Monday, March 2, 2015

Charter Influence in PA

Charters have huge direct and indirect influence in Pennsylvania. Some of that is shown in a great Daniel Simmons-Ritchie piece at PennLive looking at how the big boys of charterdom play high stakes hardball in Pennsylvania.

PennLive's analysis shows about $10 million going out to PA politicians over the last nine years. It is a measure of how accustomed we have become to the throwing around of money in the education biz that the amount doesn't seem all that huge.

State Rep Bernie O'Neill of Bucks County told PennLive that in addition to their ability to throw money at their problems, charters are also shameless about deploying children as lobbyists. Eva Moskowitz is only one of the more famous of these practitioners, closing her schools so that he students can be bused to the state capital to lobby for her interests.

O'Neill notes that it's an easy sell. Just tell small children and their parents that some mean guys in the capitol want to close their school, and they'll be making posters and phone calls and trips.

Pennsylvania charters have perfected the profitability dodge. PA schools must be non-profit, but that means nothing-- Gotrocks Ed, Inc simply sets up Nonprofit School Biz as a company to file the application and be the charter operator of record, but then NSB simply turns around and hires Gotrocks to run the school, an operation on which Gotrocks makes a handy bundle.

Some of that bundle is used to grease the wheels of government. Vahan Gureghian is the CEO of a charter school company. He's also the second-highest individual contributor to Tom Corbett's campaign; after Corbett won, Gureghian was appointed to two transition team committees, including education.

The charter lobby influence is not always as obvious as its support of vouchers or Educational Improvement Tax Credits (voucher lite). One of Gureghian's charter schools was among those caught in the investigation of schools suspected of cheating on the Big Test, but unlike other schools, Gureghian's company was allowed to investigate itself. Shockingly, they were not found guilty of anything.

O'Neill's commission made a recommendation to scale special education student funding by need. Students with mild special needs but who still get full funding transfers are the great cash cows of the charter business in Pennsylvania. Charters have fought the recommendation.

"They're saying, 'If we lose this money our doors are going to close.' " O'Neill said. "Well then, there's something wrong with your business model if you're relying on keeping your doors open on the backs of special-education students."

It will come as no surprise that O'Neill has been the target of charter lobby attempts to unseat him.

Charter lobbying can be subtle, and the effects of charter reformster rhetoric on public education will be put to a new test in Pennsylvania soon.

Governor Tom Wolf's budget proposal will reportedly address Pennsylvania's public education funding problems. Currently the state covers just over a third of local school costs, meaning that poor districts experience huge effects of their own poverty (this is how York schools end up so poor that the state can propose taking them over). Wolf would like to see the state shoulder 50% of the cost.

That's a great thought-- but it means that the roughly $9 billion provided by the state will need to get closer to $13 billion, and that money will have to come from somewhere.

Pennsylvania is a state with considerable post-parent population-- folks whose kids have long since left school. But the rhetoric of charter proponents has drilled into the public that a school is a service provided to an individual student and her parents. Charters have tried hard to normalize the concept that tax dollars do not go to support community schools, but instead go to little Chris and Pat to go buy themselves an education somewhere.

Charter and voucher systems are all about disenfranchising taxpayers. Now we'll see how those taxpayers react to a larger bill for services that some have been conned into thinking has nothing to do with them. "Why should I pay more taxes? I don't have any kids in school."

If charter and voucher boosters have been successful in selling their message of child-centered funding in place of taxpayers supporting schools as a public service for the whole community, we can expect Wolf's ambitious idea to be an even tougher sell than it would have been.

This will mark one more way in which charter profiteers have made public education a little bit worse in Pennsylvania.

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