Archives for category: Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association conducted a study of costs, comparing charter schools and public schools, and concluded that the charter schools have higher salaries for those at the top and spend twice as much on administration as public schools.

Furthermore, the bulk of their revenue–as much as 84%–is taken away from public schools, leaving them in worse condition.

Charter-school administrative expenditures are nearly double those of conventional public schools, and their highest-ranking officials are paid far more.

They spend less on instruction than school districts, but more on support services and facilities.

And while charter-school enrollment has jumped significantly over time, payments to the schools are far outpacing their actual rates of growth in admission.

All that is according to a report on Pennsylvania’s charter schools issued Thursday by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, made up of nearly 4,500 school board members.

In a 35-page study that came after rounds of records requests during the last 15 months, the conclusions present a broad picture of Pennsylvania’s 173 charter schools, which have become part of an ongoing national debate about what effect the charter-school movement is having on traditional public schools.

“This is not intended to be any sort of an attack on charter schools,” said Andrew Christ, education policy analyst for the organization, during a conference call Thursday.

But, he said, “charter schools need to be held to the same standards of accountability and transparency as traditional public schools.”

Jersey Jazzman reports on what competition does to schools and communities. A new charter school in Bethlehem, PA., is recruiting students from the public schools by sending out mailers claiming that students who enroll in the charter school will be safe from drug dealers in the public school. Really.

A promotional mailer claiming to be from a new Catasauqua charter school paints Liberty High School students as drug users, sparking outrage among many Bethlehem residents.

Innovative Arts Academy Charter School denies it had anything to do with sending out the promotional mailer, which lists the school’s return address.

The postcard references the September 2015 drug arrest of a 17-year-old Liberty student and asks “Why worry about this type of student at school? Come visit Arts Academy Charter School. Now enrolling grades 6-12.”

It shows a stock image of a teenager holding their head in their hands and reprints a Morning Call headline: “Teen busted by Liberty HS officials with more than $3,000 of heroin, cocaine.”

Nothing like using defamation to recruit new students.

The school insisted it was not responsible for the mailer. The CEO of the charter school resigned.

Outsiders were wondering about the role of the real estate developer, who not only owned the building in which the charter was located, but loaned the charter $100,000.

Was it “all about the kids?”

The annals of competition.

Calling John Oliver! The charter lobbyists have been criticizing Oliver for his expose of charter fraud last Sunday. Unfair, they say. Untrue, they say. Slanders charters, they say. Let’s see how they fit this story into their narrative.

Nicholas Trombetta, founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, pleaded guilty to stealing $8 million from the school and diverting it for his personal use. Trombetta’s school was often featured on television as the nation’s first virtual charter. With an enrollment of 10,000 students from across the state, Trometta had receipts of $100 million a year. What to do with all that dough rolling in from taxpayers?

I have written about this scandal on several occasions, from the time Trombetta was charged in 2013. (See hereand here and here. Another cyber charter leader in Pennsylvania, June Brown, who ran the K-12 Agora Charter, was arrested and charged with stealing $6 million.

The Associated Press reports:

“PITTSBURGH (AP) — The founder and former CEO of an online public school that educates thousands of Pennsylvania students pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal tax fraud, acknowledging he siphoned more than $8 million from The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School through for-profit and nonprofit companies he controlled.

“In entering his plea, Nicholas Trombetta, 61, who headed the school, acknowledged using the money to buy, among other things, a Bonita Springs, Florida, condominium for $933,000, pay $180,000 for houses for his mother and girlfriend in Ohio, and spend $990,000 more on groceries and other items.

“He manipulated companies he created and controlled to draw the money from the school, also spending it on a $300,000 plane, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman said.

“Trombetta was making $127,000 to $144,000 annually at PA Cyber when he ran the illegal tax evasion scheme from 2006 to 2012. He faces up to five years in prison when he’s sentenced Dec. 20.

“By running the money through the companies or their straw owners, Trombetta avoided income taxes, though prosecutors haven’t said how much. Most of the siphoned money was squirreled away in Avanti Management Group, which functioned as Trombetta’s retirement savings account, Kaufman said.

“This case reflects the priority we’ve placed on protecting against fraud in education,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said.

“The school, founded in Midland in 2000, had more than 11,000 students across the state when Trombetta was charged three years ago and still has more than 9,000. As a public institution, it’s funded by federal, state and local taxes. Districts across the state pay the school to educate any students who opt to enroll in PA Cyber instead of a bricks-and-mortar school.

“Trombetta almost didn’t plead guilty Wednesday when his attorney, Adam Hoffinger, began sparring with Kaufman, who had to describe the complicated conspiracy to the judge.

