Archives for category: Pennsylvania

Carol Burris writes in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” blog about a for-profit charter corporation that about to take over the entire Chester-Upland school district in Pennsylvania. This district is one of the poorest in the state.

Burris writes:

Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) first opened its doors in 1998, just a few years after the school district found itself in financial distress. Vahan Gureghian, a Pennsylvania lawyer who runs a billboard company and is one of the state’s top Republican donors, owns CSMI, the for-profit management company that helped open Chester Community Charter School.

Although the charter school began small, it now educates about half of the district’s students. Despite its growth, its academic record is dismal.
CCCS students perform worse on standardized tests than students at several of the Chester Upland public schools. “This is the charter whose test scores have been below those of several district-run schools, ever since it was cited for cheating on said test scores,” said Chester resident Will Richan, “[cheating] not by one or two rogue teachers but across three grade levels.”

Maura McInerney, legal director of the nonprofit Education Law Center (ELC) said she is concerned that students may be forced into attending lower-performing schools.
“Publicly available data discloses that children served by Chester Community Charter School exhibit lower achievement scores compared with most [Chester Upland] District schools in all categories of PSSA [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment] testing in math, English language arts, and science. The 2019 profile score for CCCS (40.7 percent) is significantly lower than that of other district schools,” such as Stetser (66.5 percent); Main Street (55.5 percent), and Chester Upland School of the Arts (56.4 percent).”

And yet, despite its poor academic record, in 2017 Peter R. Barsz, the receiver appointed by Dozor who oversaw the financially distressed district, renewed Chester Community Charter School for an additional five years just one year into its new renewal term. In doing so, he gave the charter school a nine-year pass no matter how poorly its students might do.

The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to the move as “unprecedented,” noting that Barsz’s reappointment to a third-term by Dozor was made over the objections of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Barsz was then replaced by the same Republican judge in the middle of his term (because, the Inquirer reported, Barsz wanted to expand his accounting firm). The latest in a string of receivers is the recently retired superintendent of the Chester Uplands District, Juan Baughn.

Profiting from charter schools

To understand why Chester Community Charter School and its for-profit parent company, CSMI, are so interested in taking over the beleaguered schools, one needs to understand how lucrative being a charter management organization (CMO) can be in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where there are no limits placed on what the CMO can charge.

In 2014-15, state data showed that CCCS had the highest administration expenses of any charter school in Pennsylvania. With total expenditures just shy of $56.6 million, over $26.1 million, or 46 percent, was spent on administration, while $18.8 million, or 33 percent of total expenditures went toward instruction.

This is not only true for CSMI’s Pennsylvania charter school, however. With the help of federal Charter School Program dollars, Vehan Gureghian extended his reach into neighboring New Jersey, again setting up shop in poor, financially stressed predominantly black districts — one in Camden New Jersey (since closed) and another in Atlantic City. The administrative costs of these CSMI charters were among the highest in that state.

The fiscal crisis of Chester Upland’s public schools

It would be difficult to find a more underfunded district with more challenges than the Chester Upland School District, which has been in financial trouble for years. In 2012, its teachers agreed to work without pay, although in the end, the state intervened, allowing them to be paid.

A few years later, however, a crisis returned when the state legislature could not agree on a state budget, thus delaying state school payments to public schools. The 2015-16 school year began with teachers coming to work without knowing when or if they would receive a salary.

It would also be hard to find a district that serves a more disadvantaged student population. According to the district’s recovery plan, every student in the district (100 percent) is eligible for free lunch, 89 percent of the students are black, and 4 percent are Hispanic. Twenty-two percent are students with disabilities.

Financial mismanagement is partly to blame for the district’s fiscal woes — with inadequate revenue, there were years when the district spent more than it took in. However, the drain of district funds to charter schools, especially CCCS, has put the district on a death spiral.

The Bethlehem School District analyzed the proportion of operating expense funds that flow to districts. Number 1 in the state was Chester Upland, with almost 47 percent of funds leaving the district for charter school tuition. You can find the results of that analysis here. This compares with about 30.5 percent of the budget of Philadelphia public schools, 11.5 percent of Bethlehem’s funds, and an average rate across the state of 3.7 percent.

At first glance, it might appear as though 47 percent is a savings given that 60 percent of the district’s elementary students attend Chester Community Charter School. However, it is important to keep in mind that the education of elementary students is far less expensive than that of high school students who need laboratory sciences, specialized courses, guidance counselors, and extracurricular activities such as sports. Chester Community Charter Schools is only interested in educating the district’s K-8 students.

