Sunday, July 24, 2011

COMMENTARY: Public Schools; Public Dollars Public Right-to-Know; Public Criticism

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Public Schools; Public Dollars
Public Right-to-Know; Public Criticism
This week the Philadelphia Public School Notebook ran a piece covering the fact that two of the largest charters in Pennsylvania, Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) and the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber), are among the 89 schools across the state that are to be investigated for statistical irregularities on 2009 standardized tests.

The article notes that CCCS was founded by Gladwyne lawyer and entrepreneur Vahan Gureghian, who is also the founder and CEO of Charter School Management, Inc. (CSMI), a for-profit management company that operates CCCS under contract. The school has attracted attention in part because Gureghian is an influential power broker in both Delaware and Montgomery counties and a major Republican campaign donor. 
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Gureghian has in recent years contributed almost half a million dollars to state Republican candidates and committees, including over $300,000 – more than any other individual donor – to the campaign of Gov. Tom Corbett. A strong proponent of charter expansion and school choice, Gureghian played a significant role on Corbett's transition team, including as a member of its education committee.

Any taxpayer is entitled to request information on the compensation of their public school district's employees.  Although CCCS is a public school funded by public tax dollars nobody seems to know what Mr. Gureghian's compensation is as CEO of CSMI, which is responsible for running the school.  Right-to-know filings by the Philadelphia Inquirer have been tied up in litigation for several years.

While charter school proponents are quick to point out that charters are, in fact public schools, some are apparently not quite as comfortable with the public criticism component that goes hand in hand with accepting public monies. The notebook article goes on to report that "In response to requests for comment made over several days, attorney Frank Catania, a CCCS representative emailed to a Notebook reporter a "notice to cease and desist all defamatory communications concerning alleged PSSA 'cheating' at CCCS."

The core mission of public schools in our democracy is to create informed American citizens.  Locally elected school board members are acutely aware that traditional public schools are subject to virtually unlimited public dialogue, scrutiny and criticism. There is no shortage of review by the press and by citizens.  These are an integral part of the democratic process.  Any taxpayer is entitled to speak publicly on any topic at a school board meeting. 

Sunshine laws, right-to-know and transparency don't shine quite so brightly in the private world of business, where any negative publicity might cut into the core mission of increasing market share, increasing revenue and maximizing profits.

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