal watchdog, I cannot look the other way and ignore a broken system in which charter and cyber charter schools are being funded at significantly higher levels than their actual cost of educating students.
“It is time for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, along with the General Assembly and the Corbett administration to fix Pennsylvania’s flawed funding formula for charter and cyber charter schools.”
While both Wagner’s report and HB 2354 outline ways the commonwealth can save money, neither document says the recouped money will be directly used to prop up the public education funding, especially in light of Corbett’s budget, which slashes the state’s funding of public education.
And how this plays out in Philadelphia remains to be seen, as more than 43,000 students attend either a charter or cyber charter school, according to the School District of Philadelphia. In the 2010-2011 academic year, the district paid $8,600 per pupil to the city’s charter schools, and paid those same charters $18,500 for every pupil that required special education. The district has already taken drastic steps to curb charter school funding on its own, with the creation and implementation of the Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools, which calls for a seven percent reduction in per-pupil funding, and an overall decrease of $149 million in charter school funding over the next five years.
The charter school reform issue has the support of State Representative James Roebuck, putting him at odds with charter school supporters such as fellow State Representative Dwight Evans and charter school pioneer Dr. Walter D. Palmer. Palmer has vowed to fight in court any moves to restrict charter school funding.
“At a time when public schools are still coping with last year’s state education cuts and local property taxpayers want to avoid another round of trickle-down tax hikes, it is only fair to taxpayers for all schools to play by the same rules,” said Roebuck, who also serves as the Democratic Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, of HB 2364. “These reforms should be in effect starting with the 2012-13 school year. We can provide this relief immediately to school districts and their taxpayers. These reforms would provide at least $45.8 million in savings for the coming school year, and probably much more than that."
Evans, long a proponent of school choice and charter schools, has stated he would use his full political might to fight off any challenges to charter schools - entities which he feels add more to society than critics want to admit.
“What I think is that people sometimes miss that charter schools are public schools first, and that second, parents have them as choices and options available to them,” Evans said. “Third, it’s an economic development opportunity.
“So you have the academic aspect, and the commercial,” Evans continued, noting that when a charter school is built, it creates immediate jobs and goes a long way toward community beautification. “Of course I am against [HB 2364].”
Still, charter reform has its supporters, including the powerful Pennsylvania School Boards Association, a non-profit statewide association of school districts.
“Charter and cyber charter funding formulas must be reflective of actual instructional expenses, predictable and based on logic,” said PSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel via a statement released by his office. “HB 2364 provides much needed charter school accountability to protect taxpayers and school entities from escalating costs.”
Although it mirrors Senate Bill 1115 in that it alters the Public School Code, House Bill 2661 would reform and add additional checks to the funding of charter and cyber-charter schools.
Introduced last week by State Rep. James Roebuck and buoyed by bipartisan support throughout the state, HB 2661 proposes several changes, including limiting unassigned balances on the accounting books of charter and cyber-charter schools, essentially limiting these schools’ reserve funds; eliminating the so-called pension “double dip” loophole; lowering the per-student funding for special-needs students; requiring annual audits by the Department of Education and finally, it would increase the level of transparency, particularly as it relates to contractors that provide educational, administrative and management services.
“If we are overfunding some chart and cyber-charter schools, as appears to be the case, that money needs to be returned to the school districts this year, not held until 2013–14 or later. All of these funding accountability measures will provide financial relief to school districts from specific charter school funding mandates places on school districts,” Roebuck said at HB 2661’s announcement. “These saving can then be used by school districts and the state to restore funding to public school and keep property taxes from rising.”
According to Roebuck, his four initiatives were not included in the recent flurry of charter/cyber-charter reforms passed by both the House and Senate.
School District of Philadelphia Spokesman Fernando Gallard said district officials, including the School Reform Commission, haven’t had a chance to review Roebuck’s bill, but charter funding has long been a problem for the district, as Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen has looked to address the issue, through both the five-year transformation blueprint and the accompanying five-year financial plan.
According to the district’s FY 2012–3012 budget, the district’s funding of charters and cyber-charters will leap more than 17 percent, adding $44.2 million to the district’s budget gap. Currently, the district allocates more than $580 million to the charter/cyber-charter school system.
“In the last two years, public schools have taken nearly a $1 billion cut in state funding, followed by a second state budget that locked in those cuts. The latest survey of school districts found that because of these state funding cuts to public education, an estimated 20,000 jobs been eliminated or left vacant,” Roebuck said, “along with reductions in early childhood education programs, tutoring assistance and summer school and increased class sizes…these state funding cuts have also forced many districts to raise property taxes.”
SB 1115 – introduced by State Majority Whip Pat Browne and currently awaiting vote in the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee — goes considerably softer on charter schools and related programs, as it calls for the implementation of Special Education Funding Commission, a greater communication between charter/cyber-charter operators and state education officials, allows for a partnership between charter schools and colleges and universities and other smaller reforms.
“I support SB 115,” said Dr. Walter D. Palmer, a longtime local pioneer of the charter school movement and founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership and Learning Partners Charter School. “It’s my understanding that the bill has not been voted on yet, but they are working the kinks out of it. The pieces in particular about ten-year charter renewals and uniform applications for applying for charters is good for managing a student’s success. That way, everyone will be held accountable to the same standard.
“I do not support HB 2661.”
Palmer said the relationship between charter schools and the traditional public school system has deteriorated over the years, and believes SB 1115 would help rectify the conflict.
“We are just not able to have a civil relationship with school districts, which is unfortunate,” Palmer said. “So SB 1115 bodes well for us in that regard.”
Indeed, State Representative Dwight Evans — himself a longtime proponent of school choice and the voucher program, said there “shouldn’t be talk of pitting charters against public schools.”
I keep trying to tell people that charters and traditional public schools are really the same, as they are both about educating and caring for our students,” Evans said, noting that he doesn’t expect HB 2661 to get very far, considering the few days left in the month to get votes in and that there will be no lame-duck session. “Charter schools are just a way to offer choice to our community, so all this hostility towards charter schools is really counterproductive.”