There are, too, differences in which students the charter school educate.

According to McInerney, who is representing parents opposed to the charter takeover, CCCS has a track record of poorly serving students with the most significant disabilities. In an email correspondence. she noted that “during the 2017-18 school year, while 11 percent of students with disabilities at Chester Upland School District were students with autism, the percentage of students with autism at CCCS was only 4.3 percent.”

In addition, CCCS was cited for noncompliance by the Bureau of Special Education in 2016,” she wrote. “These citations related to core requirements for educating students with disabilities, including (1) the failure of IEPs to be reasonably calculated to enable a child to advance appropriately towards annual goals and (2) failure to educate children in the least restrictive environment.”

The special education funding formula for charter schools in the state incentivizes charters to take the least disabled students
because the school receives the same amount for every special education student, regardless of the severity of the disability.

The pattern of charter schools having fewer students with more severe disabilities is found across the state according to a June 2020 report by Education Voters of Pennsylvania, which used Chester Upland as an example of how wide those disparities are.

At the same time, the law does not require that all special ed funds be spent on the student; therefore, extra dollars can be spent any way the charter schools decide to support its program.

Can this distressed, underfunded district survive?
One would think the Chester Upland School Board, although it has little authority in receivership, would nevertheless advocate for the independence of the school.

That assumption would not be correct. School board president Anthony Johnson has stated that he wasn’t troubled by the for-profit status of the Chester Community Charter School’ management company and that he was open to charter expansion.

The recent appointment of Carol Birks as superintendent also signals the board’s interest in allowing charter expansion and governing control of the public schools. Birks made it clear that she believes parents have the right to choose between charter and public schools and that she has “no preference.” (Birks’ contract was bought out by the New Haven Board of Education for $175,000 after a year and a half in the position of superintendent. The small, cash-strapped Upland District negotiated a salary of $215,000 a year, placing her among highest paid superintendents in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.)

Despite all of the challenges, maintaining a public school system in the district has its advocates. Last December, the Education Law Center, along with the Public Interest Law Center, intervened in the case both on behalf of Parents of Chester Upland School District as well as the Delaware County Advocacy & Resource Organization to challenge the CCCS petition to include charter school conversions to become part of the district’s recovery plan.
A proffer of witness testimony outlined by the law center at hearings included testimony from parents who want their children to attend the district schools which they describe as more accountable, as well as providing better services to their children, particularly those with disabilities.

The story of Chester Upland is a cautionary tale of what occurs when public schools are financially abandoned, and charters are allowed to swoop in, placing such an enormous financial strain on the schools that a disastrous downward spiral begins.

McInerney summed it up this way: “Chester Upland School District is a stark example of the high cost of inadequate and inequitable school funding and the disproportionate impact of underfunding on students of color. It needs significant investments and support from the state to effectively serve the significant number of students living in deep poverty who have been harmed by entrenched underfunding and horrific deprivation of basic school resources. Instead, conversion to charter control is being pursued as an ‘out’ when we should focus our attention on creating a sustainable path to local control.“

Peter Greene describes in this post how charter schools in Pennsylvania manage to game the system by making money from students with disabilities even while excluding many of them.

He writes:

In a new report, Education Voters of Pennsylvania looks at “how an outdated law wastes public money, encourages gaming the system, and limits school choice.” Fixing the Flaws looks at how Pennsylvania’s two separate funding systems have made students with special needs a tool for charter gaming of the system, even as some of them are shut out of the system entirely.
The two-headed system looks like this. Public schools receive special education funding based on the actual costs of services, while charter schools are funded with a one-size-fits-all system that pays the same amount for all students with special needs, no matter what those special needs might be….

Public schools receive state funding based on student tiers; charters get the same funding whether the student needs an hour of speech therapy a week or a separate classroom, teacher and aide.

This creates an obvious financial incentive for charter schools to cherry pick students who are considered special needs, but who need no costly adaptations or staffing to meet those needs, while at the same time incentivizing charters to avoid the more costly high needs students. Denial of those students does not require outright rejection of the students; charters can simply say, “You are welcome to enroll, but we do not provide any of the specialized programs that you want for your child.” Parents will simply walk away.

Examples of this technique are not hard to find in the state. Before they closed down in 2018, the Wonderland Charter School in State Collegel was caught over-identifying students with speech and language impairment, a low-cost Tier 1 need, by 1,000%….

