Further conversation on the “Charter School Perspective” post

(29th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Karen Beck Pooley is a Professor of Practice of Political Science at Lehigh University, where she directs the Environmental Policy Master’s Program.  She also serves as a Senior Associate at czb LLC (an urban planning and neighborhood development consulting firm), and is a member of the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD) School Board and BASD Proud Parents.

Gadfly:

Here are some replies to your invitation for conversation focused on the bullet points in your previous “Charter School perspective” post:

  • “[Charter schools] educate 7% of all public school students and do so with 15% less taxpayer funding than traditional school districts.”

I’m unclear where these numbers come from.  (I’ve seen similar statements made – sometimes stating 15%, sometimes 25%…)  In the Bethlehem Area School District, local taxpayers will pay nearly $31 million this school year in support of “school choice.”  That’s the tuition bill we’ve budgeted given the number of students living within the district slated to attend charters.  The district would spend well below that if those students returned to our schools – most could be accommodated in existing classrooms staffed by existing teachers where furniture and electricity is already waiting (all those fixed costs the district is already paying even in these students’ absence).

And this upcoming year is hardly an outlier – taxpayers have spent over $20 million on school choice for the last five years, funding school choice to the tune of $132.5 million.

School Year Charter Tuition
2015-2016 $21,622,269
2016-2017 $23,320,498
2017-2018 $27,115,979
2018-2019 $29,688,464
2019-2020* $30,751,221
Combined $132,498,431
*Estimated figure.

This year was the first in a long time the district was able to balance its budget with a 0% tax increase.  Gaps during these prior years, which ended up requiring tax increases, were all well below these charter school tuition figures. In other words, local school taxes would have held steady or even declined during this stretch if not for the burden of funding “school choice.”

  • We should consider why “these students want to leave” traditional schools: “The regular public school is either failing, unsafe, not meeting the educational needs of the student, or all the above.”

In considering why students leave local public schools for charters, it’s important to consider the way public schools have been portrayed, and how these portrayals often differ dramatically from what’s going on in actual classrooms.  (If you’re curious about what kind of education students receive in BASD, please don’t hesitate to visit one of our schools!)  In our area just a few years ago, there was this controversy prompted by a mailer went out to attract students to a new local charter:  https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/bethlehem/2016/08/why_worry_about_this_type_of_s.html.

  • “The truth is Pennsylvania’s charter schools are serving a higher percentage of minority and low-income student populations and working with less financial support.”

Concerning findings about charters’ role in resegregating students (https://www.apnews.com/e9c25534dfd44851a5e56bd57454b4f5).  Also, other findings from the report quoted above (Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania 2019) include:

The latest study shows that overall, students in Pennsylvania charter schools showed similar growth in reading compared to students at traditional public schools while lagging behind in math and losing the equivalent of about 30 days of learning time…

“The evidence shows that Pennsylvania has substantial numbers of under-performing charter schools,” the report authors wrote. “To be clear, the proportion of sub-par charter schools has declined since our 2011 Pennsylvania study. However, with nearly one-quarter of the schools lagging in reading and one-third in math, the collective impact on students’ academic careers and later life outcomes remains of deep concern.”

The study found “overwhelmingly negative” results from cyber charter schools which require “urgent attention” from education leaders and lawmakers, the report said.

(https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2019/06/04/Pennsylvania-charter-schools-cyber-students-CREDO/stories/201906040110.)

  • Charter schools are not private: “the sponsoring school district has oversight.”
  • The charters are not easy to get from the sponsoring school district, and they are subject to evaluation and withdrawal at any time.

Let’s be clear how much “oversight” a school district and local school board has. . . . Once a charter is approved, that charter (and charter school) is not reviewed again for five years.  (That means a charter school would be reviewed just twice as a student moves from kindergarten to high school graduation.)  Our district takes these reviews seriously – going over materials provided by the charter school; sending a contingent of administrators, educators, and board members to visit the charters to see programming in action; and debating what we’re seeing at multiple public meetings.

What we can do with all this is incredibly limited:  when we see problems, our only recourse is to propose adjustments to the school’s charter or propose rescinding it entirely.  That decision, though, will inevitably get kicked over to the Commonwealth’s Charter Appeals Board (CAB).  Looking at that board, the 5 current members were all appointed by Governor Corbett and are all serving long past the end-date of their initial term.  (These terms ended as recently as June 2018 and as far back as June 2015).  What’s more, 3 of these 5 members have direct ties to charter schools – as a teacher, parent, or spouse of an administrator.  The member filling CAB’s “school board member” position was voted off his local school board.  As a result, none are directly affiliated with or bringing the perspective of traditional public schools to Charter Appeals Board deliberations, which is why districts’ requests are typically denied.

