Sunday, August 28, 2016

PA Ed Policy Roundup August 28, 2016: Focus on Charter/Cyber Reform

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Keystone State Education Coalition
PA Ed Policy Roundup August 28, 2016:
Focus on Charter/Cyber Reform

Southeastern PA Regional 2016 Legislative Roundtable: William Tennent High School (Bucks Co.) SEP 22, 2016 • 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Philadelphia City Council

Delco Times Editorial: It’s time for reform at Pa.’s charter schools
Delco Times POSTED: 08/27/16, 11:02 PM EDT | UPDATED: 2 HRS AGO
The two stories sat side by side on the same page earlier this week. The placement could not have been more ironic.  On the same day that Gov. Tom Wolf made good on another campaign pledge, this time to establish a division inside the state Education Department to keep tabs on the state’s burgeoning charter school industry, the CEO from a cyber charter school was in court to plead guilty to tax fraud charges.  Charter schools, set up in Pennsylvania by the Charter School Law - Act 22 of 1997, to offer Pennsylvania families an alternative to public schools that increasingly fail to offer families, usually in struggling communities, an adequate alternative, too often have failed to do so. In fact, too often test scores at charters have varied little from their counterparts in the public schools.  What has changed is the huge economic impact the desertion of those children – and the state funding that follows them – has had on public schools.  And of course, the bottom line for charter schools and their backers. The business of charter schools has proved in many cases to be quite lucrative.

“Two years ago, Mr. DePasquale called for an overhaul of charter law to make the schools more effective and accountable. It is time for the Legislature and Education Department to take a hard look at his suggestions, which mostly have fallen on deaf ears.  Improvements could help to ease school districts’ concerns about charters, give new energy to the charter movement and repair some of the damage caused by Trombetta’s callow plunder.”
Post Gazette Editorial: Charter school caper: Trombetta finally admits guilt, but mess remains
Post Gazette Editorial By the Editorial Board August 27, 2016 12:00 AM
Pennsylvanians struggle with high property taxes, yet school districts still labor to make ends meet because of inadequate state funding and the encroachment of nontraditional charter schools. Every penny counts. By diverting public money for personal use, Nicholas Trombetta hurt the state’s schoolchildren, taxpayers, school districts and the charter school movement he helped to create.   Trombetta, founder of the Beaver County-based Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to a count of tax conspiracy. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  The U.S. attorney’s office alleged that he diverted $8 million of taxpayer money for personal use, spending the money not on education, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said, but on “condos and airplanes.” Trombetta didn’t even have the decency to fold when the jig was up. He fought the charges for three years before entering his guilty plea, wasting resources the authorities could have devoted to other cases. The case is sad partly because PA Cyber had given wind to the charter movement and brought attention to Beaver County.

As students return to class, some recommendations to improve cyber-charter schools: Lawrence Feinberg
PennLive Op-Ed  By Lawrence Feinberg on August 26, 2016 at 2:00 PM
Lawrence A. Feinberg, of Ardmore, Pa., is serving in his seventeenth year as a school director in Haverford Township.  He is the founder and a co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Coalition.
If it sometimes seems like "tuition-free" cyber charter ads are running non-stop, consider that in just one year your tax dollars paid for 19,298 local TV commercials for Agora Cyber Charter, just one of Pennsylvania's 13 cyber charters.   And far from being tuition-free, total cyber tuition paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers from 500 school districts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 was $393.5 million, $398.8 million and $436.1 million respectively.  Those commercials were very effective, especially if you were an executive at K12, Inc., a for-profit company contracted to manage the cyberschool.  According to Agora's 2013 IRS filing, it paid $69.5 million that year to K12, Inc.   According to Morningstar, total executive compensation at K12 in 2013 was $21.37 million.  Not so effective for kids or taxpayers, though.  What the ads don't tell you is that they are paid for using your school tax dollars instead of those funds being spent in classrooms, and that academic performance at every one of Pennsylvania's cyber charters has been consistently dismal. 