“Kaufman said Trombetta used Avanti, the National Network of Digital Schools and other companies in the scheme. The Network of Digital Schools markets a curriculum developed in conjunction with PA Cyber and sold it back to the school, while Avanti provided unspecified management services, the prosecutor said. Avanti had four owners who pretended to be equal 25 percent partners when, in reality, Trombetta owned 80 percent of the firm, Kaufman said.”

The State Auditor in Pennsylvania decided to take a look at the ties between charter schools and the buildings they rent or lease. He found several that are renting space from the charter school’s owner, which is forbidden in state law. This is actually one of the most lucrative and overlooked aspect of the charter scam: The charter owner buys a building, opens a school, and charges high rent, which he pays to one of his shell corporations.

Pennsylvania’s fiscal watchdog on Wednesday questioned millions of public dollars paid to charter school landlords and called for the state to more closely monitor such lease payments.

At a news conference, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale highlighted more than $2.5 million in lease reimbursements to nine charter schools, including the Propel Charter School System in Allegheny County, the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County and School Lane Charter School in Bucks County.

Without offering details, Mr. DePasquale said his office found ties between the schools and their property owners that could contradict state guidelines that deem buildings owned by a charter school ineligible for lease reimbursement.

“What we found in some of our audits is that the same people who own and operate charter schools, they themselves create separate legal entities to own the buildings and lease them to charter schools,” Mr. DePasquale said.

Pennsylvania enjoys the dubious distinction of having the most permissive charter laws in the nation, one that enables profiteers to score big without regulation or oversight. Pennsylvania is home of about 16 cyber-charters, which are known for their woeful performance. CREDO reported in 2011 that the virtual charters were the worst-performing of all types of schools in the state. In addition, two virtual charter operators were charged with fraud, including the founder of Pennsylvania’s first cyber-charter school, which had annual revenues of $100 million.

Under former Republican Governor Tom Corbett, the charter industry was given free rein to expand and exploit the taxpayers of the state. At one point, the Secretary of Education was a former executive of Michael Milken’s K12 Inc., the online virtual charter that has received numerous negative reviews by researchers.

The current Auditor General wants to get to the bottom of the real estate scam:


He said the education department in about 2010 asked the Auditor General’s Office to review such connections, and that the auditor’s staff has done so.

“We keep finding it and supplying the information to the department, and they do nothing with it,” he said.

Mr. DePasquale made a similar call for scrutiny in March 2013, when he said that audits of six charter schools found they had improperly received more than $550,000 in lease reimbursements from the state for properties related to or owned by the schools. It was not clear if that money was ever repaid.

Pittsburgh’s counsel agreed that oversight is nearly non-existent:

Ira Weiss, solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the district agrees with the auditor general’s concerns about lease reimbursements.

“These schools are paid millions in tax dollars with little or no oversight by PDE,” Mr. Weiss said. “It is more evidence that the charter school law, one of the most permissive in the nation, needs a complete overhaul.”

The arrogance of the charter industry is getting to be boundless. They want the authority to expand without limits, with no accountability or transparency.

If the Democrats don’t stand up to this brazen effort to privatize public education, who will?

Steven Singer writes here about the latest raid on the public treasury in Pennsylvania.

Singer writes:

Fund my charter school.

Come on, Pennsylvania.

Let me just swipe tax dollars you set aside to educate your children and put them into my personal bank account as profit.

Please!

I’ll be your best friend. Or at least I’ll be your legislator’s best friend.

Chances are, I already am.

That’s why lawmakers in Harrisburg are once again looking to pass a school code bill (House Bill 530) that would let charter schools expand exponentially almost completely unchecked and without having to do any of that nasty, sticky accountability stuff you demand of your traditional public schools.

Sure there are a few provisions in there to make charters fill out more paperwork, but the benefits for privatization and profitization of your child’s education are huge!

For me, that is. For your child, not so much.

For instance, the proposed legislation would set up a charter school funding advisory commission. This august body would have many duties including the ability to authorize charter schools in your local school district.

No longer would prospective charter operators have to come before your duly-elected board members and plead and beg to set up shop and suck away hard to come by education funding. They could just appear before the commission and sidestep your local democracy completely.

Who will be on this commission? I’m glad you asked.

We’ve got eight legislators. Got to give THEM a voice. But they’re usually pretty cheap. A few bucks in the re-election campaign and we’ll be golden. We’ll also have the state secretary of education and the chairman of the state board. We’ve got to make the thing look legit, right?

But here’s the best part! We’ll have four public education representatives and FIVE representatives of the charter school industry!

Isn’t that great!? There are significantly more traditional public schools throughout the state, but they’ll have less representation on the commission! It’s stacked with charter friendly votes! The forces of privatization have a built-in majority! Ring the dinner bell, Baby! Once this bill gets passed, it’s charter school time all across the Commonwealth!