And this is only for brick-and-mortar charters.  Cyber charters, which have an abysmal record with student success, are reviewed by Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (not by the districts).  Most of these schools have not been reviewed for well over five years and are technically operating with expired charters (https://www.inquirer.com/news/cyber-charter-schools-pennsylvania-20190114.html).

Karen

The charter school perspective

(28th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Jeff Piccola, “Your View by a former state senator: Why Pennsylvania needs its 180-plus charter schools.” Morning Call, August 28, 2019.

James Hanak, “Why it can be misleading to call charter schools ‘privately run’.” Morning Call, August 31, 2019.

Kevin Duffy, “Lehigh Valley Academy reveals plans for 3-story school in Bethlehem Township.” Morning Call, August 27, 2019.

Gadfly keeps thinking stories about charter schools have run their course.

Fooled again.

Gadfly has already told you that he hopes to visit our Charter Arts soon.

And finally he has access to statements from the charter school perspective.

In the third article linked above we have the latest on Lehigh Valley Academy’s building plans — which at some point, as Gadfly understands it, will have to get Bethlehem Area School District approval. LVA enrolls the most BASD students who attend charter schools.

You are aware that in Gadville we always want to know both sides of an issue.

Here are key points from the first two articles linked above that we should put alongside all that we have heard that is anti-charter, or at least all that we have heard about the budget aspects of charter schools:

  • “[Charter schools] educate 7% of all public school students and do so with 15% less taxpayer funding than traditional school districts.”
  • We should consider why “these students want to leave” traditional schools: “The regular public school is either failing, unsafe, not meeting the educational needs of the student, or all the above.”
  • “The truth is Pennsylvania’s charter schools are serving a higher percentage of minority and low-income student populations and working with less financial support.”
  • “The solution is and always has been educational choice.”
  • The governor should be focusing on the bigger picture: “He continues to neglect the issues in our major cities.”
  • The ills the governor wants to correct “rarely occur and, if they do, the charter school is shut down because those things are already provided for in the Charter School Law.”
  • The governor should hold traditional schools accountable instead of “giving them more money and rewarding them for failure.”
  • “Charter schools generally get students who are already performing at a low level because of the failing district school they came from.”
  • The governor is trying to eliminate “teachers’ unions and the school board associations.”
  • Charter schools are not private: “the sponsoring school district has oversight.”
  • The charters are not easy to get from the sponsoring school district, and they are subject to evaluation and withdrawal at any time.
  • “The local school district has complete control over whether to continue to provide funding for a charter school.”
  • “All charter schools are public schools. They are just different kinds of public schools.”
  • Charter schools are “accountable” to outside entities in ways that private schools are not.

We now have some specific counterpoint, and Gadfly invites conversation focused on these bullet points.

———–

Jeff Piccola, “Your View by a former state senator: Why Pennsylvania needs its 180-plus charter schools.” Morning Call, August 28, 2019.

The headline in the print edition was “Pennsylvania charter schools provide a needed alternative.”

Gov. Wolf recently proposed a series of so-called reforms to the Charter School Law. He asserted that Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law is one of the worst in the nation.

If you look at the law from the perspective of high cost and failing school districts, he may be right. Charter schools, which are public schools, educate 7% of all public school students and do so with 15% less taxpayer funding than traditional school districts.

The question is: Why do these students want to leave? The answer is simple and can be simply stated by every parent who chooses to send their child to a charter school. The regular public school is either failing, unsafe, not meeting the educational needs of the student, or all the above.

Even many of our so-called “good” school districts are not meeting the needs of all their students. The truth is Pennsylvania’s charter schools are serving a higher percentage of minority and low-income student populations and working with less financial support.

The solution is and always has been educational choice. Unfortunately, until the late 1990s, the only alternatives to traditional school districts were expensive private or parochial schools, or home schooling.

These laws unleashed a tremendous wave of entrepreneurial effort that has resulted in over 180 charter schools in Pennsylvania . . . . The demand for choice in education is great. Over 135,000 students attend a charter school in Pennsylvania.