School Performance Profile Scores for PA Cyber Charters
2013, 2014, 2015
Source: PA Department of Education website.
A score of 70 is considered passing

CEO of Agora Cyber Charter calls for reforms
In response to a recent commentary piece, Conti rebuts criticisms of cyber charters.
The notebook Commentary by Dr. Michael Conti August 23, 2016 — 2:48pm
In response to the recent commentary piece in the Notebook that asks the question “How can we improve the performance and accountability of Pennsylvania cyber charters?” (Lawrence A. Feinberg, Aug. 18) we feel it absolutely necessary that we reply, as Agora was the only one of the Pennsylvania’s 13 cyber charter schools that was mentioned specifically in this piece.  First, it should be known that Agora admits it has endured a tumultuous year. However, our administration and board have always done what is in the best interest of our students. In 2015, Agora severed its management relationship with K12 to become an independently managed school. When we open our virtual doors on Sept. 6, our primary relationship with K12 will be limited and the firm will serve as a provider of curriculum and support services.
To argue that cyber charters are alone in contracting with for-profit companies is quite misleading. School districts everywhere use for-profit companies to purchase textbooks for classrooms, keep technology on the cutting edge, and stock vending machines in their brick-and-mortar cafeterias. These expenses are not unique or out of the ordinary– they are simply part of maintaining a successful school or district.

“A study released this summer by 50CAN, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Organizers — typically advocates for school choice and charter schools — called for chronically low-performing cyber charters to be closed. Reports from Mathematica Policy Research, the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes and the University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education last year slammed cyber charters for their students' lack of year-over-year improvement and limited instruction time.  The report looked at more than 100 full-time cyber charter schools in 17 states, including Pennsylvania, plus Washington, D.C., and was an attempt to gather first-of-its-kind information about the rapidly growing cyber charter sector, said James L. Woodworth, the lead author and a quantitative research analyst at Stanford.  The study found that cyber charter school students in Pennsylvania on average progressed as if they had received the equivalent of 101 fewer days of instruction in reading and 167 fewer days in math compared to students in traditional schools in a 180-day school year, he said. Nationally, cyber charter students progressed as if they had an average of 180 days less of instruction per year in math — really not at all.”
Study: Cyber charter students don't keep pace with counterparts in regular classrooms
Trib Live BY ELIZABETH BEHRMAN  | Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, 9:40 p.m.
When Judy Cremone and her husband adopted their teenage son three years ago, his behavioral issues made it impossible for the Turtle Creek couple to enroll him in a traditional school.
They enrolled the boy, now 15, in Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. The ability to do his work online and at his own pace seems to be good for him, said Cremone, 48. He earns A's and B's, an improvement.  “Education is vital to me,” Cremone said. “He has got to get a good education, and he is extremely smart. But he wouldn't survive in public school.”  Cremone's son was among about 30,000 students across the state enrolled in a cyber charter school last year, up from about 27,000 in 2011-12. State data show about 25 percent of Allegheny County's charter school students attend cyber charters, which provide classes online rather than in traditional classrooms. But as enrollment in cyber charter schools has grown, so has criticism about the schools' ability to adequately educate their students.

Trombettta's legacy a complicated one
Beaver County Times By The Times Editorial Board August 27, 2016
The legacy of Nick Trombetta will be a complicated one to document for future generations.
His supporters will tell you the man saved the dying steel town of Midland, transforming it into a state-of-the-art education complex that created hundreds of jobs and became home to his creations -- the PA Cyber Charter School, the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, several spinoff entities, and the crown jewel of his empire, the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center.  His critics will point out that he is a convicted felon, having pleaded guilty to siphoning off some $8 million in taxpayer funds for his own benefit and that of family and friends. They will tell you he created a spider web of connected companies that he controlled, directly or indirectly, and that his every move was self-serving, done to build his own personal wealth and wield incredible power over the people who owed him their livelihoods.  If you were to try to summarize Trombetta’s contributions to Midland, and to public education in general, it would come down to this: The man did some very good things, and the man did some very bad things.

