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Friday, January 17, 2014

Changing PA’s charter law: What is at stake in SB 1085?

After 17 years, the PA legislature is considering making major changes to Pennsylvania’s charter school law.  Improvements to the law are long overdue, but unfortunately, the legislation in the Senate (SB 1085) will not improve PA’s charter school law.  

Instead, it would take local control away from communities and create massive new costs and new financial risks for taxpayers. It is taxation without representation: communities would have no means of approval, negotiation, oversight or accountability but would still have to fund schools that have been authorized by a private or state entity.

The “charter” is supposed to serve as the agreement with the community, laying out how the school will add value and innovation to the community’s public education system and creating a contract for services – which allows a community to plan its financial obligations and assure that it is getting the services it is paying for.  Communities must have the final word on whether and how a charter school is appropriate for that community.

What is wrong with SB 1085?

It eliminates reasonable enrollment limits and the ability of communities to negotiate the charter itself which defines the services to be provided (such as which grade levels and the educational mission). SB 1085 would allow the charter operator to be the only decision maker and it would then send our communities the bill.

It eliminates the financial and enrollment verification process, by creating a “direct pay” system, which means the school district that is paying wouldn’t be able to confirm the enrollment it is being billed for

It creates private authorizers, which would be able to approve other private organizations to open charter schools in communities anywhere in PA without local taxpayer approval. The private authorizers would be institutions of higher education, which may be located in a completely different part of the state; are controlled by their own boards; would not have any oversight or governance obligations and may be privately governed. They could do this at no cost to themselves, and in fact, could receive public dollars to do this job.

A “state authorizer” is also extremely problematic and fraught with fiscal liabilities, creating serious potential for schools to avoid reasonable oversight.  This bill would allow several charters to consolidate and thus transfer their authorizer to a state entity, which would have limited capacity and be disconnected from the community in which a school functions.

Research shows that the highest quality charters are the ones authorized by local school boards.

It creates an unlimited financial risk – a bottomless check book –for the community:  charter schools can add as many seats as they please and taxpayers will be mandated to pay the bill. This will bankrupt some communities and throw others into distress.

A commission would be prohibited by law from considering the financial impact of charter school growth on communities.  It creates a commission to study charter costs, but only AFTER making these changes (eliminating enforceable charters, enrollment caps and created by approval from private organizations). The commission would have almost twice as many charter representatives as regular school representatives.  Increased charter school growth will necessarily result in increased education costs in local communities throughout PA. The cost and funding of charters needs to happen within the process of creating a formula for the whole funding system, plain and simple.

The bill eliminates the longstanding language that charter schools be models of innovation – which opens the door for a parallel and duplicative system of taxpayer funded education and moves things away from the notion that the purpose of charters was supposed to be to build an aligned system of public education (which was the original intent of the charter bill) and starts to create a system of publicly funded private education – which was an extremely controversial proposal and determined not to be the purpose of charters when Pennsylvania adopted them. 

It undercuts the democratic process. School boards are the way that communities have financial and governance responsibility over all public schools in their community.  The community elects people to make decisions about the community’s interests – this shuts that down.

It does not improve access or fairness.  Research shows charter schools serve fewer students in poverty, English language learners and students with disabilities and other needs.  Nothing in SB 1085 addresses this issue.

It does not increase charter school accountability.  Despite all of the financial mismanagement, including problems that have resulted in criminal convictions that we see in the paper, this legislation does not increase transparency or improve oversight. In fact, SB 1085 lengthens the term of charters from 5 to 10 years, effectively slicing charter school accountability in half, thus reducing the quality control and accountability that accompanies the charter review process.

*This originally published version of this contained a statement that was in error, which has been removed. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Education Voters of PA gives PA House "pat on the back" for passing Basic Education Funding Commission

Asks what they will do next to make sure kids don't go without any longer

Statement from Education Voters of Pennsylvania Executive Director on the passage of the Basic Education Funding Commission in the Pennsylvania House:

“We are very pleased that there is action on school funding – Pennsylvanians have been clamoring for it.  We need a long-term solution and this has the potential to cut through the partisan rhetoric and put things on the right track.  Representative O’Neill (R-Bucks) should get a round of applause for his leadership on this. But there is a long road ahead: a commission will tell us what we need to do in several years.  

There are things that we can and must do now to get schools on track – we need to cut class sizes, restore programs that have been cut like arts and music and ensure every child has access to guidance counselors and libraries. The legislature has work to do this year, even while the Senate considers legislation and a commission does its work if approved. There must be a significant increase in education funding this year that is directed at educational programs and restoring services that have been cut – too many children are going without on their watch. So they should pat themselves on the back, toast the progress and then roll up their sleeves and figure out what they are going to make happen this year.”