The governor says he is wants to limit enrollment in charter schools as well as put a moratorium on new cybercharter schools. However, while the governor’s sole focus is on charter schools, he continues to neglect the issues in our major cities.

Due to their abysmal performance as well as several other issues such as safety, these districts are experiencing a mass exodus of students whose families are opting for charter schools instead.

The governor also wants to hold charter schools to the same transparency, conflict of interest and discrimination standards that supposedly apply to all traditional public schools. I have been in and around charter schools for over 20 years, and the things the governor alleges rarely occur and, if they do, the charter school is shut down because those things are already provided for in the Charter School Law.

Incidentally, that is the great thing about charter schools. They are market driven and if they are not meeting the needs of the families they support, they go out of business, as they are being held accountable by parents, school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. A traditional public school operating under the same low standards simply cites the lack of money as the cause for their issues and ask you, the taxpayer, to pay more in taxes while blaming their financial woes on charter schools.

The question that needs to be asked is what is this governor willing to do to hold the traditional public schools accountable. They educate 93% of public school students in the state, and have a disastrous record with regard to accountability. He is giving them more money and rewarding them for failure.

One thing you must remember is charter schools generally get students who are already performing at a low level because of the failing district school they came from. What you must look at is the academic growth of each student, each year, and note their progress toward achieving at the proper grade level.

The governor attacks charter schools and makes allegations about deficiencies in the law in order to set up a straw man so he can severely limit or eliminate charter schools. His political friends in the teachers’ unions and the school board associations hate charter schools because they hate competition.

James Hanak, “Why it can be misleading to call charter schools ‘privately run’.” Morning Call, August 31, 2019.

Charter schools are public schools that not only receive public funding, but these same schools are not truly private as a true “private school” would be.

Private schools are totally independent of the public school system when it comes to the running of that school — even though private schools may receive some funding from the state for curriculum and busing (for example).

A private school has its own board of directors that make all the financial decisions of the private school. The state has the authority to see that private schools are not acting illegally but the running of the school is left up to the private school board.

A charter school board of directors has the authority to run the day-to-day operations of a charter school. The local school district, however, has oversight responsibilities for the charter school. The local school district evaluates the application for a charter and grants the charter to the school. The initial charter and each renewal lists the charter school’s board of directors.

The charter that is granted by the school district is not easy to obtain. Those who create the charter application must demonstrate they have the expertise and the community support to run a fully accredited public school.

At any time, the school district may evaluate the charter school’s annual report or ask for additional reports/information from the charter school that can be used to evaluate whether the charter school is functioning properly. At any time, the school district may revoke the original charter or any renewal of the charter.

The local school district has complete control over whether to continue to provide funding for a charter school. Because the local school district has the authority to oversee the operation(s) of the charter, forcing it to fulfill the terms of the charter, stop doing anything that might be illegal and shut the charter school down if necessary, the charter school is not a “private” school.

All charter schools are public schools. They are just different kinds of public schools. Instead of being accountable to the general public through a publicly elected school board, they are accountable to their own independent school board, the local school district school board and to the parents of their school who can “vote” with their feet if the charter school is not meeting their family needs. This is very different from being a “privately run” school.

Kevin Duffy, “Lehigh Valley Academy reveals plans for 3-story school in Bethlehem Township.” Morning Call, August 27, 2019.

Here’s what seems to be the rub at our local level: money.

Plans for the size and scope of a proposed new Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School in Bethlehem Township have begun to take shape.

LVA’s sketch plan presentation to the township Planning Commission on Monday calls for a three-story, 200,000-square-foot building with 476 parking spaces and enough parking for 35 buses, said Terry DeGroot of Terraform Engineering.

 

“BASD Proud Parents” touts programs and provides resources on the charter school issue

(27th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Karen Beck Pooley is a Professor of Practice of Political Science at Lehigh University, where she directs the Environmental Policy Master’s Program.  She also serves as a Senior Associate at czb LLC (an urban planning and neighborhood development consulting firm), and is a member of the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD) School Board and BASD Proud Parents.

Gadfly thought the chatter on charter schools was dying down. But his clipping file seems always full. Remember that for us in Bethlehem, the charter school concern is budgetary. There seem to be no academic or administrative problems such as plague many districts. In fact, Gadfly — grandfather of dancers and actors — hopes to have a pleasant visit at our Charter Arts school in the near future.

Jacqueline Palochko, “Lehigh Valley charter schools tell Allentown School District to ‘live within its means’; reject tuition pay cut.” Morning Call, August 21, 2019.

