Does Pa. provide a ‘thorough and efficient’ education? A panel considers.

November 5 – The Philadelphia Public School Notebook  – by Greg Windle

Last Monday, the National Constitution Center hosted a panel where four people actively involved in education policy discussed the role of the Pennsylvania constitution in improving access to quality public education. The discussion was framed around the contentious policy of “school choice,” which advocates the expansion of charters and magnet schools.

The panel members debated how to interpret the constitution’s mandate that the state provide “thorough and efficient education” for all of its students.

Mark Gleason, of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said, “What’s especially significant about that phrase is the word that’s not there. It ends with ‘education,’ it doesn’t end with ‘education system.’” Gleason concluded that the state may be obliged to provide public education under the constitution, but that “it doesn’t mean the same way, through the same system.”

However, Deborah Gordon Klehr of the Education Law Center was quick to contradict him. She read directly from the constitution:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.”

Klehr explained that the constitution explicitly uses the term and that the state legislature is responsible for creating and maintaining that system.

Donna Cooper, of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said she wished that “choice were a strategy for success.” But, she said, neither magnet schools nor charters help students who do not have access to them.

“You have to do it universally or you don’t move the needle,” she said.

As evidence of Pennsylvania’s lack of a “thorough” education system, Klehr pointed out that the commonwealth has “the largest gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts” of any state in the country.

Gleason claimed that Pennsylvania has, nonetheless, made progress over the last 10 or 15 years by providing some choice in low-income communities.

“We have school choice. The problem is we don’t have access to equal choice. … Families who can afford it – who live in the right zip code – have a choice.”

But Cooper argued that the expansion of magnets and charters exacerbate what is an inherently unequal system. “We can create pockets of success … but that is not a universal answer. Creating more choice comes at the expense of students who don’t have it.”

Gleason acknowledged that school choice causes stress on the larger system. But he said that if the state had a fair education funding formula, that stress would be diminished. He outlined a proposal where a weighted student formula would allot an amount to follow each child, regardless of what kind of school they attend.

Klehr pointed out that the state already commissioned a “costing out” study in 2007 to determine how much each district would need to bring all its students to academic proficiency. The formula assigned different weights, and per-pupil amounts, for factors including deep poverty and the need to learn English, and additional money to districts with high concentrations of these students.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell started using the formula in his education allocations with the goal of increasing the state’s share of total education spending to at least 50 percent. But that was abandoned by former Gov. Tom Corbett, who slashed state school aid.

“So we’ve measured it,” Klehr said, “we just abandoned it in 2011, and we’re hopeful that our General Assembly will bring that back for our students and for our schools.”

A legislative school funding commission followed a similar template in coming up with a fair funding formula in 2015. But with the state budget stalemate, there is still no agreement on how  the money should be distributed, much less on the total amount that should be spent.

Cooper blamed the state legislature, which, she said, “since 2011 has been unwilling to think about the words ‘thorough and efficient.’”

“A big piece of the solution lies with the courts,” said Klehr. “The Supreme Court has a responsibility.”

But not every failure of the system could be attributed to the interpretation of constitutional language. All the panel members agreed that Massachusetts, with a relatively similar constitution, is largely recognized as the state with the best public education system.

Cooper said that Massachusetts was not an anomaly, and many “others are doing better than us with very similarly worded constitutions.”

The fourth panelist was Ina Lipman, the executive director the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which awards tuition grants to low-income students to attend private schools. The money comes from two tax-credit programs for businesses, which get tax write-offs when they contribute to these funds.

Lipman said she thought school choice would improve if some of the state’s very small districts consolidated.

After the discussion, moderator Kristen Graham, the Inquirer’s Philadelphia schools beat reporter, interviewed Superintendent William Hite. She began by asking whether he believed that Philadelphia students were receiving a fair and equal education.

Hite responded with one word: “No.” He chuckled, and the auditorium erupted with laughter.

But the level of inequity is no laughing matter. Hite went on to talk about what the Philadelphia School District lacks due to insufficient resources.

Among other things, he said, he would use additional funds to “double down” on early childhood education including universal pre-K. He also reiterated that he hopes to get a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers this year.

Wolf warns Chester-Upland schools may not open without drastic interventions

He is proposing a plan that would drastically reduce the amount the district pays for charter special education students.

By Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks and Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 18, 2015 08:10 PM

Without immediate action, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday the Chester Upland School District will not be in a financial position to open its doors next month.

Wolf has a plan to rectify the situation, resting partly on the backs of area charter schools.

Wolf has asked a Delaware County Judge to approve drastic reductions in the payments Chester-Upland sends to charter schools.

Without action, Wolf said Chester Upland’s almost $24 million operating deficit would prevent it from opening in September.

“I, for the life of me, don’t know how you can open financially with what they’s staring at,” said Wolf, in a telephone interview.

Flawed system?

Wolf’s solution hinges on what many education advocates have long considered a flaw in the way the state funds charter schools for special education students.

Under the current system, charters have a financial incentive to enroll students with relatively mild educational disabilities.

It works like this: Districts must give charters whatever the districts spend, on average, on special education.

If a charter enrolls many children with less costly needs, the charter makes out financially.

And then a vicious cycle is created. With fewer mildly disabled students in the district, the district’s average cost climbs, which it then must pay to the charter.

Right now, Chester Upland sends about $40,000 to a charter that enrolls an area special education student, no matter the student’s disability.

The Wolf administration’s official court filing points out that the money sent by Chester-Upland School District to charters for special-ed is “disproportionately higher than any other school district sending students to the same schools.”

“This is patently inequitable,” added the filing.