Across the state, the report finds roughly 10% of public school enrollment is students with special needs; for charters, the percentage across the state is about half that.
The result is that taxpayers, through their local districts, are overpaying charters for the services provided. If a student with a language impairment moves to a charter, the funding doesn’t just follow her—it increases by thousands of dollars. A student who cost the taxpayers $15,000 to educate in a public school now costs taxpayers $27,000, though no more money is being actually spent on that student’s education.

The problem could easily be fixed, and Peter explains how.

Over 600 faculty and staff at Penn have organized Penn for PILOTS and issued a statement calling on the university to make “payments in lieu of taxes” (PILOTs) to the Philadelphia public schools. As is well known, the public schools in Philadelphia are chronically underfunded, thanks to a hostile Republican legislature, and they are currently facing devastating cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Penn is the largest property owner in Philadelphia and the only Ivy League university that doesn’t pay PILOTs. Calls for PILOTs have surfaced for years, but support for the idea has now reached an unprecedented level. A significant number of Penn faculty and staff believe that it is time for the university to pay its fair share for public schools.

As the organizing statement of the group says, Penn is the seventh wealthiest university in the nation, and the Philadelphia schools are among the poorest in the nation.

This is the petition of the organizers. The statement begins:

We are faculty and staff at the University of Pennsylvania who believe that Penn has a responsibility to ensure adequate funding for the Philadelphia public schools. Penn is the largest property owner in the city of Philadelphia, but as a non-profit institution, it pays no property taxes on its non-commercial properties. In other words, it contributes nothing to the tax base that funds Philadelphia’s public school system—this in a city whose schools are underfunded and facing deep budget cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Commitment

Penn should contribute to an Educational Equity Fund governed by the school district and city of Philadelphia. These would be payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs)—a fraction of what Penn would owe if it were subject to property tax assessment. We commit ourselves to seeing our university pay its fair share.

Nearly every other Ivy League university already makes payments in lieu of taxes. Penn would be joining the ranks of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, and Dartmouth in recognizing its financial obligation to the community of which it is a part.

The supporters of this demand explain their rationale:

This is not a matter of charity but of justice. Penn’s tax exemption is predicated on the notion that it is a non-profit institution that exists to fulfill a public purpose, not a for-profit corporation that exists to accumulate capital. That distinction must be made meaningful. Today, Penn is the seventh richest university in the country. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has the highest poverty rate of the ten largest cities in the United States. If Penn’s public mission is to have any meaning at all, the university must not be an exemplar or engine of urban inequality.

Yet the existing system of public finance ensures that Penn benefits from city services that it does not pay to maintain. Penn’s administrators, faculty, and staff rely on city schools, sanitation services, transportation, and other programs. Penn’s location in the city of Philadelphia is one of its defining characteristics that enables the university to attract faculty and students. When the university does not pay for the services and environment that make its work possible, other Philadelphians are left to make up the difference—or city schools and other institutions simply go without. Penn has a duty to contribute to the city that sustains it.

Here is their list of frequently asked questions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about this remarkable movement.

I salute the faculty and staff at Penn who support this movement. The financial condition of the Philadelphia public schools is dire. They need all the help they can get. In this age on intense individualism and greed, it is wonderful to see people acting with a sense of social responsibility.

Charters in the Philadelphia area received more than $30 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds, while public schools in Philadelphia continue to be systematically underfunded. The big winner in the PPP sweepstakes is the for-profit Chester Community Charter School, owned by a major Republican donor and billionaire.

One of the largest loans, between $5 million and $10 million, went to Chester Community Charter School (CCCS), which is operated by a for-profit management company owned by wealthy Republican donor Vahan Gureghian.

The loan was received by Archway Charter School of Chester, Inc., which is the nonprofit name for CCCS under which it files its 990 tax form.

The CCCS charter already received more than $2.5 million from the CARES Act, intended for public schools. So CCCS, which aims for a complete takeover and privatization of its district, is funded both as a “public school” and a small business.

The most recent 990 form on file for Archway and available in Guidestar, which is for 2017, reports that almost all its more than $66 million in revenue comes from “government grants.” Gureghian has resisted releasing any information about his management company’s profits, but the 990 reports $18 million in management costs.

Chester Community is among those pursuing a court case that could privatize the management of all the schools in Chester. Charters already educate most of the K-8 students in the district.

This is a powerful editorial written by the editorial board of the York Dispatch.

The Republican-controlled legislature has imposed a funding system that is literally forcing the school district to starve in order to survive.

It is an outrage.

