Friday, August 23, 2013

The False Choice of School Choice; Philadelphia Public Schools Crushed By Debt And Charters

I drove through Philadelphia twice today on my way to pick up my girls from a visit with my aunt in Maryland. (Why yes, that IS a lot of driving for one day...)

And as I drove through Philly the first time, I listened to WHYY's Marty Moss-Coane interview Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. As I tuned in, I was thrilled to hear public school advocate extraordinaire Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education. If you want to REALLY understand what's happening in Philadelphia's public schools, read the 10 Question interview Helen gave to NBC10 Philadelphia.

As I approached Philly and listened to the entire interview, I was struck by the number of K12 Inc. billboards (the national cyber charter behemoth), lining 95 South.  I took note of no less than 4, so who knows how many there actually were.  The irony of this did not escape me, especially as I listened to this portion of the broadcast. (go to 38:50)

Marty Moss-Coane:  Let me just read back a quote, this is having to do with charters, and we know that charters have a mixed record here.  You said, "Unmanaged, self-directed charter school growth could force the district into a perpetual deficit." 
William Hite: Oh, it's no question.  It's no question about it.  And right now, our budget, actually, if in fact you look at what is mandated; so first of all, debt service is a mandated expense, it has to be paid first.  Second, charter school expenses actually are paid by the state, and if you put those two together, of our $2.3 billion budget, that is $1.1 billion. 
And so, those are the things that are paid first. So if in fact we continue to go down a path where many of our students and families are selecting into schools, and we just willy nilly add seats and are not able to manage that, then we will lose the ability to really have quality educational options in the schools remaining in the district.
I chewed on that quote for the remaining 8 or so hours of my drive. On my Northbound journey there were still more K12 Inc. billboards.  Philadelphia's highways seem to be littered with them. Lucky for you (but not me) I was able to snag a really bad picture of one while sitting in Philly traffic. 
Good to know where all those tax dollars are going!
You always have a choice... 

I then chewed on that slogan for the last 3 hours of my journey.

I suppose we're just supposed to ignore the fact that when parents choose K12 Inc., more often than not, they're making a really, really, REALLY BAD CHOICE! And I wonder if any of those parents stop to think that when they make that bad choice they take options away from the kids left behind in the public schools. 

But hey, it's their choice, right!  You ALWAYS have a choice, and it's FREE!!!  It just happens to be VERY costly for the kids left behind.

The true cost of cyber and brick and mortar charters to the children of Philadelphia is staggering. Here's a peek at the stats, facts and figures accumulated by the Keystone State Education Coalition Check out the full list if you have time.

18 Philadelphia charter schools are reportedly under federal investigation.  Several charters have involvement of legislators, family members and staffers. Representative Matzie introduced HB 1740 earlier this session which is modeled after House Rules that prohibit members and immediate family members from association with gambling interests. 
$1000  What it reportedly costs a home schooled student’s parents for online curriculum.

$3000  PA charter schools average cost per student of $13,411 was about $3000 more than the national average of $10,000.

$3500  PA cybercharter average cost per student of $10,145 was $3500 more than the national average of $6500.
$9000  What a representative school district is required to pay in tuition to a cyber charter for each regular education student.

19,298 According to minutes from the December 18, 2012 Agora Cyber Charter School board meeting, our Pennsylvania tax dollars paid for 19,298 local TV commercials.  And that's just for TV ads - these's no mention of radio, print or ubiquitous internet ads in that total. (emphasis mine)
Don't miss that last one.  In addition to the numerous billboards lining North and South bound 95, Agora Cyber Charter School,  run by our friends at K12 Inc., used untold public dollars to pay for 19,298 TV commercials!!

In fact, I saw this commercial multiple times on a plane to Los Angeles a couple weeks ago. (It's been a busy summer, and now you know why I haven't been blogging much...)

When was the last time you saw a billboard or TV commercial for an ACTUAL public school?  

Yeah, me neither. 

And don't miss the March 2013 Pennsylvania Charter and Cyber Charter report from Democratic House Education Committee Chairman Representative James R. Roebuck.  It's chock full of 30 plus pages of jaw dropping PA charter allegations and investigations, but this chart really says it all.

Now, I am the last one to wave around test scores and NCLB AYP data, but this is mind blowing. Only 17% of cyber charters in PA made AYP compared to 75% of public schools.

