ELC is seeking to speak with families of students who have been harmed by the shortage of school nurses in Philadelphia

In 2013, the Education Law Center (ELC) issued a report highlighting the impact of sharp reductions in the school nurse workforce in the School District of Philadelphia. School nurses who responded to ELC’s survey shared vivid comments regarding their concerns. Since that time, the school nurse shortage has impacted thousands of vulnerable students.

The Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center are exploring ways to remedy the current school nurse crisis in Philadelphia to ensure that every student has access to a certified school nurse. We would like to speak to families, parents, and students in Philadelphia who have been harmed by the shortage of school nurses. To file a complaint about the lack of school nursing services go to http://myphillyschools.com/nursing. All complaints will be reviewed by attorneys at the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center. If you have additional questions or want to share your concerns, please feel free to contact ELC at 215-238-6970.

Opinion: Allow trial on school funding

Feb. 17 – philly.com – By Gaetan J. Alfano, Deborah R. Gross, and Mary F. Platt

Pennsylvania’s business community has watched with growing concern as our commonwealth’s schools have fallen deeper and deeper into crisis over the last several years. In the wake of drastic funding cuts, school districts across our state have been forced to lay off thousands of teachers while cutting Advanced Placement classes, art, music, and extracurricular opportunities and losing crucial support staff like guidance counselors and nurses.

The state’s school-funding situation is now so dire that many schools aren’t even able to offer the curriculum and supports that are mandated by law. In too many schools, overstretched teachers struggle every day to deliver even the most basic education. The result has been plummeting test scores and lost opportunities for thousands of children – especially poorer children and children of color, whose schools are disproportionately affected by budget cuts.

Money can’t solve every problem, but adequate resources are a necessary ingredient for student success.

As attorneys who work with some of our state’s largest corporate citizens, we know firsthand that investment in our education system makes economic sense. An educated workforce is key to effectively competing in the global economy, and great schools are crucial to convincing businesses to remain or locate in Pennsylvania.

While local governments have increased taxes to try to make up for a lack of funding at the state level, in the end only Harrisburg can marshal the resources needed to ensure that all children have access to a quality public education. The current budget stalemate in Harrisburg underlines just how ineffective our political branches of government have been at meeting this important obligation to our children.

How can our children be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy when they attend schools with outdated textbooks and overcrowded classrooms?

Fortunately, the state constitution provides another path out of the gridlock for Pennsylvania’s children: It expressly requires the legislature to “support and maintain” a “thorough and efficient” system of public education to support our children and “serve the needs of the commonwealth.”

Six school districts, seven families, and organizations representing additional districts and parents, all of whom have seen the impact of continued disinvestment in our schools, are suing the commonwealth and asking the courts to ensure that state government finally lives up to its constitutional obligations. The plaintiffs come from large urban districts like Philadelphia and struggling rural districts like Panther Valley in Schuylkill and Carbon Counties, demonstrating that chronic underfunding affects students across Pennsylvania. They are being represented by education advocacy groups, including the Education Law Center, that recognize that the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren can no longer be subject to the whims of the political process.

The case, which cuts to the heart of the inadequacy and inequities that plague our education system, has been moving through our judicial system since 2014. It is now pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, presenting the justices with a historic opportunity to enforce this important constitutional provision, which can ensure critical opportunities for Pennsylvania’s children.

A favorable ruling would permit a full trial on the merits of this case, allowing advocates and the commonwealth to present evidence on the state of our education system and giving the courts an opportunity to fully examine whether Pennsylvania provides the thorough and efficient school system guaranteed by the constitution.

Even in the unlikely event that legislative leaders approve the full education funding increases proposed by Gov. Wolf last week, we need a long-term and sustained commitment to education that extends beyond any one budget proposal or administration. It has taken years to dig ourselves into this hole. A one-year fix isn’t enough to reverse the long-standing inequities that prevent children from achieving their full potential.

A trial is the best hope for the thousands of children across our commonwealth to obtain access to the quality education to which they are entitled. Protecting the rights of children is one of the most sacred duties entrusted to the judiciary. Appellate courts in a majority of states have already made similar rulings on behalf of their states’ children.

