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How can our children be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy when they attend schools with outdated textbooks and overcrowded classrooms?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

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.”

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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

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

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.

Concerns raised about law replacing No Child Left Behind

One month after Congress approved legislation shifting oversight of student accountability standards from federal to state control, state officials, including those in Pennsylvania, are planning how to establish and measure those new standards.

The end of No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress in 2001 and put into effect in 2002, was welcomed by many who objected to its focus on testing and to the complex reporting requirements. The program also did not come close to its goal for 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

But some civil rights and education advocacy groups are concerned that the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the former federal statute known as No Child Left Behind, will create an environment that will not require some under-achieving schools to improve.

“We are concerned that without federal oversight that the schools in Pennsylvania can overlook the needs of educationally vulnerable students,” said Cheryl Kleiman, staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of the Education Law Center.

The D.C.-based civil rights organization Advancement Project cited the case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 unanimously declared state-sponsored segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

“History tells us the federal government is a necessary party in ensuring equity in education,” the organization said in a release shortly after passage of the ESSA. “Without federal interventions segregated schools would have persisted.”

While, the ESSA was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, its exact details won’t be known to states until the voluminous legislation is translated into regulations by the U.S. Department of Education. It takes effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the department “is encouraged by the changes brought about by the ESSA,” and plans to work with stakeholders in the development of Pennsylvania’s assessment plan.  The department is working on a timeline for the plan’s completion.

The NCLB required the reporting of student achievement data that was broken down by subgroups such as minorities, English Language Learners, special education and economically disadvantaged students.

Signed into law in 2002, the NCLB created the measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, and required all students to hit proficiency targets that increased each year. Schools with grade levels and student groups that did not hit the annual targets were labeled and required to devise improvement plans. Though it was never acted upon, the threat of the loss of federal funds hung over the heads of states and districts if appropriate actions weren’t taken

The ultimate goal was 100 percent proficiency by 2014. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card,” “proficiency” rates in 2014 were below 50 percent for every racial and ethnic group, in both reading and math, in both fourth and eighth grade. There were two exceptions: Asian students in all subjects scored 51-64 percent and white students in fourth-grade math scored at 54 percent.

Critics of the NCLB said that it set an unattainable goal, created an excessive focus on annual testing and did not take into account other measures of progress. In order to address those issues, ESSA will require states to take a more comprehensive look at student achievement with less emphasis on testing.

Under the ESSA, states are mandated to create academic plans that will produce students who are college or career ready, without remediation. However, they also are required to intervene only in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools where a third or more of the students fail to graduate and schools with persistent achievement gaps.

Carey Harris, executive director for educational advocacy group A+ Schools said the legislation leaves room for chronically underachieving schools that don’t fall within the bottom 5 percent to “fall through the cracks.”

“Five percent is a very low bar,” she said. “None of the city public schools would even meet that target, yet you have some that have struggled academically for years. I would hope this legislation would get very serious about addressing that, so we’re not looking at Westinghouse, looking at Carrick, looking at [University Prep] in 10 years and saying they’re still no better off.”

Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the education consulting and research group Bellwether Education Partners and former adviser in the policy office of the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that about 17,000 schools in the nation that would have been required to come up with meaningful improvement plans under NCLB will now be “off the hook.”

Ms. Reigelman said Gov. Tom Wolf is dedicated to making sure that every Pennsylvania student is college or career ready when they graduate and that he has lobbied for “historic” funding increases to Pennsylvania to work toward that goal.

A holdover from the NCLB included in the ESSA is that student achievement data will still be reported by subgroups. But critics question its value if there is no federal mandate for improvement beyond the bottom 5 percent. However, states can set their own target percentage for improvement, but would receive no federal funding about the bottom 5 percent.

“A lot of that data is available to the public now, although some states and districts are better than others about publicizing it,” said Dwanna Nicole, senior policy advocate for Advancement Project. “Even with all that data, if the school district and state aren’t going to use it to ensure equitable education for young people, then it doesn’t matter.”

Civil rights and educational advocacy leaders say it’s their hope that their organizations can fill the void of federal oversight by holding schools and districts accountable and working with states as those plans are formulated.

