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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Testimony before the Auditor General on Charter School Accountability

On Feb. 27th 2014, Susan Gobreski testified in front of the Auditor General on Charter School Accountability. Here is her testimony: 

My name is Susan Gobreski, I am the Executive Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization working to strengthen public education in Pennsylvania.  

I served on the PA Dept of Education Statewide Parent Advisory Committee for Title I in 2004 as a charter school representative, and I was the President and Treasurer of Independence Charter School in Philadelphia, serving on the Board for 5 years and I am a parent of three children, all of whom attended a good charter school from K-4th grade.  I am also a graduate student in Urban Education policy at Temple University. 

At Education Voters, our focus is on ensuring that all children have the supports and access they need to be able to learn state standards.  This includes focusing on the resources that are provided, issues of equity and access, and policy and practice that improve learning conditions and outcomes for students. The issue of education as a matter of public policy is vital to the prosperity of Pennsylvania and economic well-being of communities.

We want to re-state what you have heard before – the Constitution states that the General Assembly shall provide for a through and efficient system of public education to meet the needs of the Commonwealth.   

A couple of main points: as a society, we decided that public schools should be public for a few reasons

·      That there is a relationship between what opportunities are available to people and the strength and health of the community;

·      That education is infrastructure – like roads and bridges – a worthy public investment;

·      If we are going to pay for it, we need to ensure our money is used well, for its intended purpose; that the public has access to the decision making and financial records of how our money is used.

The purpose of charters:

·      To give us an opportunity to experiment with how we deliver services

·      The charter is the agreement for services, and the budgets and expenditures should be subject to public scrutiny 

There is a bright line between those who believe that charter schools are public schools and therefore subject to public input and accountable to the tax dollars that provide the funding or those who believe that they are really supposed to be private organizations, or even private schools, free to act without scrutiny or transparency. 

We believe they are public schools.  This idea has merit and there are examples of success that could inform our larger system. But we must be vigilant about their practice and what role we want them to play, as well as accountable for the services they provide.

As part of improving PA policy, your office has an important role to play as a watchdog and in gathering information that we can use to make better policy decisions moving forward.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Gov's Budget Plan: What does it all mean?

After the governor's budget address last week, you may be asking, "What does it all mean?"

The truth is that governor's education budget proposal is a mixed bag. Here's a quick summary of our analysis:

Governor Corbett has clearly heard that people across Pennsylvania have been very frustrated about the program cuts being experienced and how much people want this to be a priority of state policy and the budget. Pennsylvania needs a funding formula and enough money in it to provide every child with an opportunity to learn. 

The $241 million increase to Accountability Block Grant (ABG) funding proposed in the Ready to Learn program is clearly a nod to public sentiment. It is enough money to be more than a just a gesture.  Education advocates are examining the proposed distributions of those funds as well.  However, education policy analysts have identified a number of concerns:
  • As proposed, the money is non-recurring – this means this is a one-time pot of money for districts that can't be used for current basic education expenses, and there is no guarantee of future funding to maintain any new programs that are implemented. Grants are good, but giving grants for new programs when districts are struggling to fund their core responsibilities isn't the path we should be on.
  • The money depends on revenues that are not certain and may not have the political support necessary to be approved.
  • The money has a number of restrictions on it, and the poorest districts are the most restricted when it comes to determining how to spend that money.

Basic Education Funding: A key issue is that the “Basic Education Funding (BEF)” line did not receive any increase at all. Anytime we are not increasing support for basic education, we are going backwards due to rising costs for the programs that we have now.   Each year programs cost more, and with no additional support, cuts must be identified to remain within the current budget. There is work to be done to improve the allocation method we use now, but we can’t simply walk away from what we have now, while we wait for longer term structural fixes. Absent a formula, we must restore basic education support from the state so children do not experience any additional program cuts. 

Special Education Funding: The good news is the $20 million increase special education funding since special education has been flat funded for 5+ years. This shows what happens when the legislature steps up and gets serious about addressing the needs of children and delving into the the role of funding in meeting those needs. The legislature led on special education, and now we are seeing some forward movement.  However, it is worth nothing that this amount did not keep up with the cost of inflation (see the above note about flat funding) – so we still have a long way to go to ensure we are meeting the individual need of every child.

Pre-K Funding: More and more, we are coming to understand that early education is not just a smart investment, but an essential one – every budget, every year and every Governor of Pennsylvania must move us toward universal pre-K.  We are heartened to see some funding proposed for Pre-K and will work to ensure that this is funding is supported in the General Assembly.

Pension reform. We understand that pensions continue to be a point of contention but funding school programs and honoring the contracts and commitments we make with our workforce are responsibilities of the state and local government – it isn’t an either/or. Making any kind of program support contingent on pension reform is divisive. 

The take-away. People will be assessing this budget by how much it delivers opportunities for children. Do programs come back into our schools, do class sizes shrink, do children have libraries, etc.?   Overall, this is an improvement over the last several years, but we shouldn’t be in this situation with a gap in funding in the first place, and that continues to be a concern.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will keep you updated and ask you to take action to fight for a budget that meets the priorities of Pennsylvanians.