Friday, December 26, 2014

The Shafting of York, PA: Round One

Merry Christmas to the teachers, taxpayers, students, parents and elected school board of York, PA. Today Stephen P. Linebaugh, President Judge of the 19th Judicial District of Pennsylvania ruled that the state may go ahead with takeover of York Schools. Well, not so much "take over" as "hand over to a for-profit charter school company with a dubious track record in Florida." A lump of coal would have been an improvement. York is one step closer to being the first district in the country state  converted straight to full charter takeover. [Correction-- York will be the first all charter in PA, but not the nation. But they will be the only all-charter currently operating in the nation.]

Here are some of the salient points to keep in mind as this story continues to unfold (because appeals are going to be filed with all the quickness, you may be sure).

Why is York's school problem, anyway?

Money. York is an exceptionally poor district, and under Tom Corbett, poor schools took an enormous hit. In Pennsylvania, public schools depend a great degree on local funding, with the state historically kicking in a little extra based on just how poor the district might be. PA schools took a one-two punch over the past six or seven years. First, previous Governor Ed Rendell (D) took the stimulus money and did just what he wasn't supposed to-- he used it to fund schools. Second, when Corbett arrived and the stimulus money left, he did not replace it. The biggest cuts of state funding happened in the poorest districts (you can visit Philly for further demonstrations of how this is working out). In 2012, York had 15% of its budget-- $8.4 million-- cut by the state.

So the state took over, anointing David Meckley Grand High Recovery Officer of the district. And it turns out that Meckley loves him some charters.And now the state (rather quickly-- as if they were working against some sort of deadline) wants to upgrade him to Receiver. Others disagree. And so, court.

So why is the state taking over?

Surprise-- this is not even the kind of academic takeover turnaround we keep hearing about from reformsters. Pennsylvania put York into Recovery Purgatory for financial hardship.

While the state's proposed receiver is making noises about improving student test scores and the district's standing in the state, academics are not what got the state involved in the first place. This is about the benjamins. If you want to see how raw and simple the conversion to Full Charter Ownership can be, here it is. Have your state government cut education budgets, then have the same government take over the school district because it is too financially strapped (because the state cut their budget). The only way to make it simpler would be for state governments to say, "We are going to give your district to a charter company because we want to." If you want to take a more detailed look at this maneuver, I recommend this post from Jersey Jazzman.

Why do they want to upgrade to receivership? Because recoveryship isn't working? Because the teachers aren't cooperating? Because PA will have a new governor at the end of the month? Pick your favorite.

What did the judge's ruling say?

The full text of the ruling is attached to this story, but I can hit some of the highlights for you.

In the discussion, the judge defined the issue as whether or not the Secretary's call for a Receiver was arbitrary, capricious, or wholly irrelevant to the financial recovery of the district. "The issues was not," he said, "what action the Receiver would take if appointed by the court."

That's a critical issue because everybody knows what action the Receiver intends to take-- handing over the district, lock, stock and barrel, to for-profit corporation Charter Schools USA. And while the future plans might have a teensy bit of bearing on the case, "It is not for the court to determine whether or not it is the best plan or even a good plan for the District. That is a determination to be made by the Receiver." The ruling's list of Receiver powers indicates that he can do pretty much any damn thing he wants without being answerable to anybody.

In the judge's opinion, the state followed the rules when calling for receivership. The school district meets some basic standards of the law (minimum 7500 students, for example) and it did some things that were not in line with the Recovery Plan that was in place (failing to get its teacher union to accept a contract with massive cuts, for example).

So the judge's basic ruling, as I read it, is that the state may or may not have a good idea about how to run the schools, but it followed its rules in doing so.

Charter Schools USA is a poster child for everything wrong with charters

Local news took a quick look at what charter operation would mean. By asking the charter operators. Guess what-- it will be awesome!

Spokeswoman, Paula Jackson, says the company has a history of turning around struggling schools. Over the span of three years all schools the company has taken over have improved to a satisfactory score. She says turning York City schools around would be nothing new.

“Look we’ve been through this, this is what we have to offer, we’re here to help. Whatever we can do to support you and your students to get them out of being 499 out of 500, we believe in these kids,” says Jackson.

I particularly appreciate how Jackson believes in these kids that they've never met and don't actually know. Perhaps she means that the company believes that these kids exist and will make them a butt-load of money.

Remember, for-profit charter is the very definition of a zero-sum game-- every dollar spent on students is a dollar the company doesn't get to keep. What could be better than a school system in which students are a cost to be control, little human money hemorrhages that must be cauterized and clipped.

Apparently, many things could be better. Charter Schools USA operate in Florida, where the League of Women Voters conducted a one-year study of charters. Turns out Charter Schools USA make use of one of the great profit-making arms of charterdom-- real estate. Here's League Education Chair Patricia Hall talking about how it works:

Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees!