About Education Voters of PA
Education Voters Pennsylvania is a non-profit, non-partisan organization.  We were established in 2007 to promote a pro public education agenda with elected leaders, legislators and the public.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Susan Gobreski, Exeucutive Director of Educations Voters of PA, testifies on funding education before PA House Democratic Policy Committee

On January, 7, 2014, Education Voters of PA Executive Director, Susan Gobreski, testified before the PA State House Democratic Policy Committee about how to approach funding education for the future. Here is her testimony:

Testimony of Susan Gobreski, Executive Director
House Democratic Policy Committee: January 7th, 2014

To highlight a few key points:
  • Every child is constitutionally entitled to an education that allows them to meet state standards.
  • There needs to be enough money and it should be distributed fairly.  This is a foundational principle.
  • We need a funding formula which is based on what an education costs. 
  • We need to reduce the reliance on property taxes which in turn will reduce inequities and could likely will reduce the frustration that is often directed at education because of people’s frustration with tax unfairness. However, anti-property tax schemes that are really designed to foment dissatisfaction with public and community investments need to be shut down in their tracks. Investing in public education is a public good.

The reality is that money impacts the educational opportunities our children receive – we need to provide each child – no matter where they live – how densely or sparsely their community is populated -- with reasonable class size, highly trained teachers, arts and music, early learning, a chance to get individual support, access to technology, safe and healthy learning environments, classroom supplies, books, libraries, nurses, counselors. Teachers need time to do their work and get training and feedback; principals need time to spend with teachers – using data and planning and updating instructional practice to keep up with evolving standards. The conversation is often about dollars, but it really needs to be about educational supports: what do we need to buy to get the results we want?

With the new Common Core standards, we are going to need to take a measured approach to balance support and accountability – what are the inputs needed for the outputs we expect.  It is preposterous to think we can transition to a new set of standards, new assessments (which will cost plenty to do) – without new money.  
Questions you should be looking to get answered:

  • What are the essential educational elements necessary for most children to meet state standards?
  • What are the practices of the high-performing districts, not even in Finland, but here in Pennsylvania? What are their class-sizes? Curriculum? Supports? Counselors?
  • How much time in school, art, counseling, hours of science instruction, math, reading instruction and physical activity does a kid need in order to come through school with a “good” education.
  • What do those things cost?
  • What can we do to stabilize, support and develop the teaching force and supports in high-poverty schools? (To make teaching conditions and practice more like what is happening in PA’s best schools.)
  • What are the right kinds of assessments to measure student learning and what is the best way to use that data to target funding to improve outcomes?  Right now our standardized tests basically tell us what we know – poor kids aren’t getting where we want them to get and schools with a full set of programs are doing fine.  I would hope that the legislature becomes a champion for meaningful assessments that tell us something about what each child needs so we can ensure they are individually on track. I hope the members of the legislature get aggressive about that.
  • If our suburban schools are the metric – and many of them are excellent districts and we should use them as models – then we need to ask ourselves: do Pennsylvania’s rural students, poor students, urban students, minority students – have the same access to advanced courses, stimulating electives, wide array of activities and supports that our “model” districts have?
  • How can we integrate other health and human welfare services to educational services so educators can focus on education, and not be held responsible for every challenge that a child walks in the door with?
  • The charter funding system isn’t working – we are pitting groups of children and communities against each other and themselves. Both charter schools and districts schools are frustrated – but the reality is that the legislature adopted a system that caused these problems and that needs to be fixed. So the legislature must ask: if we are creating additional means of delivering public education with more buildings, more adults and administrative systems, more staff, more children, more vendors and supports – what does the funding system need to look like to accommodate the policy we adopted? Funding for charters needs to fit within a larger framework.

Immediate actions:
  • Take action to develop a funding formula that is based on what a good education costs.
  • Increase the funding for special education now. It is a building block piece.
  • Support early learning. In particular, Education Voters believes that we should provide full-day 4 year old Kindergarten in high-poverty, academically struggling districts.
  • Absent a formula- the legislature should restore the cuts districts have faced over the past two years.  Especially ABG funding and the charter reimbursement funds.
  • Personal opportunity or learning plans: every child who is more than a grade level plan should get a personal learning plan that identifies the academic and health needs of a child and adopts a binding plan to provide those supports.

If we actually do what everyone says they support – focus on the needs of the children, and what they are worth – we can get this right.