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!

Charter schools: The Roy Report (19)

Take the “Connecting Bethlehem” survey

(19th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Gadfly promised a report on his March 28 meeting on the charter school issue with BASD Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy and hastens to get to it this morning before his notes go stone cold.

It was a great meeting. Dr. Roy is a warm individual and especially “warm” over the issue of charter schools. He was extremely gracious and overflowed with information.

Not wanting to eat up too much of a busy man’s time, Gadfly told Dr. Roy that the focus of his visit was narrowly on why our students are going to charter schools, but Dr. Roy thought it important to start at the beginning — with the privatization movement itself.

More on this basic and wider issue in subsequent posts, but, as promised, let’s focus here on that question of why our local students are going to charter schools.

BASD doesn’t have surveys, but here are some of the reasons, in no particular order, that Dr. Roy has gathered from interactions with parents of charter school students.

A range of local reasons from the very practical to the highly academic.

  • full-day kindergarten: not an issue now because BASD offers it, but this was attractive to some parents because of work situations
  • transportation: BASD does not bus everybody but is required to do so for charter schools
  • uniforms: conventional in some cultures
  • cachet (good SAT word): a private school education without the cost
  • bullying: need for a change of scene
  • the academic program: such as LVA’s IB curriculum

Gadfly will reach out to Lehigh Valley Academy in particular, the school that enrolls the most BASD students, to see what they can tell us about why parents are choosing charter schools.

But Gadfly would like to hear from charter school families themselves. Gadfly doesn’t know any. Is there no one among Gadfly followers with charter school experience that could help fill in the picture for us with personal motivations?

And look soon for more on the general charter school movement from my conversation with Dr. Roy.

Take the “Connecting Bethlehem” survey

The BASD Proud Parents program on charter schools (18)

(18th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

“Our children have a backpack full of cash, and the schools should vie for the privilege of having that backpack turned over to them.”

Last week the BASD Proud Parents (sorry, I used the wrong name in the past few posts) showed the documentary Backpack Full of Cash at Nitschmann, a film focused on the Philadelphia school system, “ground zero” of the school choice movement. The film is highly critical of charter schools, and, though Bethlehem is quite different than Philadelphia, the film was timely for us and valuable.

But, first, Gadfly wants to say something about BASD Proud Parents. The Gadfly project is allll about citizen engagement, and BASD Proud Parents is allll about that as well! Take at look at their great web site (now linked on the Gadfly sidebar as well), and be sure to listen to their thoughtful representatives on the audio linked below.

So, again, this film is highly critical of charter schools and other forms of school choice that are draining students and dollars from the public school system.

A reminder of some facts presented earlier in this series of posts: 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 film trailer will provide you with some good soundbites that illustrate the core issue, such as “reformers say all that money [$600 billion] can be managed more efficiently if the system is run like a business” v. “It’s about privatizing, not improving public education.” Take two minutes and listen to the trailer for a good introduction to the issues.

After the film, Julie Gallagher (no relation) and Emily Schenkel gave a brief presentation that Gadfly recorded and linked for you here, with their slides.

Listen to Julie explain the slides:


Basd 2

Emily presented a series of “asks”:

  • sign a petition thanking Sen. Boscola for co-sponsoring legislation limiting cyber-charter schools
  • sign a petition for limiting the activity of the Charter School Appeal Board (until funding is equitable, stop the CAB activity (you can sign that petition here)
  • contact your legislator (contact info on the BASD Proud Parents web site)
  • sign up on the BASD Proud Parents web site to continue to receive relevant information
  • send BASD Proud Parents success stories of public school education

Interesting: Julie was careful to say “no aspersions” on the three charter schools located in Bethlehem.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer to Gadfly that for us here in Bethlehem the problem is not so much poor quality charter schools but the funding system and the solution for that is with the legislature.

Parting words: “We have to educate ourselves, so that we can empower our children.”

Well done.

Gadfly has an appointment with Dr. Roy tomorrow and is especially interested in what we know about why those 13% of our students are going to charter schools, and especially why so many are choosing Lehigh Valley Academy. Do we have surveys? Data? Interviews?

Charter schools: need to explore what school choice really means (17)

(17th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Timely to our discussion is the showing of the “Backpack full of Cash” documentary this Thursday, March 21, 6:30pm – 8:00pm at NITSCHMANN MIDDLE SCHOOL, sponsored by Bethlehem Proud Parents – Free!

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.


When discussing the concept of school choice, I think it’s important to ask “what is the role of public education in our society?” Scholars typically cite three primary goals of public education in a democratic society—1. Prepare individual students with skills necessary to succeed in our society (individual economic opportunity); 2. Prepare students to fill positions in the US job market (vocational training); and 3. Prepare students to be full participants in our democracy (education for active citizenship). Most schools try to balance these three aims as they design policies and curriculum, and throughout US history, there has been tension among the proponents of each approach. However, I doubt many would propose wholly eliminating any of these aims.

The concept of school choice allows individuals to privilege the first goal—individual pursuit of human capital for future personal gain—at the expense of the third goal (and potentially the second). Universal public education that integrates children of ALL races, ethnicities, incomes, abilities, religions, etc., in preparation for participation in a diverse society is antithetical to the concept of school choice in a society where major inequities exist in funding and resources across these demographic lines. If we allow individuals to act solely in their self-interest, many (if not most) students who already have access to more resources are going choose other options (private schools, charters) as a way to escape from underfunded public schools, creating both a vicious cycle of underfunding and a segregated system where marginalized students become further marginalized and isolated. When we center the question on the societal goals of free, universal public education, school choice just doesn’t make sense. Are we willing to give up the lofty goals of a society in which equal opportunity for success and civic participation is guaranteed to all? While we’re far from that reality, the more we expand opportunities for school choice, the more we concede that our society was set up to be unequal, and we abandon all aspirations toward meritocracy.

Many people like the idea of school choice, but I think it is worth exploring what that really means, and if it actually allows us to sustain a diverse democracy. Is making it easier to acting solely in one’s own interest good for our society as a whole?


More info on Lehigh Valley Academy (16)

(16th in a series on Education and Charter Schools)

Timely to our discussion is the showing of the “Backpack full of Cash” documentary this Thursday, March 21, 6:30pm – 8:00pm at NITSCHMANN MIDDLE SCHOOL, sponsored by Bethlehem Proud Parents – Free!

This info from Sara Satullo and Karen Beck Pooley much appreciated:


IB is integrated into the curriculum, but not all students earn an IB degree. To do so, students must take exams akin to Advanced Placement tests. Not all do so. This is from the 2016 charter school renewal hearing for the school: “The school’s Class of 2016 included 50 graduates and 11 of the students were awarded a full IB-diploma, while a number earned some certificates but did not take all of the exams, Mauser [Susan Mauser, LVA CEO] said.”


“Why Bethlehem school board approved charter school agreement.” Morning Call, November 29, 2016.

in 2016, when the LVA charter was up for renewal, Karen writes that the Bethlehem School Board generated “a long list of concerns and several reasons for denying the charter outright” and sought to negotiate an amended charter, but LVA “rejected all of [their] requests and offered no realistic counterproposals.”

Karen indicates that our Board was hamstrung by experience with the state Charter Appeals Board. Gadfly has read elsewhere that the Charter School lobby is among the most powerful in the state.

Provisions rejected by LVA included ceasing to cover school lunches, aligning LVA and BASD calendars to reduce transportation costs, and holding monthly public Trustee meetings.

Gadfly has an appointment with Dr. Roy next week on the questions Gadfly posed at the end of his last post.