Charter Deform Made its Way to PA House Floor Today

Having spent more than five years as an Officer and Governing Board Member of Pennsylvania School Boards Association I have seen a lot of garbage come out of the Capitol Building (a lot of good things, too). What I saw today has forced me to dust off a Blog I have not used in more than two years.

Let me be perfectly clear, everything that follows in this post is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion(s) of Centennial School District, PSBA, nor any other organization with which I am affiliated.

The one constant in each of these years has been watching another attempt to cement the largess of Charter and Cyber Charter operators and management companies. Every dollar that goes to unjustly enrich an EMO is money that would be better spent in the classroom. How much more of our taxpayer’s money are we going to flush away paying exorbitant rentals and fees to insiders and family members operating Charter Schools?

My own school district served as host when Governor Corbett signed ACT 3 of 2013 into Law, establishing a commission to review special education funding for Charter Schools. Senator Pat Browne and Rep Bernie O’Neill held more than a dozen hearings across the Commonwealth. I was privileged to be one of the closing testifiers. Their result was impeccable. Unfortunately the imposition of a seventeen year phase in protected the Charter industry from potential economic losses.

Vahan Guereghian sucked enough money out of Chester County to construct an $80,000,000+ Palm Beach mansion without ever having to disclose the basis for his fees and charges nor the services allegedly provided in exchange. [Blogger’s Note: Vahan isn’t any better a homebuilder than educator. I believe the unfinished estate is still awaiting a buyer for the 242′ of beachfront property.]

Network For Public Education released a report earlier this month detailing how Charter/Cyber Charter Schools are not truly “public schools”. The myth busting is worth your time to read and to share.

At the same time Westmoreland PA Rep Mike Reese would have us believe saving $29MM on the vast amount PA School Districts pay to PA’s seventeen Cyber Charters is enough to push his HB 97, much the same way Rep Stan Saylor wanted us to agree his HB 530 last year was good because it would save 10% of what we pay charters. It wasn’t good enough to lock that in for twenty years.

We have the “worst charter law in the nation” if you ask our Auditor General. Yet, Reps Reese and Saylor are ignoring anti-bullying laws to get an even badder law on the books. Don’t get me wrong. HB 97 addresses some accountability issues and Rep Reese should be commended for that. It simply isn’t enough to trade off the huge profits paid to Charter/Cyber Charter operators.

Let’s look at Cyber Charter Schools. There is a place in public education for online learning. We have not learned how to make it work in PA. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) reports that online charter students lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year. NOTE – 20% of USA Cyber Charter students live in Pennsylvania.

Everything Cyber Charters do in PA is legal. Cyber pioneer/icon Nick Trombetta wasn’t convicted for amassing a fortune in cash, real estate and toys, he finally pled to Federal Tax Evasion. I thought about that the whole time Rep Steve McCarter was making his elegant plea on the House Floor to completely overhaul the compensation of PA Cyber Charters to realistic levels. (BTW, I loved Rep Mike Schlossberg’s “truth in advertising” amendment to HB 97. I followed him on Twitter for that!)

Unfortunately, that was one of the few amendments that did pass. I watched as Chairman Jim Roebuck, Chairman Mike Sturla, Rep Mark Longietti, Rep Patti Kim and others proposed perfectly logical improvements that were shot down one by one as Rep Reese and Majority Whip Bryan Cutler cracked their whips for a “no” vote.

Some examples of the type amendments that were offered:

  1. HB 97 contains a fine for the use of alcoholic beverages at Charter School functions (yes it happens often), which is effectively the school using taxpayer dollars to pay the fine. The amendment calls for revocation of the charter after a third offense. [passed with seven opposed]
  2. Amendment to require a disclaimer on Charter/Cyber Charter advertising claiming “free tuition”. [passed with one opposed]
  3. Amendment to delete the addition of three more charter school representatives to Charter Appeals Board [failed]
  4. Amendment to prevent Charter/Cyber Charters from enrolling more students and collecting tuition from those new students (based on a precedent in York County) once a charter is revoked and effective at year end. [failed]
  5. Amendment to prevent insiders from renting buildings they own to Charter Schools at excessive rates above market levels. [passed narrowly with strong opposition]
  6. Amendment to prevent state/federal funds paid to Charter/Cyber Charter from being used to advertise for enrollment of students as opposed to educating them as them as the funds were intended. [failed*] … *and don’t forget, public school districts advertise when they open kindergarten registration!
  7. Amendment to delete language providing automatic approvals of changes to charters issued by school districts that would materially alter the original charter (like even the very next day). [failed]
  8. Amendment to require independent audits of Charter/Cyber Charter Schools to be conducted by CPA Firms on a list compiled and approved by the department of education. [failed]
  9. Amendment to prevent conflicts of interest in hiring Charter/Cyber Charter administrators and EMO’s. [failed]
  10. Amendment to create a separate commission to review Charter/Cyber Charter funding and distribution. [failed]

Remember when we joined forces to beat down Senator Jeff Piccola and SB1? PASA, PASBO, PA Principals and the rest of the whole “Alphabet Soup” need to stand up with PSBA, PCCY and Ed Voters PA and protect the interests of ALL students in the Commonwealth, instead of placating the 130,000 Charter/Cyber Charter Students (or the operators who cash in on them).

You have that chance because after a block of remaining amendments were withdrawn in bulk, HB 97 was mysteriously referred back to Rep Saylor’s Appropriation Committee and the House adjourned until 1pm on Monday, April 24th. Use this link to contact your House member and let them know you want meaningful charter reform.

I am counting on you to Stand Up for Public Education!

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