Saturday, March 21, 2015

Charter Leeches Call for Help in PA

When the Center for Education Reform sends out a call to action, you can be sure of one thing-- somewhere, charter school legislation is in trouble.

The Center is one of the oldest charter action-lobbying groups in the country, tracing its roots all the way back to 1993.

It is the mission of the Center for Education Reform to accelerate the growth of the education reform movement in ways that make available to families new and meaningful choices, give parents fundamental power over their children’s education, and allow teachers and schools to innovate in ways that transform student learning.

What that actually means is that they push charters like Swiss athletes push bobsleds. Their stock in trade is state-by-state charter ratings which award a letter grade based on the ease with which a charter operator can make a bundle in that state. And this week they sent out an email to let everybody know that Pennsylvania was being downgraded to a C.

What's the problem? The problem is that Pennsylvania's new governor Tom Wolf has a budget proposal on the table that aims to slow the speed and severity of public education's charter leech problem.

Pennsylvania's approach to charters has never seriously claimed that it was going to save taxpayers money, which is a good thing because then charters would be guilty of both leeching and lying. In PA, we prefer the approach that comes up with a bogus cost-per-pupil figure and then just ports it over to the charter.

Running a cyber-charter in PA is like printing money. While the per-pupil figure varies by district, $10K for a student without special needs is a good ballpark (students with special needs carry a higher figure). So the cyber enrolls the student, send him a $400 "free" computer, and adds him to the bank of 200 students being handled by a single teacher. The cyber takes the thousands of dollars it didn't spend on anything, uses some of it for snazzy advertising and hiring lobbyists, and banks the rest. And the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania doesn't even demand a careful accounting of where it all went.

The financial strain on school districts is tremendous. The district next to mine has about forty cyber-school students and they lost around a half a million dollars from their budget. My own district, the last year I looked, had sent 76 students to cybers at a cost of about $800K. That's coming close to 10% of our total budget.

Back in the day, the state reimbursed local districts for some of the public tax dollars that they handed over to charter schools. Our previous governor discontinued that practice, leading to even tougher financial squeezes for local districts. Our new governor (who has already shown himself not overly concerned about charter happiness) proposes to audit charter books, and have them to return a chunk of the public tax dollars they didn't actually use to operate their schools to the public school system from whence they came.

Charter operators are not happy. Lehigh Valley Live quotes Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools Executive Director Tim Eller: "What the governor proposed today is a budget that would effectively shut down charter schools across Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania Independent also has a high dudgeon Eller quote: “What the governor proposed is a budget that would effectively shut down charter schools across Pennsylvania.”

What we've run up again is the same old Giant Charter Central Fallacy-- you cannot run multiple school districts for the same cost as a single district. The model that PA (and many other states) settled on was one in which the extra costs of multiple districts were transferred to taxpayers, but done in such a way that local districts would have to look like the bad guy.

But PA's system is particularly insidious because there is a legislative cap on tax increases. Charter leeches, general inflation of costs, and the impact of the state's badly botched teacher pension system can often raise the costs of a district far beyond that district's ability to balance with new taxes. Therefor, many districts are being driven into austerity and even bankruptcy.

The argument about PA charters is about how big a slice of the pie the charters are entitled to. It's a difficult argument for them to have, because they have never really presented a convincing argument about how much money it takes them to do their jobs, nor why taxpayers should foot the bill for a duplication of the services already provided by public schools.

And frankly, I'm not sure how much the governor's proposal really moves the discussion forward. First, Wolf's budget has to get past the heavily GOP charter-loving legislature. Second, is there anybody who works with money and budgets who doesn't understand what "Use this money by end of fiscal year or you'll lose it" means? Wolf's proposal may mean a boost for lawyers and accountants, but I'm not sure that it will fix Pennsylvania's charter problems-- it will just provide the not unwelcome spectacle of charters having to fight a little harder for their slab of bacon.

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