Thursday, August 24, 2023

PA: Shapiro Still Looking For Ways To Support Choice

It was back in early August when Governor Josh Shapiro held a press conference in Penn Hills, shortly after he signed the budget that did not include $100 million for more school vouchers in PA. As reported by the Pennsylvania Legislative Services (behind walls, so I can't link), this exchange occurred:

You recently vetoed the school voucher program, leaving $100 mill on the table. Do you have plans for that money? 

Gov. Shapiro said he considers that topic to be unfinished and the chambers need to work on the topic, much like they need to work on the minimum wage, the Fairness Act to protect LGBT, and ensuring that those who are victims of abuse are able to face their abusers in court. “There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in the House and Senate, I’m hopeful that they will come back to session in the fall prepared to work together,” he said. 

So you don’t have plans for the $100 million? 

Gov. Shapiro explained that money is no longer part of the budget. “It’s now subject to further communication between the House and Senate. It’s certainly a concept I support. I think it’s important to fully fund schools and we give children who are struggling in difficult situations aa fair opportunity to learn,” he said. Gov. Shapiro said he has only been governor for 6 months, and there is still much work to do. 

The $100 million you say you support, is that for the Level Up funding or the charter school voucher program? 

Gov. Shapiro said, “Both.”

Shapiro's support for vouchers was noted all the way back during his candidacy, and choicers have pushed hard to get him to back a stripped-down-just-for-him version of a voucher bill that has been kicking around Harrisburg for year. The dark money group Commonwealth Action has been formed just to put pressure on Shapiro to get those vouchers passed. And Shapiro himself has said he continues to support the basic idea, criticizing the GOP not for the quality of their voucher proposal, but for their inability to muster enough votes to clear the Dem-controlled House.

When Shapiro took vouchers off the table, he made the GOP sad, but work started pretty quickly to "repair" that relationship, and it looks like the bone that Shapiro threw them was a chance to "improve" the state Charter Appeals Board. President Pro Tem of the PA Senate told the Philadelphia Inquirer

that Shapiro promised to improve the efficiency of the state’s Charter Appeals Board, which can overrule school boards’ decisions about opening new charter schools or closing existing ones. GOP leaders said they want that board, chaired by Shapiro’s secretary of education, to do more to help students attend charter schools in Philadelphia.

In Pennsylvania, the local school board, composed of representatives elected by local taxpayers, gets to decide whether or not a charter gets to come in and force those taxpayers to foot the bill for multiple parallel schools. The Charter Appeals Board is where the charter operators go when they are sad about being turned down. 

In practice, this usually means charter schools in Philadelphia, which has its own messy and troubled history including the best and worst of times for charter operators.

Generally, Philly's pretty friendly to charter schools. Just a week ago, Lisa Haver outlined for WHYY how Philly's board was looking favorably upon renewal for 19 of Philly's 87 charters, even though most are failing to meet basic academic standards. Philly's charter schools average 12% proficiency in math and 30% on reading, which is well below both Philly public schools and the state's charter schools. 

There's a history of mistreatment of students. Philly is the home of Franklin Towne Charter, the one in the news because an administrator blew the whistle on a rigged lottery system (turns out the lottery itself is not rigged, but you have to pass the screening to get to enter in the first place). Haver also found that at least three Philly charter CEOs make more for running one to three schools that Superintendent Tony Watlinger makes for overseeing the city district of 217 schools.

But that apparently is not friendly enough for the GOP.

The charter appeal board has heard twelve cases since 2021. Ten were decided in favor of the district boards and the taxpayers they represent, though one of those decisions was later overturned by the courts.

Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple law professor who researches charters, told the Inquirer that the board has actually tilted toward charter operators. Previous Governor Tom Wolf left Pre-Previous Governor Tom Corbett appointees on the board for most of his eight years, and DeJarnatt argues that the board wrongly excludes consideration of a charter's financial impact on the hosting district. 

But the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public [sic] Charter Schools, a group that tussled repeatedly with Tom Wolf, argues basically that they want more pro-charter people on the appeals board. Director Anne Clark told the Inquirer that the consultants they hired with their US Department of Education charter grant money, say that the charter appeals board as “among the issues we need to be addressing.” Which is a different approach to the issue than, say, deciding that the applying charters should be better. 

The appeals process is strictly about protecting business interests. It's about charter operators being able to circumvent local democratic processes when they don't like the way that those processes turn out, a kind of educational eminent domain that allows charter businesses to grab local taxpayer dollars regardless of how those taxpayers and their elected representatives feel about it (a different flavor of the same taxpayer-scamming business as a voucher program). 

But it's clear at this point that Shapiro is a political animal who doesn't see anything wrong with privatizing public education other than it tends to lose votes among the members of his own party. I get the benefits of having a governor in this state who can actually work with both parties, but I'm not happy that bargaining away public education is how he does it. Meanwhile, choicers and right-tilted folks are salivating at the prospect of getting GOP policies pushed by a Dem governor in a swing state. And we're not done talking about vouchers yet, and Shapiro is no friend of public education. Stay tuned, I guess. 

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