Gov. Tom Corbett has cut $860 million from the state’s public schools; now, he seeks to remake them. Into what is increasingly evident: an ever-growing number of charter schools.
With newly legislated authority to install (pro-charter) district leadership, a freshly expanded tax credit for donations to private schools and a strongly pro-charter legislative agenda set for this fall, the governor could soon preside over an unprecedented expansion of privately managed education across the state — particularly in struggling districts like Philadelphia. But that pro-charter agenda has stirred controversy, thanks to charters’ mixed performance and frequent corruption scandals. And an aggressive shift to privatization could prove more costly than advocates would like us to believe.
One key avenue for charter expansion, enacted this summer as Act 141, authorizes the governor to declare a school district “financially distressed” and appoint a chief recovery officer empowered to close schools, cancel union contracts and hand over school management to private entities. The law, says Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller, “put into place measures to ensure that quality educational programs are provided, and that the education of students continues to take place.”
But public-education activists say a larger agenda to undermine public schools in favor of charter operators — at a large cost to fiscally distraught districts — is evident.
Forty-eight percent of school-district administrators predict their districts will be in serious financial trouble within three years, according to a survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. The state takeover law allows for up to nine districts to be placed under state control at one time, and the Department of Education is currently developing a protocol to determine how other districts might be declared under “financial watch status,” the prelude to issuing a declaration of distress.
Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis has already used his new legal authority to declare Chester Upland School District distressed and appoint Joe Watkins — an African-American Republican minister, MSNBC commentator and former director of the pro-school-vouchers PAC Students First PA — as chief recovery officer. Chester Upland just emerged from 16 years under state control in 2010, and more than half of the district’s K-8 students are already enrolled in a single politically connected charter, Chester Community Charter School. On Aug. 21, Harrisburg, York and Duquesne school districts received preliminary distress declarations. Each has until Sept. 6 to contest the move, and Tomalis is interviewing potential emergency managers. He will not say who is under consideration.
Of course, charters already have a firm grip across the state. Last year, about 6 percent of Pennsylvania students attended charters. “Charter-school enrollment is growing at a rate of almost 10 percent per year statewide and nearly 50 percent of the children in the Chester Upland district are already in charter schools,” says Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools executive director Robert Fayfich. “Many parents in the most challenging districts have already made that choice.”
Though many of those charters have also been wracked by scandal, advocates argue that proposed state-level administration and authorization of charters (under a bill that would also expand the charter-renewal period from five years to 10) will boost accountability. And this industry direly needs it: In greater Philly alone, 18 charters have been subjects of federal investigations since 2008, according to the Inquirer. “Many of the issues of failing charter schools have their roots in lax or nonexistent district oversight,” says Fayfich.
But the state already regulates cyber charters, which tend to be low-performing and a number of which are mired in federal investigations. In Philadelphia, the state managed to shut down Frontier Virtual Charter High School only in July, four months after it fired all of its teachers.
“I’m not impressed by the efforts that the Department of Education has been able to make as a statewide regulator of those entities,” says Temple Law professor Susan DeJarnatt.
Three members of Corbett’s 2010 education transition team, including Budget Secretary Charles Zogby, have managed charters touched by accusations of excessive executive compensation, sketchy financial practices or corruption. “There are serious issues about inadequate accountability, particularly for cyber charter schools,” says Education Policy and Leadership Center president Ron Cowell, a former Democratic state legislator. “And there are serious issues about how we fund charter schools.”
And there’s no guarantee a state office could accomplish what local administrators have not.
“The Philadelphia charter-school office has not been operating as a regulator,” says City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who otherwise credits charter schools with creating safe environments for students. “They’ve been confused about their mission as to whether they’re supposed to be a proponent and advocate for charter schools or whether they’re supposed to hold them to the rules.”
As concerning as the lack of accountability is the cost. Districts statewide spent $1.129 billion on charters in the 2010-’11 fiscal year; $322.3 million of that went to cyber charters. A June report from Auditor General Jack Wagner charged that districts overspend $365 million annually on charters.
In Philadelphia, charter expansions approved this spring will cost the indebted system $139 million over the next five years. The School Reform Commission (SRC) projects that charter enrollment will rise to 40 percent of district students by 2017. “If the state is going to authorize charter schools, the state should be required to pay for them, not just hand local taxpayers the bill,” says Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever.
And charter expansion has been a topic of fierce debate in Philly since the April publication of the controversial “Blueprint for Transformation,” a proposal to overhaul the district and potentially usher in private control.
That debate has now moved from the streets into school district headquarters. In July, Philly Charter Office head Thomas Darden resigned after initially under-reporting the cost of charter expansion by $100 million. SRC member Joseph Dworetzky, a Rendell appointee, has cited high costs in voting against charter expansions. Recently, Dworetzky has been joined by Lorene Cary, an appointee of Mayor Michael Nutter. But SRC chairman Pedro Ramos, appointed by Corbett, has publicly bristled at Dworetzky’s criticisms, and the dissenters on the five-member commission so far lack a critical swing vote.
Nutter initially applauded the Blueprint, and has since called the discussion of charter expansion “esoteric debates that ultimately don’t mean anything to these young people.”
Against this faint resistance to charters, Corbett — with his ties to the pro-charter advocates and execs angling for a slice of the billion-dollar education pie — -reinforced the view that he is stacking the deck against traditional public schools in June when a new law, requiring that test scores be included in teacher evaluations, excluded charters.
Charters could soon see their numbers balloon statewide. Poor and largely African-American districts like Chester Upland and Philadelphia — already brought low by the very same state government’s inadequate funding — have a head start.