Once a charter school is authorized, it can expand as much as it wants, without the local district’s permission. It can even enroll students from outside the district and charge the district!

Worse, the bill authorizes “education savings accounts,” a euphemism for vouchers.

Is the Pennsylvania legislature is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ALEC and the privatization movement.

The Network for Public Education is encouraging people who live in Pennsylvania to be informed and get involved. Don’t let them destroy public education that your community paid for. The schools belong to the public–or they should. Don’t let the privatizers take them away.

If you live in Pennsylvania, please, contact your legislators and ask them to oppose this terrible bill. The Network for Public Education has made it very easy. Just click HERE and you can shoot off a letter to your representatives in moments.

Oppose HB 530. Fight for public education.

This is one of the strangest stories of the week or year. Back in 2008, a group of parents at the Agora Cyber Charter school in Pennsylvania began questioning the financial affairs of the corporation that owned it. Agora was paying rent and management fees to another company, the Cynwyd Group, which June Brown, the founder of Agora, also owned.

In January 2009, the owners of Agora filed suit against the parents:

As parents tried to gather records and sort out the business relationships at Agora, they circulated emails expressing their concerns. They also complained to the state Education Department when the school did not provide information they requested.

In the suit filed in January 2009, Brown and Cynwyd Group charged that the parents had made statements that defamed and libeled Brown.

The complaint also alleged that the parents’ group had tried to interfere with Cynwyd’s contractual relationship with Agora “by spreading untruths about Dr. Brown and by implying that she had improperly used public funds.”

Brown and Cynwyd sought more than $150,000 in damages from the six parents for libel, slander, and civil conspiracy.

The parents denied the allegations and said they had merely sought information about the taxpayer-funded school their children attended.

Brown said the parents had defamed her and she had to defend her reputation. The parents had trouble paying for legal representation.

The suit dragged on, but in 2012, “federal grand jurors indicted Brown and charged her with defrauding Agora and her other charters of $6.7 million.”

The case against the parents remained active, to be addressed after the conclusion of the criminal trial. Brown’s criminal trial ended in a hung jury in 2014, and a retrial was canceled in 2015 after Brown’s lawyer said that she suffered from dementia. So, she escaped legal action, kept the money, but the parents were in limbo, still facing the charges of defamation that Brown had lodged against them.

Earlier this month, the charges were dismissed. The parents were relieved. One had used the family’s mortgage payment to pay a lawyer and lost her home fighting the lawsuit.

It does seem unjust that the parents were dragged through legal proceedings for more than seven years, accused of defaming Brown, even while she was under federal indictment for defrauding her charters of millions of dollars.

Steven Singer writes here on the theme: Online courses for the poor, teachers for the rich kids. (This is familiar to me; I discussed this subject near the end of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, recalling an article by the technology editor of Forbes, who predicted this development more than 30 years ago.)

Singer writes:

Pennsylvania has a long history of under-resourcing its public schools.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay has a solution.

The Republican representing Washington and Allegheny Counties envisions a world where poor kids learn from computers and rich kids learn from flesh-and-blood teachers.
It’s all in his proposed legislation, H.B. 1915, passed by the state House on Monday. It now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation would assign the Department of Education the task of organizing a collection of online courses for use by students in grades 6-12. Some classes might be created by the state and others would be made by third parties with approval for state use. If anyone so desired, the courses could be utilized by anyone in public school, private school, homeschool and beyond. The online learning clearinghouse thus created would be called the “Supplemental Online Course Initiative.”

The purpose of the bill is to help financially stressed districts, not by funding them but by giving them a cheap alternative.

This bill provides an alternative for schools where the local tax base isn’t enough to fund traditional classes presided over by living, breathing teachers.

In the distant past, the state used to made up some of the slack to level the playing field for students born into poverty. However, for the last five years, the legislature has forced the poor to make due with almost $1 billion less in annual state education funds. This has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, the loss of extra-curriculars, increased class size, and plummeting academic achievement.

While the majority of voters are crying out for the legislature to fix this blatant inequality and disregard for students’ civil rights, Ortitay’s proposed bill lets lawmakers off the hook. It allows legislators to provide a low quality alternative for the poor without necessitating any substantial influx of funds.

Where is the curriculum coming from?

Internet-based classwork – like that which would be collected in the clearinghouse – makes up the curriculum at cyber charter schools. Moreover, these online schools have a proven track record of failure and fraud.

A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools and 72 days less of reading instruction.
In addition, researchers found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

They have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, according to researchers.

And THAT kind of curriculum is what the state House voted to increase using public money!

Singer reminds readers that Pennsylvania cybercharters have experienced major frauds, and two cybercharter leaders are currently under indictment. Cybercharters have a sorry track record in Pennsylvania and everyone else.