“Sounding Board: Should state reform charter school law?” Morning Call, August 21, 2019.

Your View by state senator: Charter school costs have created a ‘crisis in education’.

Gadfly:

Hard to believe that another school year is nearly underway!  There’s a lot to look forward to in Bethlehem Area School District (BASD) schools this year:  the ongoing implementation of the district’s nationally recognized literacy program, Reading by Grade 3 (RBG3); the start of BASD Empower, which will provide all 8th through 10th graders with a Chrome Book for use at school and at home this year (and which will extend to all middle and high school students next year); and expanded access to the arts for all elementary and middle school students thanks to support from the Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child program.

These exemplary programs are just some of the many things our group, BASD Proud Parents, loves to tout.  Not only do we aim to “shine a light on the innumerable ways our schools are working for our children and our communities,” though.  Our mission is also “to educate parents and our community about issues that impact our public schools and to empower parents, students and neighbors to make our voices heard.”

Along these lines, we’ve spent a lot of time on charter schools.  We hosted a screening of Backpack Full of Cash and public discussion about the film last spring, and we’ve met with state legislators about how the current methods for funding charters short-change public school students and over-burden taxpayers, how the current system for monitoring charter schools (particularly cyber charters) is woefully inadequate, and how little say the public has in charters’ budgetary and programmatic decisions.  We were thrilled to hear that Governor Wolf is committed to tackling these issues, and that local legislators, including Senator Pat Browne, agree that we are at a “crisis point,” with the Commonwealth’s 22-year-old charter law threatening “significant detrimental effects on all of our students’ progress in school.”

If you would like to learn more about charter schools – what they are, how they are funded, what their funding means for local school districts and local taxpayers (given that Lehigh Valley taxpayers now spend more than $100 million on charter schools annually) – please take advantage of the resources BASD Proud Parents has compiled.  (They’re available on our website:  https://basdproudparents.org/.)  Please reach out with comments or questions.  Please help us plan more community events to keep this conversation going.  And please help us support our elected officials as they grapple with drafting the reforms designed to most benefit students and community members.

Karen

The link to BASD Proud Parents — Gadfly loves such community organizations — can always be found on the Gadfly sidebar if you ever need it.

Charter schools: “The system must be changed”

(26th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Another good article in the string of thought-provoking pieces on charter schools, which we have been following because of their impact not only on the quality of education for our kids but also the budget strain from what seems to be an unfair system.

Pressure on legislators is needed.

See that great community organization BASD Proud Parents on this issue too.

Paul Muschick, “Why we should blow up Pennsylvania charter school system and start over.” Morning Call, August 18, 2019.

The proposal from Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday to overhaul the state’s charter school system is aggressive, welcome and long overdue.

The current system is unsustainable. School districts are paying too much money — $1.8 billion statewide last year — and those figures are only going to increase. Allentown’s costs have doubled to $60 million, 20% of its budget, in just five years.

And that money is going to charter schools that are public schools in name only, in many ways.

They don’t have the same level of accountability and transparency as school districts. It’s hard to consider them truly public if they aren’t held to the same standards, such as publicly bidding major expenses, releasing details of every dollar spent and answering to a local, publicly elected school board.

Wolf’s heart is in the right place. But I fear this may be just another example of him banging his head against the Republican wall in the Legislature, similar to his attempts to levy a severance tax on natural gas mining.

His administration can impose some changes on charter schools. But the biggest need — changing funding formulas — requires legislative action. And Republicans are the party of school choice.

Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been calling for changes to the charter school law for years and the Legislature hasn’t listened. Let’s see if the governor has any more pull.

Those discussions should start with revising the faulty thinking of a student’s per capita funding “following them” from their school district to a charter school.

It doesn’t always cost charter schools, especially cyber charters, that much to educate the same student. And districts don’t see an accompanying dollar-for-dollar reduction in their costs.

Unless an entire classroom of students at the same grade level moves to a charter, a district can’t cut the expenses, including the teacher’s salary, that go with that classroom. State officials need to come up with a better formula.

Cyber charters especially make out under that formula now. They collect the same tuition rate as traditional charter schools but have substantially lower costs. Taxpayers are overpaying more than $250 million annually, according to a February study by Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a project of the left-leaning Keystone Research Center.

I have a few suggestions in addition to Wolf’s recommendations:

* Reimburse districts for some charter tuition costs.