Enforcement of our constitution has been a key function of the judiciary ever since our nation’s founding. We hope that our state judiciary assumes its rightful place as the guarantor of one of our most important constitutional protections by allowing a full trial on the merits of this very important case.

Gaetan J. Alfano ( [email protected]), Deborah R. Gross ( [email protected]),and Mary F. Platt ( [email protected]) respectively serve as chancellor, chancellor-elect, and vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20160217_Allow_trial_on_school_funding.html#toWQvMverZC3PaI7.99

Justices’ Ruling on Phila. Schools Creates Pressing Questions

Feb. 19 – The Legal Intelligencer – by Ben Seal

In striking down as unconstitutional a section of the Public School Code that granted broad powers to the School Reform Commission, which oversees the Philadelphia School District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week ignited a series of questions about how the district will adapt and what might happen at other distressed schools. Continue reading

Educators more concerned about this year’s budget than new proposals

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal for significant budget increases to public education drew a uniform response from school officials, teacher union leaders and education advocacy groups: The promise of more money next year is meaningless without a working budget this year.

“It’s hard to get happy with numbers if the numbers don’t mean anything,” said David Seropian, business manager for the McKeesport Area School District. “If the numbers come to fruition then we would be pleased.”

Sto-Rox Superintendent Terry DeCarbo said he was “optimistic but skeptical” of the governor’s 2016-17 proposed spending plan.

And North Hills School District Director of Finance and Operations David Hall said he paid no attention to the governor’s proposal on Tuesday because “right now it’s just pie in the sky.”

Mr. Wolf’s education funding proposals are based on the assumption that the framework budget he reached with Senate Republicans in December will be made into law.

That means his proposal assumes the state adds $377 million in the current year to the main funding line for K-12 education. The 2016-17 budget proposal would add another $200 million in the new budget year.

In addition, the governor would add $60 million next year for early childhood education on top of a $60 million increase he hopes for this year and proposes an additional $50 million for special education on top of $50 million he hopes will be enacted in this year’s budget.

The money would be distributed using the fair funding formula created and adopted by the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission in June 2015.

Statements from the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association applauded the governor’s proposed funding increases, but urged legislators to work with administration to approve a budget and get funds flowing to the schools.

“This is just unacceptable. It’s nothing short of a crisis and it must be fixed,” said PSEA president Jerry Oleksiak said.

Both McKeesport and Sto-rox have borrowed money to get through this school year as a result of frozen state subsides.

McKeesport borrowed $5 million last fall to meet expenses, a debt that was repaid when districts received about 45 percent of their state funding last month. But the McKeesport board is preparing to take another $3.6 million line of credit next month if a state budget is not approved and the remaining subsidies released.

Sto-Rox is functioning by paying bills from a $7.3 million line of credit it arranged last summer.

“We are $2 million into it and that $2 million is all for the safety of the staff and students, the day-to-day operations, just keeping the lights on. We are standing in place on initiatives and rollouts because we can’t fund it. We are just maintaining,” Mr. DeCarbo said.

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said the lack of adequate state funding is becoming evident in the gap between districts that have financial resources and those that do not.

“We are applauding the governor for sticking to his vision,” Mrs. Hippert said. “But at the same time we as a commonwealth, with the legislators, have to have and share a vision for education and determine what it takes to meet that at some level because we are moving in the wrong direction.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said “we totally appreciate [the governor’s] unwavering resolve to address funding issues in the schools across the Commonwealth” and urged legislators to “resolve this in a way that we can all move ahead.”

“At the end of the day, the kids are still going to school every day. None of us can ever forget that,” Mrs. Hippert said.

Molly Born contributed. Mary Niederberger: [email protected], 412-263-1590. On Twitter @MaryNied.

Continued investment needed to adequately meet the needs of PA’s children

February 9, 2016


Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center-PA, issued the following statement regarding Governor Wolf’s Budget Address:

“We applaud Governor Wolf’s continued attempts to provide desperately needed resources to Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. Years of state cuts to education spending and one-time fixes have disproportionately negatively impacted students in our poorest communities.