That makes them just right for children who live in financially distressed districts. No one in the legislature cares about educating THEM.

Peter Greene reports on the latest terrible news from Pennsylvania. Because of the highly inequitable funding formula for the state, because of the legislature’s inability to pass a budget for almost a year, because of the burgeoning charter movement, school districts across the state are in dire condition.

 

Erie is considering closing all its high schools and sending its students to other districts. The decision may be made today. Peter predicts that the end result of this crisis could be the end of public education, as the free-market mania consumes everything in its path:

 

The district is looking at a $4.3 million gap, and like many districts in PA, it has no possible response except to cut, “including eliminating sports, extracurricular activities, art and music programs, district libraries, and the district’s police department.” Plus cutting various administrative positions out the wazoo.

 

 

PA Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has taken a look at Erie finances and determined that the crappy state funding formula and the loss of money to charters are a huge part of the problem. DePasquale has actually been saying this a great deal, all over the state, because from Erie to Philadelphia, bad funding and a terrible charter law are guttting school finance.

 

 

It is, of course, the same death spiral visible across the country. If Erie does hang in there, how well can the public schools compete with the charters if the public schools must cut all sorts of services? This is one of the most baloney-stuffed parts of the Free Market Competition Mantra– competition will spur Erie schools to become greater and more competitive by stripping them of the resources they need just to function. Is that how it’s supposed to work?

 

 

No, this is how charter eat public schools from the inside out, like free market tapeworms. The more the eat, the weaker public schools become, and the weaker public schools become, the more charters can attack them and eat more….

 

Particularly in the long term, closing down the high schools and farming out the students qualifies as a viable solution. It also qualifies as a breakdown of the public education system. If the schools shut down (a process that would take over a year), what happens to the students? While there would be public and charter schools that could, maybe, take those students, there’s no guarantee that there would be enough capacity to absorb those students and more importantly, none of those schools would have an obligation to absorb the Erie students (and Erie’s only remaining obligation would be to pay tuition– it would actually be to their benefit if a student is not placed anywhere). Whether the student is expensive to teach or a behavior problem or can’t get transportation or the receiving schools are just out of desks and don’t want to hurt their own programs through overcrowding, there will be students that nobody takes responsibility for….

 

The bulldozing of public schools in order to make room for the free market presumes that the free market has the chops to absorb what the public system turns loose. What if we burn down the public school to make room for a shiny charter, and all we end up with is a vacant lot? The biggest danger of a botched conversion to a charter choice system is not that we’d end up with a bad charter choice system, but that a city could end up with no system at all.

 

 

Steven Singer hangs a dunce cap on Pennsylvania’s legislature. Facing a budget crisis, they voted to eliminate seniority and cynically called their bill “The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

He writes:

“If you live in Pennsylvania, as I do, you must be shaking your head at the shenanigans of our state legislature.

“Faced with a school funding crisis of their own making, lawmakers voted this week to make it easier to fire school teachers.

“Monday the state Senate passed their version of an anti-seniority bill that was given the thumbs up by the House last summer.

“Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto it.

“As usual, lawmakers (or more accurately their surrogates at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who actually wrote the bill) spent more time on branding the legislation than appealing to logic, sense or reason. The bill called HB 805 was given the euphemistic title “The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

“Yes, this is exactly how you protect excellent teachers – by making it easier to fire them.

“Currently, if teachers are furloughed, those with least seniority go first. Under this new law, teachers would be let go based on their academic rating. Teachers can have one of four ratings: Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement and Failing. Under the new legislation, teachers rated Failing would be furloughed first, followed by those under Needs Improvement, etc. Within those categories decisions would be made based on seniority.

“It sounds great – if you know absolutely nothing about Pennsylvania public schools.

“First off, in 2015 our rating system found 98.2% of state teachers to be in the highest two rating categories. So at best this bill is next to meaningless.

“Second, like virtually all value added rating systems across the country, our rating system is pure bull crap. It’s a complicated measure of meaningless statistics, student test scores and mumbo jumbo that can be twisted one way or another depending on the whims of administrators, dumb luck and the phases of the moon.”

Be sure to read Peter Greene’s take on this legislation.

After nine months of feuding over the state budget, the Pennsylvania legislature–dominated by Republicans–and Democratic Governor Tom Wolf finally reached a deal. Wolf wanted a $400 million increase for education, mostly targeted to help the beleaguered cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The final deal included only half that amount. Pennsylvania will remain the state with the most inequitable funding for the foreseeable future.

 

Pennsylvania has a long way to go to make up for the heavy cuts that former Governor Tom Corbett imposed on the schools.

 

To keep up with the news from Pennsylvania, read the Keystone State Education Coalition’s daily briefings.