That collaboration “should begin now,” Ms. Nicole said.

The groups want to see testing become less of a focus in the measurement formulas. In its place, they want to have other factors incorporated, including the annual academic growth of student groups, school climate, and how students are disciplined. In Pennsylvania, Ms. Reigelman said the governor and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera have had “ongoing meetings with stakeholders to explore alternatives and develop new measures” to make the state’s School Performance Profiles a more effective evaluation tool.

Ron Cowell, executive director of the Education Policy Leadership Center, said the new federal law has been applauded because it gives states far more flexibility than the NCLB, but with that flexibility comes responsibility.

“They need to respond in a way that we don’t lose a sense of responsibility and accountability for how schools are serving particularly kids who are most dependent on public education and historically were not well-served,” Mr. Cowell said.

Like Ms. Reigelman, Mr. Cowell raised funding as an obstacle for those putting together Pennsylvania’s plans. He said to overcome the lack of federal oversight, the state needs an aggressive accountability plan, but that requires adequate and stable funding from federal and state sources.

Mr. Cowell said it will be difficult for the state education department to determine the amount of financial resources it will have in the future, given that the state budget still is not settled and that the parties are in disagreement about the extent of education funding. This is compounded by the fact that education in Pennsylvania is still recovering from the nearly $1 billion reduction in funding in 2011.

In addition, he said, the department, similar to state education departments across the country, has been downsized in staff considerably in the past decade, leaving a smaller staff to carry out the federal mandates.

“When you start out with inadequate resources and no predictability about what available resources will look like year to year in the future, it’s pretty hard to engage in serious planning,” Mr. Cowell said.




Education Law Center calls on policymakers to resume negotiations on budget that invests in our children

December 29, 2015


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

“We are pleased that the Governor exercised his line-item veto powers this morning to force all parties back to the negotiating table. We agree that the release of emergency funding is necessary to ensure that schools remain open during this impasse, but let’s be clear: Emergency funding is not sufficient and certainly not a long-term solution. All parties must immediately resume negotiations on a final budget package that makes needed investments in our children.

“The compromise budget that legislative leaders and the Governor agreed to several weeks ago is not perfect – but it is an important step in the right direction. Pennsylvania has the largest funding gap in the nation between rich and poor school districts, and its state share of public education funding is among the lowest in the country. The proposed compromise budget would begin to fund a bipartisan funding formula designed to address these historic inequities and entrenched funding inadequacies. It would also begin to provide schools with much-needed resources and help ensure that all children have access to a quality education no matter where they live.

“We urge our state policymakers to come back to the table and pass an adequate budget to support our schools. We must ensure that every child in Pennsylvania has the tools necessary to succeed, and that can only happen with a budget that reflects Pennsylvanians’ priorities and puts children first.”

# # #

The Education Law Center is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality education. Through litigation, information, and advocacy, we advance the rights of vulnerable children of color, in poverty, in foster care, homeless or with disabilities, and English language learners. We are leaders in the statewide Fight for Fair Funding for all schools, Ensuring Equal Access to education for all children, and Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline that pushes young people out of school and into the criminal justice system.

Learn more: www.elc-pa.org | @edlawcenterpa | facebook 

Education Law Center Issues Statement on Budget Impasse

Education Law Center Issues Statement on Budget Impasse


December 23, 2015

Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center-PA, issued the following statement concerning the current budget impasse:

“The children of Pennsylvania deserve a budget that invests in them and their future. We are disappointed that the Pennsylvania House deserted the previously agreed to budget framework that would have invested critical new dollars in schools across Pennsylvania. The inadequate budget just passed by the Pennsylvania Senate walks away from our moral and legal obligations to our children and doesn’t reflect our state’s values. It reinforces unacceptable inequities in our schools and continues to shortchange children. The Governor should veto it. Every student deserves access to a nurse, a librarian, updated textbooks, and school counselors. This budget doesn’t provide hundreds of thousands of children with even these basics. We call on the House and Senate to return immediately to Harrisburg and pass a budget that restores cuts to our schools and provides every child with the opportunity to learn and reach their full potential. Children across our Commonwealth are waiting for real solutions and must no longer be held hostage by gridlock in Harrisburg.”

