In Pennsylvania, opening a charter school, particularly a cyber-charter, has long been just like printing money in your garage (only you won't get in any trouble for it).
The current plight of the Chester Upland School District highlights just how screwed up the whole mess is, and how charters are set up to suck the public system dry. Yesterday's news roundup at Keystone State Education Coalition has most of the best coverage of the story, but let me pull up some highlights for you.
I'll remind you that before CUSD ever started to get in trouble, the state of Pennsylvania has been distinguishing itself by some of the most inequitable funding in the country. This is a bi-partisan screwing of public ed. Democratic Governor "Smilin' Ed" Rendell used stimulus funds exactly as he wasn't supposed to, as a replacement for regular state funding of education, and his successor Republican Tom "One Term" Corbett slashed education on top of the auto-slashing that occurred when those stimulus funds went away. Bottom line-- funding of our poorest schools is in free-fall, because they get very little from the state.
As it turns out, CUSD gets negative support from the state. That's because the hugely generous payment formula for charters has resulted in CUSD losing more money to charters than they get from the state of Pennsylvania.
Each school district pays charters based on their own per capita costs per student. That's right-- what the charter collects has absolutely nothing to do with what it actually costs to educate the student. Perhaps that's how it's possible to pay the six top executives at cyber monster K12 a grand total of $16.4 million. Perhaps that's how Vahan Gureghian, King of the Keystone Edupreneurs, can end up building (and now selling) an $84.5 mansion in Palm Beach (not to be confused with the 30,000 square foot manse he built in upscale suburban Philly).
Gureghian operates one of the largest charters in PA, located right in Chester County. So it's only a mild stretch to say that Chester Upland Schools are in danger of being shut down so that Gureghian can live large. But like many charter operators in PA, Gureghian has friends in high places. Here's a fun story-- one of Gureghian's schools was in trouble for test cheating, but the school was allowed to investigate itself.
Chester Uplands is a perfect example of how students with special needs have become the cash cows of the charter biz in PA. This is a special kind of creaming. Francis Barnes is the receiver for Chester Upland schools, and he's a pretty frustrated man these days as witnessed by this open letter he sent to many media outlets. He outlines how the profitable selection process works.
The key is that while all CUSD students with special needs come with a hefty $40K for a charter school, they are not all created equal. Students on the autism spectrum are expensive to teach; they make up 8.4% of CUSD special ed student population, but only 2.1% at Chester Community Charter School, and a whopping 0% at Widener and Chester Community School of the Arts. Emotionally disturbed students are also costly; they make up 13.6 % of special ed at CUSD, 5.3% at Chester Community, and zero at the other two. Intellectual disabilities make up 11.6% for CUSD, 2.8% for CCCS, and zero for the others.
Speech and language impaired, however, are pretty inexpensive to educate. CUSD carries 2.4% of the special ed population in this category, but the three charters carry 27.4%, 20.3% and 29.8%.
That is the charter trick. Get the students for which your paid the most, but which cost the least to educate, and ka-ching! you are off to your gigantoc mansion.
New Governor Tom Wolf is trying to fix the system, but due to PA's super-duper budgeting process (the budget is due at the beginning of the summer, but our elected leaders don't generally get it passed till Halloween) that is stalled. The state tried to get special relief for Chester Uplands, but the judge said no.
You cannot swing a cat in Pennsylvania without hitting a school district that has had to close a school building because of financial problems caused by bloodsucking charter schools (combined with our seriously messed-up pension situation, but that's another day). But Chester Uplands is poised to become the first entire district in Pennsylvania to be shut down entirely by charters, leaving a few thousand students to go... well, who knows what happens to them when the public school system has to close its doors. The charters certainly don't want all those unprofitable poor kids with special needs.
This is what it means to say that charters save only some kids, only the kids they choose, only the kids they deem worthy (aka profitable), while abandoning the rest of the students to a public system that has been stripped of resources. This is why I don't support charters as currently practiced-- because they violate the spirit, history, and purpose of public education which is to serve all students, not just the ones that help you finance a big mansion. And there is no laying this at CUSD's door-- no amount of responsible financial management would have saved them as long as the system is twisted and tilted to favor the vampires that drain public schools dry.