Monday, July 4, 2016

PA: More Charter Christmas

PA House Bill 530 is yet another attempt to make life happier for charters in the Keystone State. As usual, it's a poop sandwich, a simple legislative trick where lawmakers include something in the bill that makes a good PR hook (This bill proposes to give the state the right to punch Mean People in the nose) with the hopes that the PR will cause folks to overlook other details of the bill (This bill would also award Mean People $1 million of taxpayer dollars).

Reading about proposed bills is a huge pain, in part because people on both sides of the discussion do their best to stampede voters, using write-ups that are tilted enough that sometimes you're not sure that you're reading two pieces about the same bill. The solution is always to go read the text of the bill but-- oh, lordy, HB 530 is freakin' 218 pages long.

Here's the thing-- when you start reading the bill, you find things that are even worse than what you've been reading about it. So I'm going to sort through this, but I am not going to try to create a sparkly smooth bunch of transitions.

The Charter School Funding Advisory Commission. If you are thinking, "Hot damn! It's about time somebody looked at how the funding formula for Pa charters sucks money away from public schools--" well, think again. The commission is supposed to examine charter funding, specifically "The commission shall examine how charter school entity finances affect opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure..."

In other words, the commission is supposed to make sure that enough money is getting to the charter sector. And the commission is stacked, with eight legislators, the PA secretary of ed, the PA chairman of the state board, four public ed representatives, and FIVE charter school reps.

Those five charter reps will include the business manager of a cyber charter-- because PA is deeply committed to supporting cybers, even though everything we know about them is that they don't work and even other folks in the charter business want cybers to be slapped down. Throughout HB 530, language is tweaked to make sure that charters and cyber charters are included on the list of school-like institutions receiving various benefits and recognition.

Hidden in the commission language is more bad news. Among the issues on which it will make recommendations will be the establishment of a state-level charter oversight board that will make sure charters are behaving and will have the power to authorize charters. 

This is a favorite proposal in PA, because right now charters need the authorization of the local board, and no local board  A)in its right mind or B) not controlled by charter school people wants to voluntarily attach a bloodsucking leech to its own neck. So charter fans and lobbyists would love to see some mechanism where charter operators don't have to get the permission of the elected representatives of the taxpayers whose pockets the charters would like to pick.

A cyber charter school shall only be subject to the laws and regulations as provided for in section 1749-A, or as otherwise provided for in this act. We aren't section yet, but kudos to cyber and charter lobbyists for continuing to get themselves excused from all sorts of school laws.

Good news. Charter trustees and administrators shall be public officials in the sense that they must file ethics and financial disclosures.Administrators can't be paid by another charter or ed management company unless they file a sworn statement saying they're doing so. Also, administrators can't be voting members of the charter boards-- and neither can their family members. And any charter administrator or trustee who has been convicted of crimes like fraud, theft or mismanagement of funds will be fired. And charter boards must include five "unrelated" members (so we're really going after the mom and pop charter frauds). Oh, and you can't be paid by the charter organization and serve on the board that authorizes the charter. It tells you something about the state of charters in PA that folks thought we'd better add these parts to the law.

Standard application. The state will create a standard application for charter operators. This sounds like a swell, efficient idea, but it means that the state will decide what the authorizing process will look like. Granted, this will be inconvenient for districts where the authorizing process might have become tainted, but it will hamstring everyone else, too. The list of things on the form is extensive and seems aimed at closing many of the loopholes through which some fraudsters have previously snuck.

Authorizing period. Charters will be authorized for five years. No word on what penalty charter operators must pay if they decide to bail before the five years are up. Charters that have been meeting their academic numbers can be authorized for ten years. however if they have been failing to meet academic marks, they are only authorized for five years. Why that part of the law says "five years" instead of "not at all" beats me. The old law allowing a one-year re-authorization if the local board feels they don't know enough-- that law is intact.

Charter School Appeal Board Changes. The bill tweaks the make-up of the charter appeals board. Now the parent member must be a charter parent (and can only be a member as long as their kid is in a charter school). Three new member slots include a charter board member, a charter administrator, and a public school principal.

Charter Real Estate Takeovers. After your school district has to close a building because you've been bled dry by charters, you have to sell or lease that building to the charters. The law awards them "right of first refusal" to a whole building-- or part of a building-- that a school district decides to close. Actually, it just has to be a building-- or part of a building-- "which is no longer in use by the property titleholder" so presumably this law would mean that a charter could say, "Hey, there are six classrooms you're not using. You have to lease them to us." The law would guarantee the district would get "fair market value" for the real estate, but what exactly is the fair market value on six classrooms in a school building?

Unilateral expansion. Way down here in paragraph d-- a charter may decide to operate in more than one location and "may not be required to obtain permission to expand." Yikes. "Surprise! We just doubled our financial strain on your district, and you didn't get to even say boo."

Waiting lists. Charters with waiting lists must give preference to students within the district. The bill gives a specific layout of what the standard charter application form may and may not ask. After it enrolls all the waiting list students from within the district, it can start enrolling students from outside the district

Now, see what you make of this. 

If a charter school or regional charter school and the school district from which it is authorized have voluntarily capped enrollment or the district attempts to involuntarily cap enrollment of resident students and the charter school or regional charter school has enrolled the maximum number of resident students, the charter school or regional charter school may enroll students residing outside of the district.

I guess this means that a charter can stock up on lots of students from outside the district thereby allowing taxpayers within the district to pick up the tab for educating students that aren't even from their community. I'd love to imagine this resulting in a charter situated in a nice rich neighborhood pulling in all sort of poor inner city students, but I'm guessing that's not how this would work out.