CSUSA has been in business since 1997. Its head honcho, Johnathan Hage, bounced around before taking a last bank shot off the Heritage Foundation in DC and ending up in Florida as a Bush Buddy at Foundations for Florida Future. When Florida passed a charter law in 1996, Hage was right there to jump on the wave. And he was riding it in Indianapolis with Tony Bennett, another Friend Indebted to Bush, where a few million dollars just kind of went missing. Florida charter biz has been big money, little oversight for years, and Hage and CSUSA have been doing just fine.

This might be a dumb move for CSUSA

CSUSA boasts about spending little money on students and getting good test results. They like uniforms. They like structure. And they like requiring "merit pay" for teachers. But this still might be a bad move for them.

The problem with having a charter take over an entire city school system is that it leaves them with no dumping ground. All modern charter success stories depend on one thing-- a dumping ground for students who will hurt the numbers. Students who cost too much to teach because they have one special need or another. Students who are behavior problems. Students who get low test scores. Students who don't show an aptitude for picking up English. Modern charter success stories require a place to dump all of the problem children. Charters depend on attrition, but if they own the whole city system, where will students attrit to?

If CSUSA takes all of York schools, what will they do with the problem students. They will, of course, devote plenty of everyone's time to test prep. But if this is going to work for them, they'll need a dumping ground for students who can not or will not respond well to a steady diet of test prep. These guys have been at this for a while so either A) they've started believing their own PR or B) they've already figured out a solution. In which case, keep your eyes open for the Dumping Ground Loophole in their proposal.

And here's the other part of their problem:

Nobody wants this

Virtually every sector of the York community has spoken out against this move. That includes the elected school board, the teachers union, various members of the taxpaying public-- and it includes York's most prominent native son, the governor-elect of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf. Do you suppose it means anything that we've been trying to ram this through in the last weeks before Wolf takes office? I would like to think it does, but the Receiver is an old friend of Wolf's, and his charter sell-out plan didn't get a squawk from candidate Wolf until journalist Colleen Kennedy stirred up some noise.

I am particularly curious about the teaching staff. CSUSA prefers the merit pay model, favored by pretty much nobody who has experienced it. What would happen if CSUSA were unable to fully staff its schools? They are claiming they can produce more resources and staff down the line, but what makes them think they can do it.

We're not done yet

I assume that the state teachers' union had their appeal already written with a finger on the "send" key before the ink was even dry on today's ruling. So there will be more court shenanigans.

In the meantime, Pennsylvania has a really lousy but quite active cyber-schooling sector. A bad upholding of this lousy decision could touch off a head-to-head battle between charters, as angry parents pull their students to get online instead.

But make no mistake-- this is not good news. It's particularly bad news if you are in PA's other high-poverty districts. If it becomes this easy, this simple for a state to simply hand a school district to a for-profit charter, then in the long run, nobody is safe. Well, except all the people running those charter corporations, cheerfully converting public tax dollars to private profits.

If you care about public education, you may not know much about York, PA, but I'll bet that before too long, you'll know plenty about the decisions that are made there.


  1. Thanks, Peter, for this stellar reveal. Here's the link to Jersey Jazzman's blog on this topic:

  2. Why did York SD enrollment decline over 1,800 students between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school year? How did York SD adjust its budget to compensate?

    What is included in the spending category "Other Purchased Services" and why did that category increase over $6 million between 2010-11 and 2011-12?

    Since 2009, York SD enrollment has declined by 35% but spending was only cut .02%. This has lead to York SD going from 134th in the state for highest cost per student to 18th.

    I am not a big fan of charter schools but to claim that the governor used the state budget as a way to turn a public school into a charter school is a reach. The numbers tell a different story. A story about a school board unwilling to make the tough choices to address a significant reduction in enrollment.

  3. I don't believe that Corbett specifically targeted York. I do believe that the feeling was that poorer school districts would be significantly crunched, and if some cracked and broke, that was okay because privatization would be a good solution to a problem the state couldn't find the wit or will to solve.

    I have no insider knowledge of York, but Other Purchased Services often means outsourcing, usually attempted (and usually failing) as a method of controlling costs.

    Otherwise, you see the kind of death spiral that occurs in larger urban districts. The school cuts services and/or fails to maintain what they have in place, and students flee. But cuts in student population don't necessarily mean costs can be cut proportionately-- if I lose two kids from each grade, my district could lose several hundred thousand dollars, and costs of operating the district will drop by exactly $0.00. And cutting schools and services makes it that much harder to bring back the students that you lost.

    I'm not claiming there aren't real problems with school funding in PA, but if the state's solution is going to be let districts fall off the bottom of the ladder into the arms of recovery officers and charters-- well, that's not a solution at all.

  4. I agree that many overhead costs will not be impacted by enrollment but enrollment being down 34% surely leaves room for cost cutting. On average, that was a drop of 134 kids per grade. Going from 134th in cost per student to 18th in the state for cost per student clearly indicates more could have been done. That ranking change represents a $7,000 increase per student.

    School boards hold significant responsibility. Unfortunately most school board members in the state are concerned with the prestige they get in their local community than with managing the community's public education system. From what I see, the school board of York SD failed to plan and take action to address the significant loss of enrollment. Unfortunately it is the community that will suffer but then again, how many citizens had attending school board meetings and challenged the board?