# # #

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. ELC works to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education, including poor children, children of color, children with disabilities, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, English language learners, and other vulnerable children.

Learn more: www.elc-pa.org | @edlawcenterpa | facebook

Release: Legislature and Governor tell Supreme Court it cannot enforce state constitution requiring support of a thorough and efficient system of schools

November 6, 2015


Legislature and Governor tell PA Supreme Court it cannot enforce state constitution requiring support of a thorough and efficient system of schools

Harrisburg, Pa. –Attorneys for the state legislature and the executive branch told the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week that the Court is powerless to decide whether or not the state system of funding public schools violates the state Constitution. Continue reading

Fair funding campaign analyzes Pa. budget proposals

October 16, 2015 – The Philadelphia Public School Notebook  – by Catherine Offord

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding (CFEF), a statewide coalition of more than 50 organizations, recently released a report on the implications of the education proposals being debated in Harrisburg.

The report, “Lifting All Students: Why Pennsylvania Must Act Now to Fairly Fund Public Education and Secure Our Future,” details the practical outcomes for school districts across the state under both the $410 million funding increase in Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget and the $100 million increase proposed by Republican legislators.

“This report was an effort to make clear what is at stake if we get a truly robust education funding formula and an influx of funding this year,” said Ian Gavigan, policy and communications associate at the Education Law Center, a leading member of CFEF.

“It was an effort to ground the discussion in what actually happens in each district.”

In June, the campaign endorsed a fair funding formula proposed by the Basic Education Funding Commission. Although the formula has received general support in Harrisburg, debate continues over exactly how it should be implemented.

“The formula divides out the money, but it doesn’t dictate how much money is actually put in,” said Michael Race, vice president of communications at Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

The report supports Wolf’s plan to complement the formula’s introduction with extra funds, helping to close large funding gaps among Pennsylvania’s school districts.

Philadelphia, one of the districts hit hardest by the 2011 budget cuts, would benefit significantly. The report predicts a boost of $120 million more from Wolf’s proposal than what Republican legislators are suggesting.

“We’re regularly in Harrisburg, pushing legislators on this issue, presenting this report and other data about increasing equity and adequacy in schools,” said Gavigan, adding that he hopes both legislators and advocates will be able to use the research.

Race agrees. “Ultimately, we want it to be useful to lawmakers,” he said. “The next steps are not only ensuring that the formula is adopted, but that it’s maintained and not dismantled in future years. Then it’s a matter of ensuring that there are sufficient resources put into the formula to actually get districts what they need to educate students.”


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.


Letter: “Before reform, fund properly”

July 23, 2015 – The Philadelphia Inquirer – by Adam Schott and David Lapp

Earlier this summer, the state Senate advanced a far-reaching proposal to put public schools with low test scores under direct state control. As evidenced by statements by Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) and others, the legislation appears likely to be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations around Gov. Wolf’s request that significant resources be added to the state’s education budget. Continue reading

GOP Budget Falls Short of Philly Schools Request

July 1, 2015 – Holly Otterbein, Philadelphia Magazine – Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the GOP-led legislature’s state budget Tuesday night, in part, he said, because it would set aside far less education funding than he believes is fair.

How much less?

Earlier this year, the Philadelphia School District asked state lawmakers for an extra $206 million. The Republican bill would have provided only an additional $21.8 million to the school district, according to data from Senate GOP spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. That’s about 11 percent of the surplus funding that district officials said they need.

Wolf’s proposed budget would also spend less on the school district than officials would like, but just slightly. His plan would allocate an extra $184 million to the city’s schools, according to district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Although the GOP budget would have given the schools half a loaf, it still would have been enough to cover the district’s $85 million shortfall when combined with the $70 million in new revenue approved by City Council last month. The district requested money beyond that, though, because it hoped to begin investing in classrooms again after several years of severe cutbacks.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, applauded Wolf’s decision to veto the proposal.