More unilateral expansion. If a charter wants to add more grades, they can. Basically, the bill is loaded with language designed to thwart any attempts to cap charter schools in any way shape or form. There can be no caps on enrollment "unless agreed to by the charter school." Which means there are no limits to money that charters can drain from a local district.

Pre-K. Good news. If your district doesn't have a public pre-K school, you don't have to pay for the four year olds who go to a charter pre-K.

Cyber school payment formula. The bill offers a new formula for figuring out how much the student's district of residence must pay to the cybers:

the budgeted total expenditures per average daily membership of the prior school year, as defined in section2501(20), minus the budgeted expenditures of the district of residence for nonpublic school programs; adult education programs; community/junior college programs; school library services; nonpublic support services; tax assessment and collection services; nonpublic health services; forty-five percent (45%) of operation and maintenance of plant services; student transportation services; community services; for special education programs; facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services; and other financing uses, including debt service and fund transfers as provided in the Manual of Accounting and Related Financial Procedures for Pennsylvania

For special ed students, it's that number plus, basically, the special ed budget divided by the number of special ed students.

That's an improvement. However, in one of the more incredible moves of the bill, the proposed law also tells districts what they have to do with money they "save" from cyber-school enrollment. It's a pretty list, but seriously-- "cyber-school savings"?

Charter Special Ed Assistance. Charters could, under this law, contract their special ed services from the local district or the IU. This kind of reminds me of how FedEx will take your money to deliver a package, but if it's a package they don't really want to deliver, they just sub-contract the United States Postal Service to deliver it.

Charter Enrollment Lies. If the school district thinks that the charter lied about enrollment, the burden of proof is on them (because I guess the state doesn't care whether the charter is lying or not).

Good news. Local school boards will have ongoing access to the charter financial and personnel records. Also, charters have to submit to full audits. Which is good, but do you mean to tell me we never had this in the law before? Also, the charter annual budget has to be on its website.

Bad News for Charter Teachers. The bill makes it clear that charter teachers will be subject to the same bad evaluation system as public school teachers.

Charter Consolidation. I've sort of been expecting this. How can you take over the charter market if you can't "consolidate" with other charter businesses? Now it's possible.

Fund Balance Limits. The bill proposes some clear and specific limits on how much money the charter can park in the bank. Public schools in PA have had this for a few years now; it's hard on Scrooge McDuck-style business managers, but it guarantees that taxpayer dollars are actually doing something. I mean, if the money is just going to sit in a bank somewhere, it can sit in my bank and make interest for me, not some school entity.

Charter Evaluation. You've undoubtedly read about this in pro-bill PR, because it's a big selling point. The bill proposes to create a whole big evaluation "matrix" for judging charter performance. While I like the general principle, I don't believe for a minute that the state has a clue about how to evaluate a school, whether it's a public school or a charter school. But I can't help being happy to see charters suffer under the same baloney as the rest of us. However, if the selling point of charters is freedom from government red tape, this will surely not help them.

What would help charters handle the pain of this new red-tapey evaluation system? How about we make the evaluation system carry no actual consequences, like losing your charter or facing non-renewal because your matrix looks so ugly? Yes, we'll evaluate you, but no, we won't allow anyone to do anything with the results. Feel better, charters?

More leeching. Public schools or IUs or colleges have to provide cyber charters with a nice, quiet place to administer the Big Standardized Tests. They can charge rent.

Educational Tax Credits. And look-- alllllll the way down at the bottom are these damn things again. We're going to call them "opportunity scholarships" this time, but these are an ALEC favorite. Sometimes called "tuition tax credit" programs, they're just the newest way to try to implement vouchers.

See, in a voucher program, Pat McVoucher pays $2,000 in taxes to the state, and the state gives Chris a $500 voucher to spend on school. But in a tuition tax credit program, Pat gives $500 to Chris to spend on school, and the state only collects $1,500 in taxes from Pat. So, you know, totally different.

There are pages and pages laying out the smoke and mirrors to be set up (which I'll bet look pretty much exactly like similar laws proposed by other ALEC legislators in other states). It's a voucher program, and just like any other voucher program, it has all the usual voucher problems (including, but not limited to, using tax dollars to fund private religious schools).

This portion is all by itself reason enough to dump this bill, no matter what small virtues it may contain.

Bottom line up side. The good news that will be sold to some folks is that this bill finally proposes some forms of charter oversight and attempts to tackle the hugely unpopular cyber-charter payment set-up. Cyber charter payments were the kind of policy issues that nobody really paid attention-- but then everyone started to figure out that their own school district was cutting programs and closing buildings so that cyber-schools could be paid, and now people are paying plenty of attention, and none of it is happy. So the bill does address some issues that need to be addressed.

Bottom line down side. The deal here appears to be that we will put a collar on the charter schools, but we won't actually attach that collar to a leash or anything else. Charters get unchecked growth and the chance to do as they please. Charter opponents and fans of public education get to wave some paperwork around impotently. And if you want to put it in conservative terms, this bill strips local school boards and local taxpayers of their local control.

This bill has everything but the kitchen sink, as well as everything but actually restraints and accountability for charters. Plus vouchers.

If you are in Pennsylvania, contact your legislator. And if you can't do anything else, here's a handy action network site courtesy of the Network for Public Education that will let you fire off a letter to your representatives. Speak up. Speak out. HB 530 is bad news.

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