Why John Oliver may help change Pennsylvania’s ‘worst charter school laws in the nation’
Billy Penn By Mark Dent August 26, 2016  at 10:30 am
Eugene DePasquale’s phone started buzzing during the most recent episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.”  It was younger family members calling and texting to say they saw the clip of him saying “Pennsylvania has the worst charter school laws in the nation.” DePasquale had no idea, of course. He’s not a subscriber.    “Maybe I need to get HBO,” he said, “but it’s an extra cost and I’m trying to be fiscally responsible as your auditor general.”  For the last several months, DePasquale has railed against Pennsylvania’s charter laws. He came out with an audit of Philadelphia’s charter situation earlier this year and has continued to stress the need for reform throughout the summer. Just yesterday he gave a press conference about a faulty payment appeals process that overly benefits charters at the expense of school districts.  So he’s continually tried to bring awareness. But getting featured on Oliver?  “That 18-minute segment has probably done more than people could imagine,” DePasquale said. “There’s something going on out there that needs to be looked at.”  Here’s what DePasquale finds to be the worst aspects of charter schools in Pennsylvania, a few ways to improve them and why he’s optimistic change might finally happen to Pennsylvania’s charter laws, which date back to the late 1990s.

Pa. senator says HBO's John Oliver 'went too far' with charter school rant
Inquirer by Tommy Rowan, Staff Writer  @tommyrowan AUGUST 26, 2016 10:31 AM EDT
Apparently, as HBO's John Oliver was poking fun at Pennsylvania's charter school system, Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams wasn't laughing.  On Wednesday, Williams (D., Phila.) sent the Last Week Tonight host a "Dear John" letter, questioning an assertion on his Sunday show that Pennsylvania's "charter schools are terrible."  "I really do enjoy your wit and informative style," Williams wrote, "but you went too far with your segment on Pennsylvania's charter schools."  On his program Sunday, Oliver used Pennsylvania laws and Philadelphia schools as examples of why he believes charter schools are something of gamble when it comes to education.  “Charter schools unite both sides of the aisle more quickly than when a wedding DJ throws on ‘Hey Ya,’ ” Oliver said to kick off his piece, further noting that the first charters emerged 25 years ago as a way to explore new approaches to education.  Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the state has “the worst charter school law in the United States."  Oliver agreed.

Pa. department of education enhancing oversight of charter schools
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday that he's beefing up the state's oversight of charter schools by creating a new division within the Department of Education devoted solely to the sector.  "Charter schools play an important role in our education system, but that role must be accompanied by sufficient oversight," Wolf said in a statement. "Establishing this new division within the Department of Education will allow us to maximize our resources to not only ensure charters are being properly supported, but that they are being held accountable to taxpayers."
The Wolf administration says the new division more rigorously monitor the fiscal and academic integrity of charters.  "Establishing a division within the Department is the next step to further streamline communication with charter schools, help ensure they receive needed technical assistance from the Department, and ensuring that all public schools in the commonwealth are held to the same high-quality standards," said state education secretary Pedro Rivera in a statement.  Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the move will simply bring the charter sector in line with the oversight the department gives the state's 500 traditional districts.  "All of those things already happen with traditional public schools," said Sheridan. "They do not currently happen in the manner that they should with brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools."

