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.

Charter school round-up (22)

(22nd in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

There is something we can do if we are concerned about the impact of charter schools on our Bethlehem Area School District budget particularly.

That will come in the next post in this series.

But first let me clean out the mail bag on this issue — with thanks.

Here’s more to think about.

Sarah Hall, “Reform sought as cyber charter school costs top $42M in NEPA districts.” The Citizens’ Voice, April 7, 2019.

  • Cyber charter schools are privately operated, publicly funded schools authorized by the state and paid for by school districts. Advocates say cyber schools provide options for families seeking choice for their children’s educations. Children learn virtually on charter school-provided computers, at no cost to the families. The cost comes to the districts instead. Bills in the state House and Senate would allow districts with their own cyber programs to stop paying tuition to cyber charter schools. If a student decided to attend the cyber charter school, the family would be responsible for the tuition.

“A call to action from Pennsylvania’s urban school superintendents.” April 11, 2019.

  • It’s also time to stop kicking the can down the road on charter funding reform. Pennsylvania’s charter law needs an overhaul, including setting the bar higher for charter operators. It’s not about district schools versus charter schools. It’s about high-quality schools, period. The state’s charter funding model needs to reflect that.
  • One example is the chronic underperformance of cyber charter schools, which are costly to taxpayers and fail to deliver for students. Thirteen of the state’s 14 cyber charter schools are on the list of the lowest performing schools in Pennsylvania. School district-operated cyber charters perform better at a fraction of the cost.

Stop the Charter School Expansion Bills!

  • Last week Republican members of the House Education Committee advanced two charter school expansion bills that deliver the charter school industry’s wish list. We anticipate that the House will vote on these bills in early June.
  • By a party-line vote of 14 to 10, committee members passed House Bills 356 and 357. These bills strip communities of the ability to plan and exercise appropriate fiscal and academic oversight over their public education systems. These bills also weaken accountability, allow for the unfettered expansion of even the lowest performing charter schools, and fail to protect taxpayers and students from failing schools.
  • By a party-line vote of 14 to 10, committee members passed House Bills 356 and 357. These bills strip communities of the ability to plan and exercise appropriate fiscal and academic oversight over their public education systems. These bills also weaken accountability, allow for the unfettered expansion of even the lowest performing charter schools, and fail to protect taxpayers and students from failing schools.

Dr. Roy, right on cue (21)

(21st in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Gadfly no sooner re-awakens the charter school thread than an essay by our Dr. Roy and Allentown superintendent Thomas Parker appeared!

Thomas Parker and Joseph Roy, “Why tighter controls are needed for charter schools.” Morning Call, June 1, 2019.

Our message to the General Assembly is clear: The need to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter school law is real and urgent. School districts need better tools to hold charter school operators accountable to families and taxpayers.

The commonwealth has an ethical and moral responsibility to its public school students to ensure charter schools are held to the same state academic standards as district schools. It also has a fiscal responsibility to taxpayers to ensure funds invested in charters are a good investment and are safeguarded against misuse. Current charter law falls woefully short on these fronts and many others.

HB 356 and 357 create more risk for students, local districts and taxpayers. We vehemently oppose these bills. The legislation would undermine local control by allowing charter schools, including the poorest performers, to expand without the authorizing district’s knowledge or approval. These new and unbudgeted expenses would wreak financial havoc for the school districts that would have to absorb them.

Newly proposed charter legislation also frees charters from oversight that is necessary to ensure they are meeting academic standards. They make it harder to close underperforming charters and allow unfettered expansion of charters — even those with failing performance — without regard for their ability to successfully operate. The proposed standard charter application form lacks information on an applicant’s experience, finances, past performance and operational ability, all of which are necessary to meaningfully assess whether the applicant can sustain a school that meets the needs of the very students it aspires to serve.

Two other bills, HB 355 and HB 358, would correct questionable charter school practices such as staffing boards with family members. They set clear conflict-of-interest provisions, require schools to follow accepted accounting standards and promote budget and operating transparency. These changes are welcome and long overdue, but do not offset the harm to school districts from the overall charter package.

School districts statewide are proactively advocating for significant amendments that promote high-quality charters. Real charter reform must require greater accountability. It must set clear performance goals for charter schools and hold them to the same need-based special education funding model as school districts. It must also give authorizers the tools needed to ensure charter operators are living up to their promise and providing our students the education they deserve.

Pa. Attorney General Eugene DePasquale is often quoted as saying that our charter school law is the worst in the nation, but this article passed on by Dr. Roy earlier indicates California and New Jersey vie for that honor as well.