“Governor Wolf’s proposal to increase basic education funding levels by $200 million for the next fiscal year, in addition to his continued work toward a $377 million basic education funding increase this year, would allow schools across Pennsylvania to begin restoring critical programs and supports to classrooms. His proposal to increase early childhood and special education funding further reflects the need to invest in the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children.

“Furthermore, we appreciate the governor’s continued commitment to a bipartisan formula that directs state education funding to the students and districts that need it most. Pennsylvania’s school funding system is the most inequitable in the country. Years of inadequate and inequitable funding have forced many school districts to eliminate programs, lay off teachers, and reduce academic support for students. The new funding formula is an important first step to ensuring that all students have access to meaningful educational opportunities.

“But even as the governor is proposing new education funding for the upcoming fiscal year, negotiations to ensure increased education funding in this year’s budget have dragged on for an unconscionably long period of time. The governor and legislative leaders must finally end our state’s budget crisis by approving a long-term solution to give Pennsylvania’s children the tools they need to succeed.

“Yet even if the governor’s proposal is approved by the General Assembly, it is only a down payment toward providing Pennsylvania’s children with the thorough and efficient education system they are guaranteed by our state Constitution. Two years of increased education funding will not be enough to correct the vast disparities between our poorest and wealthiest districts. We need a sustainable, equitable, and predictable school funding system to give all children the education they need, regardless of ZIP code, income, or race.”

# # #

The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, and children experiencing homelessness.

www.elc-pa.org | www.facebook.com/educationlawcenter | www.twitter.com/edlawcenterpa

PHILADELPHIA: 1315 Walnut Street, 4th Floor | Philadelphia, PA 19107 | 215-238-6970

PITTSBURGH: 429 Fourth Avenue Suite, 702 | Pittsburgh, PA 15219 | 412-258-2120

Is Your Child With Disabilities Experiencing Transportation Problems in Philadelphia?

As a member of the Philadelphia Coalition of Special Education Advocates, the Education Law Center and other advocates filed an administrative complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to challenge the failure of students with disabilities to receive transportation services to which they are legally entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Complaint resulted in an investigation by the State and corrective action undertaken by the District.

Below are resources for families and advocates to help with transportation issues, including truancy issues, that may arise. You may also contact the Education Law Center directly by following instructions available here. You can learn more about ELC’s mission here.

Parent Resources

The School District now has a Transportation Line (400-4350) and email address ([email protected]) to report issues regarding transportation.

In addition, here is some information from the District regarding how to obtain compensatory education services for instruction hours that your child missed due to transportation problems:

State Complaint and Complaint Investigation Report Issued by PDE

Media Coverage

Education Law Center-PA Statement on Wolf announcement of proposed Basic Education Funding increase


February 2, 2016

Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center-PA, issued the following statement regarding Governor Wolf’s announcement of his proposed basic education funding levels for 2016-2017:

“We welcome Governor Wolf’s proposal to finally bring an end to Pennsylvania’s months-long budget stalemate. Additional resources are desperately needed for school districts across our commonwealth that are relying on emergency funding just to maintain the inadequate status quo.

The $377 million in additional basic education funding for this fiscal year and the $200 million in funding for the next fiscal year proposed by the Governor would allow school districts to begin to restore critical programs and supports – including addressing curriculum deficiencies, providing remedial help, updated textbooks, and school counselors. We are pleased that the governor is pressing for the adoption of a bipartisan education funding formula for the upcoming fiscal year – though a formula is only as good as the dollars sent through it.

The Governor’s proposal would be only a down payment on the resources that are required to ensure that every child in Pennsylvania receives the thorough and efficient public education guaranteed by our Constitution. Substantially more resources are needed to close longstanding adequacy gaps which keep our children from meeting state standards.

Education shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It is the most important investment we can make in our future, and we call on the Governor and legislative leaders to immediately return to the negotiating table to find a long-term, sustainable solution that prepares children to succeed and to compete in the global economy.”

# # #

The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, and children experiencing homelessness.

www.elc-pa.org | www.facebook.com/educationlawcenter | www.twitter.com/edlawcenterpa

PHILADELPHIA: 1315 Walnut Street, 4th Floor | Philadelphia, PA 19107 | 215-238-6970

PITTSBURGH: 429 Fourth Avenue Suite, 702 | Pittsburgh, PA 15219 | 412-258-2120

Opinion: Fully and fairly fund our schools

Jan. 17, 2016 – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – By Nancy A. Hubley and Patrick Dowd

Pennsylvania’s leaders have signed off on school funding reform. It’s long past time they got it done.