Capitolwire: Charter officials skeptical of Wolf’s new division of charter schools.
PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools website By Christen Smith Staff Reporter Capitolwire August 26, 2016
HARRISBURG (Aug. 24) — Gov. Tom Wolf’s new division of charter schools got off to a bad start Wednesday, just moments after the administration announced the new office within the state Department of Education.  “The fact that no charter school has been consulted in the creation of this office is not a good start, but we will see how the office is funded and staffed and watch closely what it actually does,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “We are cautiously optimistic, but the charter community has been burned before and our honest initial impression is that it may be another effort to undermine school choice in Pennsylvania, regardless of the statements in the press release regarding improving quality and accountability.”  Fayfich, an outspoken critic of the administration’s treatment of charter schools over the last two years, wasn’t alone in his skepticism.
“While the Keystone Alliance welcomes the Wolf administration and the department’s willingness to work and partner with brick-and-mortar charter schools, as the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’ as it relates to the administration’s actual intent with the creation of this division,” said Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools a former PDE spokesperson with the Corbett administration. “While the department already has statutory oversight of cyber charters, by law, oversight and accountability of brick-and-mortar charters currently is under the purview of the school district(s) that granted the charter.”

Audit finds Pa. education department oversight on charter school payments insufficient
Pennsylvania's process to address appeals of charter school payment is unclear, according to an audit that recommends it be re-examined.  Pennsylvania's charter schools receive part of their money from the public school districts in which they're located. The charter submits a bill, and the district can approve or deny it.  But under current law, if the district denies payment, the charter can go directly to the state Education Department for the funding.  According to the audit report, the department then approves it, no questions asked, and it's paid out from the district's state subsidy.  Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said it's not easy for districts to get back money they think has been wrongly routed to charters.  "A school district's only option," he said, "is to enter into a lengthy, confusing, nonsensical, rabbit-hole world that is [the education department's] charter school payment appeals process."

Charter school loan documents give another link to Atiyeh
By Jim Deegan | For Email the author | Follow on Twitter on August 26, 2016 at 2:52 PM, updated August 26, 2016 at 3:05 PM
Innovative Arts Academy Charter School in Catasauqua released loan documents Friday that identify the lender as Charter Solutions LLC, a limited liability corporation at 1177 Sixth St. in Whitehall Township — the same address as Atiyeh's Whitehall Manor.  Atiyeh also is the fledgling school's landlord at 330 Howertown Road in Catasauqua.  The loan documents provide the latest link yet between Atiyeh and the charter school amid a swirling controversy about who's responsible for a mystery mailer that promoted the charter school and denigrated Liberty High School.

Dirty tactics smear efforts of charter schools | Editorial
By Express-Times opinion staff on August 28, 2016 at 6:00 AM, updated August 28, 2016 at 9:21 AM
Is this any way to promote a charter school?
The pending debut of the Innovative Arts Academy Charter School in Catasauqua in September might have been uneventful, considering school officials said they had met their goal of enrolling 300 students for the sixth-to-12th-grade school.  Then a newspaper ad in the Morning Call and an anonymous mailer raised the school's profile dramatically. They touted the drug bust of a Liberty High School student last year, asking parents" "Why worry about this type of student at school?" and advising them to "Come visit Arts Academy Charter School."  Reaction to the unsigned mailer, which listed the school's address, was immediate. Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy called it a low blow and an impetus for the Legislature to reform the state's charter school act.  Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a critic of the state's approach to charter schools, said he wants to know who drew up and authorized the promotions. He asked the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General to look into it.

OPED: Get charter school reform right
York Dispatch OPED by James Paul, Commonwealth Foundation1EDT August 25, 2016
 “Back to school” can be an emotional time for students. Some greet the school year excited to learn and socialize, while others regretfully say goodbye to summer. Over the next nine months, many will have their lives transformed for the better. But for thousands of other children, this time of year is defined by disappointment.  They are trapped in schools that don’t meet their needs — effectively held hostage by a system that limits choice and opportunity.  Nearly 20 years after charter schools were introduced in Pennsylvania, 130,000 students benefit from the educational choice offered by these independently managed, publicly funded schools.