Jeremy Mohler, “Charter schools are starting to look a lot like payday lenders and for-profit colleges.” In the Public Interest, March 28, 2019.

The Los Angeles Times published an expose of a wealthy couple who have pocketed millions of public dollars running charter schools across Los Angeles. Clark and Jeanette Parker founded Today’s Fresh Start Charter School in 2003 and quickly expanded it into three campuses. They eventually began paying themselves high consulting fees and $800,000 annually to rent buildings they own, all with taxpayer money. They now live in a 7,700-square-foot home in Beverly Hills with an estimated value of about $15.3 million. dropped a bombshell five-part investigative series with the point blank headline: “Millions of your tax dollars have disappeared into NJ’s flawed charter school experiment.” The highlight of the series is deep dive into the nationwide web of investors, developers, and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) — which get massive tax breaks — cashing in on charter school buildings. Some familiar faces appear: Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks.

Charter schools, as we reported last time, are part of Allentown’s severe budget woes. Fortunately, as also reported last time, BASD has avoided a tax increase for now, though Lehigh Valley Academy is proposing a new $50 million campus.

Though the quality of the three charter schools in Bethlehem is fine and they are free from the corruption that is pervasive elsewhere, Dr. Roy continues to lead the charge for badly needed legislative change.

Catching up on the Charter School issue (20)

(20th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Last time Gadfly weighed in on charter schools was two months ago, reporting on a great meeting with Dr. Roy.

Where o’ where did those last two months go?  Let him try to catch up a bit here.

First, let’s remember what triggered this information gathering: concern about the size of the charter school line in the BASD budget and thus the impact on our taxes. As reported several posts back in this thread: “Approximately 2100 BASD students attend charter schools (12 different ones but 50% at one particular charter school), about 13% of the total student population, at a cost of 29 million in charter tuition this year, which is roughly 10% of the budget.”

The BASD budget

Theresa O’Brien, “District in the black; no tax hike likely.” Bethlehem Press, May 21, 2019.

The good news. The tentative 2019-20 BASD budget “includes no increase in the tax millage for the first time in several years, and uses only $1.6 million from the general fund balance to make up a shortfall.”

Board member Dean Donaher commended those involved in the process for bringing in a zero-tax-increase budget without losing any programs and while “maintaining momentum” on strategic initiatives of achieving grade-level reading proficiency, delivering personalized learning and growth, and meeting students’ social and emotional needs.

Well, relative good news. If the charter school chunk were less, then there would be more money in the system for education needs and maybe no need to draw from the general fund balance. But at least looks like no tax increase. And, if I remember correctly, Dr. Roy said charter school attendance was leveling off.

Lehigh Valley Academy

Lehigh Valley Academy is the charter school to keep an eye on. 50% of the BASD students going to charter schools go to LVA. Several posts back in this series, Gadfly profiled LVA.

Jacqueline Palochko, “Lehigh Valley Academy now looking in Bethlehem Township to put its $50 million school.” Morning Call, May 30, 2019.

Also as reported earlier, LVA is planning on a new building at substantial cost. This morning’s paper indicates that the proposed site of that building has now changed from what Gadfly reported earlier. LVA rents now, and owning its own building would be more economical. LVA will have to seek permission from both the Bethlehem Area and Saucon Valley school boards to change locations because it is a regional charter school.

Other charter schools

There seem to be no especial administrative or educational quality issues with the three Bethlehem charter schools — the kind that characterize many school districts and charter schools. But there are enough such issues in the Lehigh Valley to keep us continually conscious of a nagging bad side to charter schools. These are the kinds of things we don’t want happening here.

Innovative Arts, Catasauqua:

Sarah Wojcik, “Innovative Arts Academy Charter School makes argument to stay open while Catasauqua blasts school’s poor academic scores.” Morning Call, May 22, 2019.

Catasauqua administrators painted the Innovative Arts Academy Charter School as a school that’s habitually failing students academically. Charter school administrators sought to portray the school as one where students in need of extra attention found solace and purpose while staff contended with a demographic of economically disadvantaged students with unexpected challenges.

Allentown School District:

Jacqueline Palochko, “Allentown school board to try again to borrow $10 million to avert financial crisis.” Morning Call, May 1, 2019.

A week after a deadlocked school board left the Allentown School District in budgetary limbo, a new attempt will be made Tuesday to borrow $10 million to avert a financial mess. . . . costs weighing on the district are charter school tuition.”

Ok, there’s a catch-up on some of the factual context. Gadfly will return shortly to catch up on some more substantive issues suggested by followers Dr. Roy, Karen Beck Pooley, and BASD Proud Parents.

High-five to all concerned for tending the budget nicely!