This should be a cover story in every national magazine. It isn’t, because it’s all too common.

When we starve our schools, we destroy the education of the children who attend them.

The editorial says:

York City School District is trapped in a death spiral.

It’s stuck under years-long state management that limits how money can be spent. Charter schools are annually sucking more than $25 million from its budget. Miserly state lawmakers foist the responsibility for funding public education on local officials, thereby fostering a system that rewards students in rich communities and punishes those in poor ones. And York City taxpayers are fed up with paying taxes that are up to double what’s paid in richer districts with more valuable property.

It’s no wonder that, under these conditions, York City Superintendent Andrea Berry presented a slash-and-burn budget for the 2020-21 school year containing $6.2 million in cuts. And, sadly, it’s no surprise the district’s school board went even further, last week approving a budget that axed 44 positions, including 32 teachers.

And, even so, York City’s 2020-21 budget still boosted taxes. That’s how bad things really are.

Really, what choice did district officials have?

York City school officials are trapped in a budgetary spiral that’s plagued poor, largely minority communities throughout the U.S. for decades. Under-represented at the statehouse, their calls for funding reform fall flat.

Like anything stuck in a trap, eventually the grisly choice of gnawing off one’s leg is the last, best available option.

Easily available metrics, such as test scores, drive the moneyed classes from the city, exacerbating blight and crashing property values.

The poverty increases the demand for not-for-profits, which, in turn, remove more property from the tax rolls.

And, all the while, Republicans in the state Legislature tout the myth of “school choice,” a particularly insidious bit of libertarian conservative dogma — concocted in response to the integration of Southern schools — that conspires to privatize the American school system and funnel taxpayer dollars to religious institutions.

The results will be devastating for York City’s students and society at large.

Interested in the performing arts? Too bad.

Hoping to grow from an introduction in the humanities? Those options are even more limited now.

Programs such as these are, in a very real sense, the foundation of a well-rounded education, one that prepares students to take their place as active citizens in a representative republic. But, more often than not, society has decided that the liberal arts aren’t for poor kids.

Make no mistake, York City’s plight is one destroying urban districts throughout the country. Just ask Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher, who, in 2016, wrote a blistering ruling that attacked the very foundation of the system under which public schools are funded in this country.

His 90-page ruling was an indictment of the disparity between rich districts and poor ones that the U.S. funding model breeds.

“So change must come. The state has to accept that the schools are its blessing and its burden, and if it cannot be wise, it must at least be sensible,” Moukawsher wrote.

And yet, with the inherent systemic flaws well-established, school districts such as York City remain trapped and must eat itself just to survive.

Officials there had little choice this past week.

But the fact that they were left without any other options is neither moral nor just.

Thanks to Peter Greene for sharing this blistering but accurate editorial.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools [sic] announced that its executive director had stepped down.

This followed the controversy that erupted after she wrote on her Facebook page that the protests over George Floyd’s brutal killing disgusted her, then removed the post. Too late.

The leader of an influential charter advocacy group in Pennsylvania’s wrote on Facebook that the people protesting the murder of George Floyd “disgust me.”

Ana Meyers, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, posted — and then deleted — a statement on her personal Facebook page in which she called the protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd “not okay.”

Maybe she didn’t know that people were protesting racism and police brutality. Very likely the students in charter schools and their families were among those who “disgusted” her.

Whatever. She deleted her post.

Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and current activist in Philadelphia, wonders why state and city leaders are so fearful of democracy. When state control of the public schools ended—capping a two-decade era of defunding and additional privatization of public assets—it was replaced by mayoral control. She argues that Philadelphia needs an elected school board.

We vote for our leaders in every election.

But not for Philadelphia’s school board.

Unlike voters in every other district in Pennsylvania, those in Philadelphia continue to be disenfranchised when choosing their local school board….

Philadelphia’s new hand-picked Board of Education was sworn in recently, immediately after City Council’s one mandated confirmation. The hearing, confirmation vote and swearing-in created nary a disturbance in the force, without coverage from any major newspaper, radio or television outlet, save the independent Public School Notebook.

In fact, little notice was paid to the nomination process itself. Although many Philadelphians believe that “local control” was restored after the abolition of the School Reform Commission, the District actually operates under mayoral control. Months ago, the mayor selected his nominating panel which, at his direction, held deliberations in closed executive session, arguably violating the state’s Sunshine Act and shutting out those with a heavy stake in the District—parents, educators, students and community members.

