Blame for District's budget woes misdirected at charters
by thenotebook on Sep 27 2013 Posted in Commentary
A Sept. 19 commentary by School Reform Commission member Joseph Dworetzky addressed the role of charter funding in the School District's budget issues. The executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools responds this week with a rebuttal commentary.
by Robert Fayfich
In his commentary, School Reform Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, in general, blames charter schools for eroding the School District budget and argues that the District is unable to reduce its expenses by the per-pupil amount it must contribute to charter schools. Moreover, the District has been left with the “enormous cost” of maintaining infrastructure that was built for a dwindling student population. He proposes that the solutions are to reduce the District’s fixed costs, reduce charter school enrollments, modify enrollment procedures, and close under-performing charters. However, he said, those solutions require a legally time-consuming and “painful process” that would not solve the immediate shortfall.
Mr. Dworetzky’s perceptions are frightening in their inaccuracy and terrifying in that their source is a person who sits on the School Reform Commission and is making decisions about the future of the Philadelphia School District. There is no question that the financial position of the District is precarious, but charter schools are not the problem. Rather, they are the result of decades of poor financial management and parental frustration finally coming home to roost.
The Philadelphia School District does not send the charter schools 100 percent of the amount it spends per child, as stated by Mr. Dworetzky. The funding formula for every charter school student in the state is prescribed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Form 363, which allows districts to take up to 21 deductions from the cost per child attending the District school before paying the charter school. The amount varies by school district, but Philadelphia School District deducted 38 percent of its average cost of $13,272 per regular education child before paying the charter school during the 2009-10 school year. What this means is that the District collected $13,272 per child in taxpayer money, paid $8,184 to charter schools for each child, transferred responsibility for educating that child to the charter school, and kept $5,088.
Mr. Dworetzky argues that the erosion of students leaving the District schools for charters is compounded by students moving from private and parochial schools to charters, costing the District even more money. He fails to ask the vitally important question of why parents are choosing to move their children or mention that the District is currently receiving money from every taxpayer who is sending their child to a parochial or private school without the District ever taking the responsibility to educate that child. It appears that he is supportive of taxpayers paying for a service they never receive, but is upset when taxpayers actually ask to receive the services for which they are paying.
High-performing charters and Renaissance schools have their place in the menu of school choices, but Mr. Dworetzky’s “solutions” focus only on the costs of charter schools rather than the children and, as a result, totally misses one obvious solution. Parents are making the decision to move their children from the District schools in the hope of providing a better future for their children. The District needs to do only two things to kill every charter school in Philadelphia – listen and change. Listen to the parents as to why they are leaving and change to address their concerns. Growing charter populations are not the problem. Rather, they are a symptom of problems in the traditional schools that are clearly seen and understood by the parents.
Mr. Dworetzky argues that cyber school costs should be cut without having any idea of the actual costs needed to operate a cyber-charter school. Cyber charter schools must meet the same standards as school districts. They must have teachers, nurses, and counseling personnel; lease buildings throughout the state to host online classes, provide counseling, and test children from 495 of the 500 school districts; have significant costs for course development and technology support; and have the same costs as districts for special education students. Cyber schools are a different public educational model, but they have many of the same costs, as well as unique costs that in total may be equivalent to traditional schools.
Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools has always supported a rational and fair analysis of the actual costs to operate a high-quality cyber school, but not any action with its origin in arbitrary perceptions based on uninformed assumptions.
Mr. Dworetzky also argues that the District’s fixed-cost infrastructure is a significant burden, which is correct. But it is a burden created by poor decisions and the lack of inaction by the District to right-size for far too long. In 2008, recommendations for consolidation and closures were made to the SRC. Questions related to co-locating buildings and making buildings available to charters were asked. Charters submitted bids to take over traditional school buildings and were denied. The SRC waited for years before beginning to take action. The District’s audited financial statement shows that, between 2007 and 2010, the District added more than 1,000 employees to its payroll even as enrollment declined by 6,000 students during that same period. With student population shrinking, the District was increasing, rather than decreasing, its costs.
Mr. Dworetzky would like to put caps on charter school enrollments and close under-performing charter schools. But legislation and court decisions clearly state that caps which are unilaterally imposed by the District are illegal. However, because of the dire financial condition of the District, the charter community has agreed to work with the District and SRC to establish a predictable and fair process for growth. There are several charters still seeking to agree on fair growth patterns, but the District has yet to adopt a standard process.
The failure to right-size and exert proper fiscal management over decades lies at the feet of the SRC and the District -- not the parents or the charter schools. Mr. Dworetzky ignores that responsibility and argues that parental choice should be curtailed and hopes for the future of their children eroded because the SRC and the District have historically failed to exercise good financial stewardship. Moreover, the fixed cost that Mr. Dworetzky, casually dismissed as “simply lost to the system” every year, is taxpayer money that far exceeds the money going to the charter schools to actually educate between 25 to 30 percent of the children in Philadelphia.
No one defends non-performing public schools of any type. But in Philadelphia, two necessary elements to having a consistently strong charter community are missing. First is a consistent, fair, and accurate method of defining quality and non-performance. Second is a viable and effective office to authorize and oversee charter schools. Both are missing in Philadelphia, and both are the responsibility of the District and the SRC to create. If you want to talk about performance and use Adequate Yearly Progress as the measurement, then it’s interesting to know that while 27 percent of the charter schools in Philadelphia made AYP last year, only 13 percent of the traditional schools did so.
Mr. Dworetzky also condemns the length of the process needed to close charter schools, but it’s called due process and is fundamental to the American system of governance to avoid unilateral and arbitrary actions by any governing body in power. It is also a much faster process than the closure of any traditional public school. Since 2002, the District has closed four charter schools. Two surrendered their charters and the SRC voted for the non-renewal of two others in April 2008. The entire appeals process on those two schools was completed and the non-renewal upheld by the state's Charter Appeal Board (CAB) by April 2009. That’s one year from SRC vote to CAB's denial of appeal.
The SRC has since voted for the non-renewal of three other charters, but has failed to schedule hearing dates. The delay stated by Mr. Dworetzky is not caused by legal or policy mandates, but rather the District’s bureaucratic approach and lack of staffing to address these issues. There are 84 charter schools in Philadelphia and a charter office of less than five people. By contrast, Washington, D.C., has 52 charter schools and an authorizing staff of 26.
There is no question that the District faces serious financial challenges, but so long as those with responsibility for getting the District out of the morass look at the wrong problem, they will never get the right answer.
Robert Fayfich is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.