PSBA Report: Examining Pennsylvania charter school revenues, expenditures and transparency
 Charter schools were created with the intent of allowing communities to establish public schools independent from existing traditional public schools as a means to improve student performance, increase learning opportunities, encourage innovation, create professional development opportunities for teachers, and to provide expanded school choice, particularly to provide opportunities for children that were being underserved.  Under current Charter School Law, school districts are responsible for authorizing the creation of, assessing the performance of, and periodically reauthorizing brick-and-mortar charter schools located within their boundaries. Charter schools receive the bulk of their funding via payments from the school district where the charter school student resides. Many of the laws, regulations and other mandates that dictate what school districts are required to do, how they must do it and, ultimately, how much will be spent to get it done do not apply to charter schools.  PSBA’s report takes a closer look at how charter schools and school districts are spending public funds and highlights some of the issues encountered by PSBA in obtaining information from charter schools under the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law. The full report is available here.
The records submitted by charter schools as part of the RTK request can be accessed here:

NEW: Southeastern PA Regional 2016 Legislative Roundtable: William Tennent High School (Bucks Co.) SEP 22, 2016 • 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM
PSBA website August 25, 2016
Take a more active role in public education advocacy by joining our Legislative Roundtable
This is your opportunity for a seat at the table (literally) with fellow public education advocates to take an active role in educating each other and policymakers.  Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, along with regional legislators, will be in attendance to work with you to support public education in Pennsylvania.  Use the form below to send your registration information!

2016 National Anthem Sing-A-Long - September 9th
American Public Education Foundation Website 
The Star-Spangled Banner will be sung by school children nationwide on Friday, September 9, 2016 at 10:00am PST and 1:00pm EST. Students will learn about the words and meaning of the flag and sing the first stanza. This will be the third annual simultaneous sing-a-long event created by the APEF-9/12 Generation Project. The project aims to bring students together – as the world came together – on September 12, 2001.

PA Supreme Court sets Sept. 13 argument date for fair education funding lawsuit in Philly
Thorough and Efficient Blog JUNE 16, 2016 BARBGRIMALDI LEAVE A COMMENT

Registration for the PASA-PSBA School Leadership Conference Oct. 13-15 is now open
The conference is your opportunity to learn, network and be inspired by peers and experts.
TO REGISTER: See   (you must be logged in to the Members Area to register). You can read more on How to Register for a PSBA Event here.   CONFERENCE WEBSITE: For all other program details, schedules, exhibits, etc., see the conference

REGISTER NOW for the 2016 PA Principals Association State Conference, October 30 - November 1, at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel in State College.
The Early Bird Discount Deadline has been Extended to Wednesday, August 31, 2016!
PA Principals Association website Tuesday, August 2, 2016 10:43 AM
To receive the Early Bird Discount, you must be registered by August 31, 2016:
Members: $300  Non-Members: $400
Featuring Three National Keynote Speakers: Eric Sheninger, Jill Jackson & Salome Thomas-EL

PSBA Officer Elections Aug. 15-Oct. 3, 2016: Slate of Candidates
PSBA members seeking election to office for the association were required to submit a nomination form no later than April 30, 2016, to be considered. All candidates who properly completed applications by the deadline are included on the slate of candidates below. In addition, the Leadership Development Committee met on June 24 at PSBA headquarters in Mechanicsburg to interview candidates. According to bylaws, the Leadership Development Committee may determine candidates highly qualified for the office they seek. This is noted next to each person’s name with an asterisk (*).  Each school entity will have one vote for each officer. This will require boards of the various school entities to come to a consensus on each candidate and cast their vote electronically during the open voting period (Aug. 15-Oct. 3, 2016). Voting will be accomplished through a secure third-party, web-based voting site that will require a password login. One person from each member school entity will be authorized as the official person to cast the vote on behalf of his or her school entity. In the case of school districts, it will be the board secretary who will cast votes on behalf of the school board.
Special note: Boards should be sure to include discussion and voting on candidates to its agenda during one of its meetings in September.

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