“The General Assembly has failed our children by refusing to restore draconian funding cuts that have left our poorest districts unable to meet the needs of their students,” she said, referring to cuts made under former Gov. Tom Corbett.

Wolf and state lawmakers resumed talks on the budget at 2 p.m. today, the Associated Press reported.

Read the article on Phillymag.com: http://www.phillymag.com/news/2015/07/01/gop-school-funding-philadelphia/

Education Law Center of Pennsylvania Lauds Gov. Wolf’s Budget Veto

CONTACT: Deborah Gordon Klehr, 215 346-6920

Education Law Center of Pennsylvania Lauds Gov. Wolf’s Budget Veto
Pa. needs a responsible budget that restores education cuts and reinvests in our schools

PHILADELPHIA – Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania issued the following statement today in the wake of Governor Wolf vetoing the General Assembly’s budget proposal.

“Thank you Governor Wolf for rejecting a sham budget that does not meaningfully support Pennsylvania ‘s students. The General Assembly has failed our children by refusing to restore draconian funding cuts that have left our poorest districts unable to meet the needs of their students.”

“Years of state cuts to education spending, one-time fixes, and political favoritism have disproportionately impacted students in our poorest communities, even as those districts serve students who desperately need more resources. As a result, our state’s current funding system has become the most inequitable in the nation. The General Assembly ‘s budget makes little effort to correct these vast disparities between our poorest and wealthiest districts. Our Commonwealth needs a budget that invests new education dollars that are sufficient to make up for lost ground and will give all children, regardless of ZIP code, income, or race, the education they need.”

“We call on the leadership of all four caucuses to begin serious negotiations with the Governor to serve the needs of our children by providing adequate resources to our struggling school districts. This is what our state constitution requires. Our children cannot wait any longer.”


The Education Law Center-PA works to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education, 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. For more information, visit www.elc-pa.org or follow @edlawcenterpa on Twitter.

PA House Education Budget Is Woefully Inadequate To Meet Student Needs


Contact: Deborah Gordon Klehr, [email protected], 215-346-6920

PA House Education Budget Is Woefully Inadequate To Meet Student Needs:

It’s Time to Stop Shortchanging our Children

June 28, 2015

By a vote of 112-77, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a budget yesterday that continues to underfund our schools and does not reflect a true commitment to ensuring that all of Pennsylvania’s children receive a quality education. On net, the House’s education budget only provides an additional $8 million for K-12 public education and the average increase per school district is only 1.7 percent. The Legislature’s budget appropriates only a fraction of what many say is required to serve the documented needs of students. It is also less than 25 percent of the new money recommended in the Governor’s budget for basic education and only 20 percent of new money recommended for special education.

“This is a woefully inadequate investment in the future of our public school children,” said Education Law Center’s Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr.

The Senate is expected to vote on the same budget today. “We urge the Legislature to appropriate $410 million in new dollars for basic education and $100 million in additional special education funding,” said Klehr. Restoration is needed to close the gaps created by the 2011 reductions in public school funding, which crippled our schools and exacerbated funding disparities across school districts. “First restore the cuts, then apply the funding formula as adopted by the Basic Education Funding Commission. This is a thoughtful, well-crafted formula based on the real costs of educating students, but it is only as good as the funding that is driven through it.”

The nearly $1 billion in cuts to basic education funding in 2011 cost 20,000 educators their jobs, forced students into larger class sizes, and eliminated key academic programs and basic services.

Special education had been flat-funded for six years until last year’s modest increase. This year, the Governor’s budget included an additional increase of $100 million in special education funding.  This is essential for the nearly 270,000 students with disabilities across Pennsylvania. The Legislature’s proposed $20 million, a 1.9 percent increase, is not enough to meet our students’ needs. “Children with disabilities cannot afford to wait and we cannot prolong the reductions in special education budgets,” said Klehr.

“Our goal is for all children to learn in adequately resourced classrooms. We hope the Legislature will commit to a long-term investment in our children. The current budget falls far short of this goal.”


The Education Law Center-PA works to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education, 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. For more information, visit www.elc-pa.org or follow @edlawcenterpa on Twitter.