* Don’t require school districts to pay tuition for private school students or home-schooled students who move to charter schools.

There is a place for charter schools. But if they are going to be publicly funded, they must operate under the same rules as traditional public schools, and be funded realistically.

The system must be changed to make that happen.

“Can I get an amen?” says Dr. Roy

(25th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

This article, though targeted at Allentown’s charter school controversies, reflects the Governor’s response to problems we’ve followed here on Gadfly from discussions with our BASD boss Dr. Roy.

Jacqueline Palochko, “Gov. Tom Wolf calls for charter school changes that could ease Allentown schools deficit.” Morning Call, August 14, 2019.

Gov. Tom Wolf called Tuesday for changes in the special education and cybercharter funding formulas that, if adopted by a reluctant Legislature, would save Allentown and other financially strapped school districts millions.

Calling the charter school law “flawed” and “outdated,” Wolf told reporters in Allentown he also is instructing the state Department of Education to develop new regulations that would allow districts to limit student enrollment at charters that do not provide a “high-quality” education, and to boost oversight over charter school management companies.

Democrat Wolf’s call for changes in reimbursement formulas dictating how much public school districts must pay charter and cyberschools for students would save districts like Allentown, now facing a $6 million deficit, millions.

But passage in the Republican-controlled state Legislature, which created the charter school system, is far from guaranteed.

Ana Meyers, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called Wolf’s proposals “blatant attacks on charter schools.” Meyers also claimed that Wolf could be abusing his authority through executive order and regulatory action.

At Harrison-Morton Middle School, Wolf said he wants a “level playing field” for all charter and public schools.

Besides proposing a legislative change in the areas of special education funding and cyber charter tuition payments, Wolf is also asking the state Department of Education to develop regulations to:

Allow districts to limit student enrollment at charters that do not provide a high-quality, equitable education to students.

Require transparent charter school admission and enrollment policies that do not discriminate based on intellectual or athletic ability, race, gender or disability.

Ramp up oversight of charter school management companies.

Establish a clear process that requires charters to accurately document their costs and prevent charters from over-charging districts for educational services.

Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Roy, a vocal critic of charters, began his comments with: “Can I get an amen?” Roy called charter school and traditional public school funding a “separate and unequal system.”

Sketch plans for $50m charter school

(24th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Gadfly has been following charter school news because of the budget impact on our Bethlehem Area School District taxes. See the “Charter school” link on the Gadfly sidebar.

Of special interest will be LVA’s request to the BASD for permission to build.

Sarah M. Wojcik and Jacqueline Palochko, “Lehigh Valley Academy prepares to make new school pitch in Bethlehem Township.” Morning Call, August 12, 2019.

The Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School is moving forward with plans to build a school in Bethlehem Township, filing sketch plans with the township last week.

The school, which comes with a preliminary $50 million price tag and would house kindergarten through 12th grade, was originally planned for Hanover Township, Northampton County, but Lehigh Valley Academy nixed that plan because of “insurmountable zoning issues.” It won’t face that problem at the 58.7-acre Bethlehem Township tract along Hecktown Road, north of Route 22. That’s because the land, owned by the estate of Fred Jaindl, is zoned agricultural and a school is among the permitted uses.

Because LVA is a regional charter school, it needs permission of both Bethlehem Area and Saucon Valley school districts. As of last week, LVA had not filed a formal request with Bethlehem Area, Superintendent Joseph Roy said. Most of LVA’s 1,700 students come from the Bethlehem region.

The sketch plans on file in Bethlehem Township indicate the building could support 1,950 students. The plans show athletic fields at the rear of the building, behind a 326-space parking lot and bus dropoff area. Two parking lots, each with 75 spaces, are in front of the building.

 

The charter school problem: what you can do (23)

(23rd in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Hardly a week goes by it seems without some dire charter school news.

New report shows overwhelmingly negative results for PA’s cyber charter students

But last post in this series I promised that there was some action you can take if, indeed, you see the problem with charter schools that has certainly been evident in our series here.

Contacting our representatives and signing petitions:

PA Republicans pass massive charter school & school voucher expansion

CALL TO ACTION –   Act now to push for necessary change to the Charter Appeals Board (CAB)!

The issues here, as we have seen, are the quality of charter school education in general and unfair funding that has direct impact on our tax bills.

Gadfly urges your personal action here.

Thanks to Karen Beck Pooley and to BASD Proud Parents for keeping us informed.