So let's bring it back to the interview with Superintendent Hite.  If unchecked charter growth is allowed to continue, the public schools will not have the necessary resources to operate.   As it stands now, employees are being asked to give back 10% of their salaries, high schools with 2,000+ students are opening with only 1 guidance counselor, and the list of atrocities goes on and on... 

And for what?

So families can CHOOSE a cyber charter they saw incessantly advertised on TV and the side of the highway that drastically underperforms the public schools.

School choice is the ultimate false choice. 

In Pennsylvania, both cyber and brick and mortar charters underperform public schools. Yet choice is sold and packaged to gullible consumers eager for something "better". But in fact, the so-called choice being peddled is not only inferior, it is destroying the only system the majority of students rely on. This ultimately leaves the vast majority of students without viable educational options, and a lot of education entrepreneurs with way too many of our taxpayer dollars in their pockets.

Which leads me back to the Keystone State Education Coalition: 
$3 million The 21st Century Cyber Charter School reportedly has a $3 million accumulated balance of excess funds over actual costs that it would like to return to school districts and their taxpayers but there is apparently no provision in the existing charter school law that would enable them to refund the money.

$5 million taxpayer dollars: last year’s bonus to K-12 Inc.’s CEO Ron Packard.  K-12’s Agora cyber charter has never made AYP.  Prior to his appointment as PA Budget Secretary, Charles Zogby was a K-12 executive.

$10 million taxpayer dollars: The amount that Nick Trombetta, former CEO of PA Cyber Charter (the state’s largest cyber charter), reportedly took out of the school’s fund balance to finance construction of a performing arts center.  Mr. Trombetta and his related companies are recently under investigation by the IRS and FBI.
$28.9 million; what Mr Gureghian reportedly spent in 2011 for 2 beachfront lots in Palm Beach Florida. (we don’t know if these are in fact taxpayer dollars since a right-to-know request pending for several years now looks like it is headed to the state Supreme Court). The charter school amendment passed by the House in June included a clause that would have exempted contractors like him from PA Right-to-Know laws.
 What is it going to take to make parents wake up to the false choice of school choice?


  1. I knew it was bad, I just didn't know that it was THIS bad. The amount of money being made on the backs of children (in the name of education, no less) is criminal.

  2. The standards are different for AYP for public vs.charter. A public school makes AYP if any grade level meets AYP standards. Charter schools have to make AYP at every grade level and for every group to meet AYP standards. Cyber charter schools also educate a higher percentage of children who can not take mainstream classes (ie are special education students or qualify for additional educational support), so cyber charters are overall less likely to make AYP due to educating children who were always less likely to meet state standards. Make sure you're comparing apples to apples when you paint all schools with the same brush, please.

    I have a special needs child whose needs can not be met by my local brick & mortar public school. They've THANKED ME for keeping him at home and educating him myself, thereby confirming that I made the right choice. Their relief at not having to educate my challenging child confirmed that I made the right choice and also made the administrators sound like they're out of their depth. I have to assume that they are. They don't want him, so why shouldn't I avail myself of the choice of a cyber school?

    I'll give you a few more numbers. Public districts are only required to reroute 75% of the funding allotted per student to the cyber school of choice. There are NO penalties for schools who fail to make those payments or pay late. In addition, the local public district is reimbursed by the state up to an additional 30% of the original amount of the funding per student for a student that will never walk through their doors or use their resources. That is 55% of the original funding provided by the state for educating that student and the local district STILL complains about the money lost - nowhere do you hear about the 55% that they get for the lost student who uses no resources within the district of residence. Assuming the funding is an average of about $10K throughout the state of PA, the district of residence can keep as much as $5500/year per student for a student they will never see or serve. That money is just a GIFT to the district of residence. YOU'RE WELCOME.

    Public schools are running at a deficit now because they are doing a poor job of adapting to both students' needs and changing times. Don't put the onus on the families of children with special needs who are doing their best to educate their child in a stress-free environment at home just because school boards are adapting poorly to change.

    1. Hard to believe teachers with a degree in teaching thanked you for keeping your child at home

  3. I thought that the state budget cuts 2 years ago eliminated charter reimbursement entirely. That was a huge cut, and hit the districts with the highest charter usage (generally the poorest districts) the hardest.