Wolf wants to implement a new formula in Chester-Upland that would align charter special-education payments nearer to actual costs.

Wolf’s plan is based on the 2013 recommendations of the Legislature’s bipartisan special-education funding commission. It proposed a three-tiered system of funding for special education based on the severity of student need.

Those recommendations were never adopted by the General Assembly.

Under Wolf’s plan, Chester Upland’s special-ed charter bill would drop from $40,000 per student to $16,000 per student – saving the district $21 million.

“The special education issue is something that charter schools and public schools all across the commonwealth are struggling with,” said Wolf. “There’s an inducement to try to categorize more students than maybe should be categorized as special education just because of the way the formula works.”

Overall, Wolf’s proposal would decrease the amount Chester Upland spends on special-education payments to charters from $64.4 million to $39.8 million.

“As with any experiment, you need some tweaking,” Wolf added, of the way charters are funded in Pennsylvania.

Wolf also wants to cap the funding the state’s cybercharters receive for students from Chester Upland to just under $5,980, saving the district another $4 million.

The twofold approach would wipe away the district’s existing deficit, the governor said.

Wolf’s plan also calls for a forensic audit of the district’s finances and the appointment of a new turnaround specialist.

The petition to amend Chester Upland’s recovery plan was submitted by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and Chester Upland receiver Francis Barnes, a Corbett administration appointee.

Without action, Chester Upland’s deficit will reach $46 million by the end of the school year.

Chester Upland as ‘poster child’

The district was first classified as financially distressed in 1994. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said that from 2003 to 2012, the district overspent $44.4 million.

Over the past five years, the state has sent Chester Upland $74 million in extra, one-time infusions of aid.

“I don’t really care who’s fault it is. Over the last 20-some years, I guess there’s plenty of blame to go around. But, regardless, it’s our problem,” said Wolf. “I thought we needed drastic action in Chester Upland, and this is my best effort at that drastic action.

Wolf’s plan assumes that the General Assembly will approve his bid to raise state education aid by a half-billion dollars. Negotiations over the state budget have dragged on since the fiscal year ended on June 30.

Education Law Center staff attorney David Lapp described Chester Upland as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with how Pennsylvania funds special education in charter schools.

He lamented that the recommendations of the special-ed funding commission were still sitting on the shelf.

“Unfortunately, the General Assembly was unwilling to compromise and nothing got fixed. Meanwhile, until the state Legislature complies with their constitutional mandate to provide adequate, equitable, and predictable funding for all students in all schools, we can expect more of these fights over whether to rob Peter or Paul.”

Chester County Community Charter

If approved by the courts, Wolf’s plan for Chester Upland would have a large impact on the level of funding to Chester Community Charter School – the largest brick-and-mortar charter in the state.

Payments to charters account for 46 percent of Chester Upland’s budget, and most of that goes to CCCS. The school has 3,126 students, nearly as many as the 3,300 attending schools in the Chester Upland district.

CCCS is run by the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., owned by Vahan Gureghian, a prominent Republican in Montgomery and Delaware counties and major donor to political candidates. He was the largest individual campaign contributor to former Gov. Tom Corbett.

CCCS has traditionally enrolled a high proportion of special education students, most of them classified in the less expensive categories. According to the latest report to the state, nearly one in four CCCS students is in special ed – about the same rate as that in the Chester Upland district as a whole, but far above the statewide rate of 15.6 percent.

At CCCS, more than 27 percent of the students are classified as having a “speech and language impairment,” the least expensive disability. That is close to twice the state rate of 15.4 percent and 11 times the Chester Upland rate of 2.4 percent for that category.

By contrast, the CCCS percentage for the more costly categories of autism, emotional disturbance and intellectual disability are far below Chester Upland’s rates.

As the minimally disabled and least expensive special ed students are drained from Chester Upland, the district is left with students with more costly disabilities and its per-pupil spending rises. That then inflates the charter payment for the the next year.

The cost is also driven up because the state assumes that all districts have 16 percent
special education students. In cases like Chester Upland where the special education percentage is higher than 16 percent – at 24 percent, it is 50 percent higher – the total cost is divided by a lower number than it should be.

“They should be dividing by 24 percent,” said the Education Law Center’s Lapp. “If you have more than 16 percent, you get a higher number for the per pupil cost than you should.”

Due to these factors, since 2012, Chester Upland’s payment to charters for each special education student has gone up from $24,528 to $40,170 this year – an increase of 63 percent. Between last year and this, it went up 15 percent, from $34,931 to $40,170.

Charters can spend the money they receive for special education in any way they see fit.

Gureghian has declined to open the books of his management company to public scrutiny, arguing that it is a private business. He has not complied with court rulings on right-to-know requests.

Wolf said his proposal was not pointed at CCCS.

“It’s not. It’s pointed at trying to make sure that the Chester Upland School District is able to open for all kids on time,” said Wolf.

A spokesman for Chester Community Charter School did not return a request for comment, nor did the public relations firm that represents Gureghian.

CCCS was also implicated in allegations of standardized test cheating scandal, when a forensic audit for the 2009 tests found statistically improbable erasures of wrong-to-right answers.

A state investigation into what happened was aborted, and CCCS was allowed to investigate itself. No one connected with the school was ever held accountable, but when strict protocols were imposed, test scores dropped 30 points in each subject in each grade.

Gureghian and his wife, Danielle, were also disclosed to be the major donors to a PAC that gave to former state Treasurer Rob McCord, who resigned and pleaded guilty to extortion charges involving contributions to his failed gubernatorial campaign.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that federal investigators are still probing the conditions under which the contributions were made.

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