This month Pennsylvania began 2016 without a full budget, leaving the short- and long-term needs of every school — and every student — up in the air.

In the short term, the partial spending plan recently signed by Gov. Tom Wolf will provide desperately needed emergency cash for schools and human services, but only enough to push off closures and further cuts for a few more months.

In the long term, the budget gridlock means that one of the fundamental issues facing Pennsylvania — the need to repair our broken public school funding system — remains unresolved.

Not having sufficient resources is unfortunately nothing new for Pennsylvania students. Years of inadequate and inequitable funding have forced many school districts to eliminate programs, lay off teachers and reduce academic support for students. These cuts particularly harm at-risk learners who lag behind their peers and will continue to do so unless they are provided with resources and supports that address their needs.

The reality is that the state’s current system of funding education simply does not work. On that, virtually everyone agrees: Republicans, Democrats and educators in rural, urban, suburban and charter schools. The system does not provide sufficient resources to educate every student to academic standards, nor does it distribute dollars in a fair and predictable way.

The budget gridlock has only made things worse: Scores of school districts across the state have been forced to borrow emergency funds just to keep their already-underfunded doors open.

The result, repeated again and again since long before today’s ongoing budget impasse, is that Pennsylvania has the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts of any state in the country. That means that the amount of money available to educate a child varies widely, depending solely on where each child happens to live. The lack of predictability in the distribution of funds also means that school districts cannot effectively plan for the future.

Pennsylvania’s inadequate school funding system has compelled our organizations to help create and lead the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, a coalition of more than 50 diverse organizations dedicated to advancing a funding system that allocates state education dollars in a fair way so that all children have a chance to succeed no matter where they live.

Last June, the bipartisan state Basic Education Funding Commission, made up of representatives from the governor’s office, the Department of Education and members of both parties in the state House and Senate, responded to this call for action and unanimously approved recommendations for a new school funding formula. After months of hearings, analysis and negotiations, the commission developed a formula that would address the concerns of schools and remove politics from decisions as to whether students have the resources they need to succeed.

This balanced formula would direct money to school districts based on objective factors, such as student enrollment, the needs of the student population and school district wealth and capacity to raise local revenue. It was widely praised by legislators, local school officials and other experts and editorial boards across Pennsylvania as a critical first step towards equity and adequacy in Pennsylvania’s school funding.

In a year of political gridlock and increasing polarization, it is notable that all sides came together to find a solution to benefit students. The formula’s adoption, however, is still in question.

It was included in the budget framework that the governor and legislative leaders agreed to back in November, when a consensus was reached to direct some new dollars to restore past funding cuts while distributing the remaining dollars through the new funding formula. In future years, the new, fairer formula would be used to distribute all funding.

If the governor and legislators want to move toward sustained, meaningful investment in our schools, they should pass a full budget that contains at least an additional $350 million for basic education to help restore previous school funding cuts and begin implementing the new funding formula. This significant increase in basic funding would be only a down payment on the long-term investment required to reach equitable and adequate funding, but it is a necessary first step.

It is time for lawmakers to cast aside their differences for what should be their top priority: an equitable basic education funding system that provides a strong foundation for the long-term investment that is needed in our public schools.

Pennsylvania’s students, who are shortchanged every day by our broken system, cannot afford to wait any longer.

Nancy A. Hubley is Pittsburgh director of the Education Law Center. Patrick Dowd is executive director of Allies for Children.

The Comeback of Charters

Jan. 26, 2016 – The Philadelphia Citizen – by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Twenty years in, good charter schools are self-policing and calling for the closing of bad ones. Is it enough to get the movement’s mojo back?

The thing about the soap opera at last week’s School Reform Commission meeting—at which the commissioners made an 11th-hour decision to turn Wister Elementary into a Renaissance school run by Mastery Charters—is that underneath it all, it was a dramatic retelling of the same old story.