The Council hearing on the mayor’s choices offered one brief opportunity for the public to hear from the nominees. For some reason, though, all questions were directed to the incumbents, none to the one new candidate. Ameen Akbar was sworn in without having to explain his philosophy of education, his vision for the future of the District, or his work in the charter sector, in particular his affiliation with the Universal charter network, whose former CEO and chief financial operator were indicted in January on bribery charges, alongside one Councilmember and his wife.

Will this unelected board resist the sales pitches from purveyors of technology? Will they insist on transparency and accountability for charter schools?

Philadelphia needs an elected board.

The Resistance grows!

Press Advisory: Thirty Regional School Superintendents To Come Together to Defend Public Education, Joining Public District Leaders from Across the State to Urge Reform of Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law

When: Monday, January 27, 2020 10 a.m.

Where: Whitehall Elementary, 399 North Whitehall Road Norristown, PA 19403

Leaders Form Coalition and Support a Moratorium on New Charter Enrollment Until Laws Can be Reformed

Leaders from public school districts in the five-county Greater Philadelphia region are joining with others from across the state in calling for meaningful, substantive reform of Pennsylvania’s charter school laws. They also support a moratorium on new charter school applications and a freeze on additional seats for students at existing charters until reform is enacted. Public school superintendents and other top school administrators recently formed LEARN, Leaders for Educational Accountability and Reform Network, as a way to coalesce around urgent issues impacting public schools, such as charter reform. They are calling for reform to the way charters are funded, as well as an improvement in accountability and oversight. Citing an extremely inequitable funding system, LEARN says charter schools, which are often among the worst performing schools in the state, are straining public systems. Extreme increases in charter costs are sending an increasingly greater amount of public tax dollars to charters, over which locally elected school boards have little-to-no authority or oversight. LEARN wants to bring charter tuition payments in line with actual school district costs and provide more accountability.

Contact: Dr. Frank Gallagher, Superintendent in the Souderton Area School District


“School choice advocates argue that every child learns differently, and parents have a right to choose the kind of school best suited to their child’s needs. But the public education system was designed as a public benefit, with a different purpose in mind: to provide education to every person, despite their special or specific needs and limitations. Those advocates aren’t wrong in demanding better options for public education and its current failures. We all should be demanding that. Schools supported by all should work for all. Parents can make a different choice, but shouldn’t rely on the rest of us to pay for it.”

Bethlehem School Superintendent Joseph Roy spoke candidly about charters and race and expected he had struck a hornets’ nest. 

He said in a public forum, not for the first time, “that some parents send their kids to charters so they won’t have to go to school with “kids coming from poverty or kids with skin that doesn’t look like theirs.”

Roy is among many superintendents, including Allentown’s Thomas Parker, who are calling for state officials to overhaul the charter school system because of the cost to school districts, which pay tuition for students who enroll in charters.

The Bethlehem Area School District expects to spend more than $30 million this year. Allentown spends about twice as much. Statewide, districts sent $1.8 billion to charters in 2018.

I met with Roy to discuss charter school funding, public accountability and other topics that I may write more about later. He also opened up about the controversy.

It started with his comments at the news conference about why students attend charters. He offered several reasons, including bus transportation, longer school days, specific academic programs and uniform requirements. He also mentioned race.

“The honest fact is, not all, but some parents send their kids from urban districts to charters to avoid having their kids be with kids coming from poverty or kids with skin that doesn’t look like theirs,” Roy said.

Five days later, Saucon Valley School Board President Shamim Pakzad, who enrolls one of his sons in a charter school, called for Roy to resign, though he didn’t mention him by name.

“What they said was ugly, divisive and outside of the boundaries of human decency,” Pakzad said at a school board meeting.

Roy also got backlash from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. Parents from several charters demanded an apology.

Others defended Roy, including Bethlehem’s school board and Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee. He said he received emails of support from district parents.

I asked Roy why he believes some people don’t want to talk about issues involving race.

“No one wants to be called or viewed as a racist,” he said. “That’s one of the worst things you can say. But then that is used as a defense mechanism to shut down any honest conversation about it.”

Charter schools have varying levels of diversity. Some are made up primarily of minority students, while others are overwhelmingly white. Income levels vary, too.

I was reminded of the time I spoke to the Florida School Boards Association a few years ago. I asked its executive director why students left public schools to attend charter schools. He bluntly said, “They don’t want to go to schools with kids who don’t look like them.”

School choice encourages segregation by race, social class, income, and religion. It takes determination and willpower to overcome segregation.