    And the 75% of funding allotted per student is logically not 100% for a few reasons. First, the school district does not save on all expenses just because a few students leave. If you are familiar with accounting, you will understand that there are fixed costs and variable costs. The variable costs attributable to students are sometimes saved, but the fixed costs are not. The reason I said that the variable costs are sometimes saved is because one of the largest costs is staff. If there were 80 children in 5th grade, the school would divide them amongst 3 classes. If 10 students go to a charter school, leaving 70 children, that's still 3 teachers. And the curriculum materials may not be saved either, since the district would need extra curriculum materials at each grade level for transfers and late registrations. Finally, some services are still required to be provided by the home district, such as transportation.

    The challenge with the charter school law is it requires different payments from different districts sending children to the SAME charter school. If the charter school payments were based on what it costs the charter school to educate the child, instead of what the district supposedly "saves" from not having to educate that child, it might have better results. Charters are not good or bad, but the law that created and funded them did not carefully examine what would happen to districts who have a high percentage of their children attending charters. History has shown that it devastates the ability of the district to meet the needs of students continuing to attend regular public school. I certainly hope that wasn't the intention, and it is not too late to correct the mistake and amend the law so it works as intended and allows all parties - regular public schools, charters, and the children they serve - to benefit from public education.

  4. This is how the funding works:

    "(2) For non-special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled no less than the budgeted total expenditure per average daily membership of the prior school year, as defined in section 2501(20), minus the budgeted expenditures of the district of residence for nonpublic school programs; adult education programs; community/junior college programs; student transportation 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 School Systems established by the department. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.
    (3) For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.
    (4) A charter school may request the intermediate unit in which the charter school is located to provide services to assist the charter school to address the specific needs of exceptional students. The intermediate unit shall assist the charter school and bill the charter school for the services. The intermediate unit may not charge the charter school more for any service than it charges the constituent districts of the intermediate unit."

    I am a special needs teacher for a Phila public school. We do whatever we can to educate all the children in our program. There are times when we are frustrated by the lack of resources or staff members for a child with many needs but would never dream of encouraging a parent to do it on her/his own. Whoever thanked you, Ms.Holland-Radvon, was wrong to do so and does not represent the kind of special educator I am privileged to call my colleagues. Unlike charter schools, we educate ALL children. Someone did you a great disservice. Public schools are running at a deficit because the state has been trying to starve us out of existence, with the charter school movement part of this privatization band wagon. It's cookies for corporations, crumbs for children. But whatever the case, I would trust my own special needs brother to the public schools before I would trust him to a charter. Unfortunately, keeping children at home, special needs or not, isn't an option for many working folk.

  5. Have you seen the billboards for Robert Treat on the turnpike? Who pays for those? If I understand it correctly, Philadelphia has no school board, elected or appointed. The city and district are coterminous. I think that makes it even harder for residents to be heard.

  6. The problem we had was that the brick and mortar school determined it was too costly to provide services to my special needs daughter (autism and ADHD). We had to remove her from the local brick and mortar school to accommodate her speech, OT and feeding therapies, out of pocket and through insurance. These are services we were flat out told she didn't qualify for and her IEP was stripped until she no longer had one. We started with K12 (in TN) this year and so far, she's thriving. Her therapists are seeing an improvement in her mood. She's no longer afraid of the boys in her class (last year she was bullied horribly and the guidance counselor told me "she's not afraid to come to class, there's nothing we can do for you."). She's actively engaging in her coursework and she's getting breaks when she needs them. As a military child, the local school district is getting paid additional federal funding (we fill out the form at the start of every school year). They have lost that additional funding now, since she is no longer enrolled with them. They have lost the funding, or at least, part of the funding they would have received for her being a "non-special education" student. I am not crying a tear over that at all. They denied my daughter the services she was lawfully entitled to. They failed to protect my daughter from harassment, both verbal and physical. They refused gifted/talented services, when I tried for an IEP that route, because, though she qualified, they didn't want to provide it. I was verbally told she couldn't receive a 504 plan, though NO assessments were done to check qualifying criteria and I was not provided any documentation for the "evaluations" they claim to have done last school year, as required by IDEA. Personally, if the brick and mortar schools are going to treat my special needs daughter this way, I would rather her be in an online public school. We're considering it for our son as well. He, sadly enough, has an IEP for speech at the same school that refused my daughter and he's not even a full time student there.

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