On the one side were desperate parents and pro-charter supporters who believe Mastery can turn around the school quicker and better than the District—something they say the charter organization has proven time and again. On the other side were a different set of parents and charter opponents who believe what Wister needs is more and better support from the District to continue the modest performance gains it made last year—not giving it over to a charter.

Commissioner Sylvia Simms, after speaking with pro-Mastery parents, proposed a resolution overturning Superintendent William Hite’s decision to keep Wister a traditional public school. She spoke movingly of parents like her: From low-income neighborhoods, where schools have long struggled to provide a good education, whose children make up the thousands on charter waiting lists. Three commissioners supported her. And immediately, the decision was slammed by public school advocates like new Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, and Mayor Jim Kenney.

So much shouting into the wind, so little change in the conversation. It’s no wonder so many of us feel like nothing is ever going to change.

Or is it? This year could mark a new era for charter schools in Philadelphia. For the first time publicly, high-performing charters have started to acknowledge what critics of the whole movement have been saying for years: that many charter schools do a worse job of educating students than traditional public schools; that they should not be allowed to continue; and that the city and state have made it too hard to shut down a school, even when it has had poor results for years.

In September, the group of about 50 charters calling itself Philadelphia Charters for Excellence (PCE), along with the advocacy arm of charter-friendly Philadelphia School Partnership, issued a position paper that called for the closing of poor-performing charter schools.

“When charter schools are effective, they should be encouraged to grow,” the paper, “Better Isn’t Good Enough,” says. “But when they are ineffective, they should be closed or transformed, especially since the priority is to give as many students as possible access to high quality schools.”

It was the first stroke in what will be a line in the sand starting this year: On one side will be charters that serve Philly students well, as judged by a particular set of standards; on the other, will be those that don’t. It’s a distinction that could allow charters to take back a piece of the school reform narrative that has turned away from them in the last few years. And, if all goes as planned, it could benefit the school system as a whole.

“For the good of the charter movement, for the good of schools, for the good of the District, we will be setting clear standards about what is success,” says Amy Ruck Kagan, who was hired by PCE’s board in June to transform the organization. “There is support in Philadelphia to change the charter movement here, to finally say, it’s not about growing for growth’s sake, but to be a part of the conversation about the future of schools.”

Kagan, formerly head of New Jersey’s charter school office, started in the middle of what was, by many accounts, a tough year for the perception and politics around charters. (“I never thought anything could be more politicized than New Jersey,” Kagan says. “This is, or at least as much.”) In February, the SRC approved only five of 39 applications for new schools—a number on par with the national trend but still a disappointment to many advocates. (Another school was added later.) Still, even that concession led (then new) Gov. Tom Wolf to replace SRC Chairman Bill Green with Marjorie Neff, the only commissioner who voted against any new charters at all.

A few months later, decidedly pro-charter Anthony Williams was decidedly defeated in the city’s Mayoral primary, for an election which several months later saw public school advocate Helen Gym garner the most votes for her new Council-at-large seat. Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act nationally, chiding charters for not accepting or keeping enough hard-to-teach students.

This year started with Gov. Wolf sending money to school districts that charters contend was owed to them—and with an ongoing debate over a provision to the state school code that would weaken the District’s authority over charters. Where it will end is still not known.

“This is a less welcoming environment for charters in the state than we’ve seen in a long time,” says Kagan. “Everything politically is pointing to the need to make a change. It’s vital that we do this now.”

This month, Kagan unveiled a three-tiered membership system that demands PCE members perform to certain standards in academics, governance, finances and admissions/enrollment policies. (Citizen chairman and columnist Jeremy Nowak was a consultant to PCE in developing the standards.) Each tier comes with academic expectations—from a School Performance Profile index of 50 for Tier 1 to an SPP of 75 for Tier 3—and increasingly stringent requirements for financial solvency and board transparency.

All members will also be required to take an “equity pledge,” promising to maintain and take students off a waiting list, and have a one page admissions application, in multiple languages, with someone available to walk parents through it—as close as possible to the ease of registering for a neighborhood school. To check, Kagan says PCE will initiate a “mystery shopper” program, posing as parents to randomly call charters to confirm their admissions policies—something charter authorizers in other cities have started to do.

For those that qualify, PCE membership will mean the school has passed a series of tests, set up by charters for charters, to achieve something like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The tiers will give parents and school officials a way to compare charters that has been lacking so far. And Kagan says PCE plans to convene disparate PCE members for more directed professional development, discussion of best practices and collaboration.

As a group, PCE membership may give charters more leverage to advocate locally and statewide, especially since PCE and school reform group PennCAN are also working with Pittsburgh schools to sign on to a similar program. Eventually, Kagan hopes a PCE score will signal to the School District, the SRC, the state and parents which schools should be allowed to grow—and which should be made to close.

“We’re battling in Harrisburg, and locally, and the argument keeps coming back to: But so many charters are doing badly,” Kagan says. “We’re changing the conversation by asking you to stand behind the ones that offer access to all, are academically strong, and are ready and poised to take on new kids.”

The move is the boldest acknowledgement on the part of charters that the tides have shifted nearly two decades after the movement started. Which begs the question: What took them so long? For the first several years, the charter school movement meant innovation—it was educators opening schools, hoping to find a way out of the morass of public education that had long been failing many students. The District allowed for rapid charter growth before anyone could gauge success or failure. By then, the state charter law had made it expensive and cumbersome to shut down a school, and had allowed them to grow their populations. Some 28 percent of Philly students now attend a charter school.

In the last few years, what had started as an alternative for every Philadelphian became a symbol in the class struggle epitomized by Occupy Wall Street. Suddenly, charters were stand-ins for the haves taking from the have nots—never mind that most Philadelphia charter school students are still among the poorest kids in the country—a perception not helped by, well, charters. Like this gem from 2013: A closed-door meeting of private donors who give $50,000 in charitable donations yearly, meeting at The Union League, to discuss the future of public education. (Full disclosure: Citizen chairman and columnist Nowak was among the program’s speakers.) Are Bill Gates and Michael Dell, whose nonprofit foundations attended the event, getting rich off of charter schools? Doubtful. But the event fed the notion that charter schools were for and about something distasteful to regular folks.

Meanwhile, as middle class families have expanded beyond Center City, they have embraced their local public schools, a civic-minded pursuit that has also become an anti-charter movement. With the political winds shifting, the charter school sector often acted like a monolith, loathe to point fingers at each other, even when it became clear that some charters have unfairly culled their population, or failed to educate their students, or operated in a way that is not transparent or above board. They lobbied the state—successfully—to make Philly consider opening more charter schools, even while the city struggled to close those that were not successful.

Add into the political stew the fact that budget woes over the last several years have led traditional public schools to close, consolidate, cut staff and grow their class sizes. An already fractious debate over charters has now become one about survival, on both sides.

“Scarcity makes people dig in their heels and protect their territory more than before,” says David Lapp, a lawyer at Education Law Center, who is a critic of many charter school policies. “It’s inevitable that as we got to this percentage of students in charters, people would start looking at what this sector is doing, and whether or not it’s a good thing to have it expanding.”

It’s a delicate moment for PCE and Kagan: Hired by PCE’s board, made up of charter school officials, she is now telling those officials what they must do to remain in PCE. As she has unveiled her group’s plans, she says her standing members have reacted in three ways: Confusion over what it means; disagreement over the academic standards, particularly using the state’s assessment system, which relies heavily on standardized tests; and a worry that the bar for inclusion is still not high enough.

Kagan says schools have until September to align themselves with PCE standards. Academics alone will mean some current members—like some Universal charter schools—will not make the cut. (Because of changes to state assessments last school year, the education department last issued SPP scores in the 2013-2014 school year; those are the figures PCE will look at.)
For other pieces of the membership process, Kagan says PCE plans a series of group trainings, as well as individual sessions, to help schools that need a little extra guidance. “We want to help them get there,” Kagan says. “Still, we’re not winning a lot of friends in our own movement, necessarily.”

But she has no other choice if she wants to win over an even more difficult contingent: those outside the organization. Lapp says the success of PCE’s new initiative will depend on many factors: How transparent it is with its standards, what they consider “success” in academics, and how far they plan to go to ensure low performing schools are actually closed. Kagan, who has conferred with both friends and foes of charters, says PCE has and will lobby for legislation to ease the shuttering of schools.

That remains to be seen, but even charter critic Lapp concedes that there’s cause for some hope. “I think it’s awesome that PCE is owning its name and defining excellence in a different way,” he says.

Op-Ed: Proposed changes to Pa. law would squander higher school funding

Jan. 20, 2016 – the Philadelphia Public School Notebook – by Michael Churchill, Deborah Gordon Klehr, Susan Spicka

Earlier this month, Gov. Wolf approved emergency funding to allow schools to remain open despite the ongoing budget impasse in Harrisburg. We are pleased that the governor is holding out for an agreement with legislative leaders that would result in a historic $350 million increase in basic education funding, which would include a $100 million restoration of funding to Philadelphia schools. This money would provide immediate relief to a cash-strapped district and would allow it to begin restoring cuts to nurses, counselors, and other vital services after years of bare-bones budgeting.

Yet those gains could be fleeting.

We are deeply troubled by language that has been inserted into the proposed Pennsylvania School Code that would enact sweeping changes to our state charter school policy. The changes would weaken the important role of school districts as charter authorizers to both manage responsible charter school growth and ensure that charter schools are providing a high-quality education to all kinds of students.

To be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, fiscally distressed school districts must balance requests for charter expansion with the fact that every new charter school costs districts money and siphons resources away from children who remain in traditional public schools. Indeed, the School District of Philadelphia would have to set aside $35 million of the $100 million in additional funding it would receive under the previously agreed-upon budget framework simply to cover additional payments to charter schools.

The proposed school code language contains provisions – in effect directed only at Philadelphia — requiring five schools a year to be designated for takeover by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. At least two, and possibly all five, would be converted to charter schools.

The irony, of course, is that Philadelphia’s schools are already controlled by the state. There’s no evidence that this move will improve results – but it is sure to worsen the District’s structural deficit.

Additional language applicable to every school district in the state would weaken local districts’ ability to provide effective oversight of charter school operators to ensure that charter expansion occurs in sustainable ways and that charter operators deliver quality education to their students. It would enable charter schools across the state to amend the terms of their charters, create cross-district charter school networks, open new buildings, add new grades, and expand enrollment – all without the authorization of local school boards. It would also reduce accountability by allowing charter schools to go a full decade before having to renew their charters.

Taken together, the school code as written is a Trojan horse, destroying what it purports to save.

Our calculations show that these provisions could increase costs to districts so much that even with increased revenues, this budget deal could result in a net loss for the School District of Philadelphia in as little as 36 months.

Thus even as lawmakers in Harrisburg continue to complain that Philadelphia schools need to live within their means, they are pushing legislative language that would continue to burden the district with costly new mandates that only dig the District into a deeper financial hole.

At the same time, they fail to recognize that Philadelphia schools educate far more students in poverty, English language learners, and vulnerable students than almost all districts in the state. Roughly 85 percent of Philadelphia schoolchildren come from poor families – compared with a statewide average of 43 percent.

Even worse, there are rumblings in Harrisburg that lawmakers, skittish about raising taxes to support increased investment in our schoolchildren in an election year, may attempt to abandon substantial education funding increases while continuing to pursue this aggressive pro-charter language. This would leave Philadelphia with greater expenses and more cuts in services for its students.

The governor should make it clear that this would be unacceptable.

The important question about the role that charter schools should play in our educational system deserves its own broad and wide-ranging debate and should not be swept into the budget negotiations as a price that Philadelphia pays to get past funding cuts restored. The Philadelphia delegation should carefully review the costs of additional funding in deciding what to support.

There’s still time to make things right. As lawmakers return to Harrisburg to resume negotiations on a budget solution, these destructive proposed provisions should be eliminated from the school code.

Our lawmakers must instead refocus on passing a budget that contains at least $350 million in new basic education money to help restore school funding cuts and that begins to implement a new funding formula that rationally and fairly distributes education dollars. Only then can we embark on a long-term, sustainable solution that begins to right the School District’s finances and reflects our commonwealth’s values by beginning to provide every child with the resources needed to succeed.

Michael Churchill is an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.

Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

Susan Spicka is an advocacy coordinator for Education Voters PA.