I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, November 17, 2014

York, PA and the Death of Public Education

Earlier this year, I wrote about the sick, sad story of York, Pennsylvania's school district, starved to death thanks to the cruel indifference of outgoing governor Tom Corbett. Back in 2012, Corbett cut $8.4 million - over 15% - from York's budget. The district slashed programs in the arts and student services and increased class sizes to try to make up the difference, but it didn't matter: York's school district went into a fiscal tailspin.

Corbett then sent in his hand-picked minion, David Meckley, to lay the groundwork for the privatization of the district. Meckley has been insisting that the best thing for York's children isn't a well-funded, democratically controlled school system; instead, York should turn over its entire district to charter school operators.

On Wednesday of this week, Corbett and Meckley's plans may finally come to fruition:
Three members have already been appointed to a new nonprofit called the York Community Foundation Charter School, formed to manage the proposed transformation of the York City School District into a charter school.
On Wednesday, the district's school board will meet to consider the potentially history-making proposal.
If it is approved, York would join New Orleans' public schools — converted to charter schools after Hurricane Katrina — as one of the first public school districts in the nation transitioned completely to a charter-style education model.
David Meckley, the state appointee who has been steering the district's financial recovery process for two years, has drafted an agreement with a for-profit company to operate the district through July 1, 2020, barring any major breaches of contract. 
If Charter Schools USA meets the performance goals outlined in the contract, the agreement could last 15 years. [emphasis mine]
We'll get to Charter Schools USA's record in a minute. But let's take some time first to fully appreciate just how truly rotten this deal is:
The ultimatum: Meckley is urging the school board to approve the contract Wednesday — just 10 days after they first received it.
If the school board rejects the contract, Meckley has said, he will advise the state Department of Education to pursue a state takeover known as receivership.
Meckley released the contract to the public Friday. [emphasis mine]
That's right, folks: Meckley has told the board to hire CSUSA -- or else. And the good people of York have only 10 days to review a contract that will turn their schools over to private control for 15 years. How closely do you think that performance clause will be vetted in such a short time?

And if you wonder how CSUSA is going to make out on this deal, you're far more curious than David Meckley:
The money: Funding will be initially allocated to Charter Schools USA at a rate of $12,500 per student, according to the contract.
Meckley said he has applied to the state Department of Education for a $2 million grant, which would fund Charter School USA's six-month planning phase.
"In the planning period, we're trying to take what the district does well and what Charter Schools USA does well and create a new operation here in York and do the best of both," Meckley said.
Asked how much money Charter Schools USA can expect to pocket as profit, Meckley said: "You'll have to ask Charter Schools USA that."
Let's recap:

  • Tom Corbett abdicated his responsibilities to the children of York and defunded their schools.
  • He sent in his personal hack to force the district to turn those schools over to a private, for-profit corporation through a shell non-profit.
  • The hack -- as if he were a made man -- told the district if they didn't take his offer, he'd take over.
  • No one knows how much money the charter company is going to make on this deal.
Trust me, folks, we're just getting started...

Meckely believes this plan is warranted because York's schools aren't performing up to snuff. But the truth is that they are exactly where we'd expect them to be, given the demographics of the city.

This is as quick and dirty as they come, but it makes the point. Every dot here is a school in Pennsylvania. The x-axis shows how many kids taking the state's reading test are in economic disadvantage, as measured by qualifying for free/reduced price lunch. The y-axis shows how many test takers scored "below basic," meaning, out of PA's four test proficiency levels, these students scored at the bottom. 
Once again, note how economic disadvantage correlates to test score outcomes. Were I to do a simple linear regression here, 60 percent of the variation in this test-based outcome could be explained by student economic disadvantage.
The truth is that the hard-scrabble York schools are right where we would expect them to be. If Corbett and Meckley and anyone else gave a damn, they'd be pouring more money into the district, as "there exists an increasing body of evidence that substantive and sustained state school finance reforms matter for improving both the level and distribution of short-term and long-run student outcomes."

Instead, they are allowing CSUSA to come in and snatch the hard-earned tax dollars of Pennsylvania's citizens on the basis of a record that is hardly stellar:
Charter Schools USA (CUSA) has been operating charter schools in Florida for 20 years, including recently-opened schools in Hillsborough County: Woodmont Charter, Winthrop Charter, and Henderson Hammock Charter. Although charter schools sometimes struggle financially at first, CUSA eventually collects a 5% management fee from each to provide administration and guidance.
But 10 Investigates found a much bigger pot of money CUSA has been able to tap into: rent. When the company helps open a new school, its development arm, Red Apple Development, acquires land and constructs a school. Then, CUSA charges the school high rent.
For example, Winthrop Charter in Riverview may struggle to balance its budget this year thanks to a $2 million rent payment to CUSA/Red Apple Development. The payment will equate to approximately 23% of its budget, even though CUSA CEO Jon Hage has been quoted as saying charter school rent should not exceed 20%. [emphasis mine]
Is this the sort of fiscal responsibility Meckley wants for York? Or maybe he was impressed by this?
Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees! [emphasis mine]
And what kind of performance have the good people of Florida received for all of that money?
The chain was considered high-performing until this year. And on Tuesday the Orange School Board voted 7-0 to deny its applications for three new campuses.
Because charters are publicly funded per pupil, Charter Schools USA would receive about $27 million a year to run the three schools at capacity if approved.
"Their performance in Orange County is abysmally poor," board Chairman Bill Sublette said of the Renaissance schools. "They're underperforming the schools in the area that they're drawing from. How can we look taxpayers in the eye and approve them?"
But Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, said he is proud of all of the company's schools, including Chickasaw.
"We do an excellent job over time, even with the lowest-performing students," he said. "We knew we wouldn't be able to turn those scores around in a year." [emphasis mine]
I guess David Meckley knows better than the entire Orange School Board. Maybe CSUSA's history in Indiana convinced him:
The four takeover schools in Indianapolis lost huge numbers of students — between 35 and 60 percent at each school — between the start of classes in 2011 and when the takeover operators took over in 2012. Schools are mostly funded on the basis of their enrollment, so the departures came at a steep cost for the private operators.
On top of that, the takeover schools saw their share of a pot of federal funds for low-performing schools that is controlled by the state shrink as more state schools became eligible to claim that money. Tindley lost $212,000, and Charter Schools USA's three schools lost more than $601,110 because of across-the-board reductions.
Together, the cuts have left takeover operators with much higher costs than they anticipated.
Sherry Hage, CSUSA's chief academic officer, says the operator is planning to stick with its schools despite the costs. But for some, the price tag is proving too high. Earlier this month, Tindley shocked state education officials by threatening to pull out of Arlington shortly after the start of the school year unless the nonprofit could get $2.4 million in additional aid.
Hey, I'm sure Meckley will find more money for CSUSA to stick around York. After all, CSUSA's CEO, John Hage, has some expensive hobbies to maintain:
Gone Fishin’
Our story starts in a locale from which so much excellence and achievement springs these days: Florida, USA. That’s where Hage, who runs one of the country’s largest networks of for-profit charter schools, and his attorney/first mate, Edward Pozuolli Esq., registered their yacht, Fishin’ 4 Schools, along with an LLC of the same name. (Major shout out to Coral Springs columnist *Sharon Aron Baron* for dragging this story out into the Florida sunshine.)
The Fishin' 4 Schools, now 4 sale 4 $350K.
Double or nothin’
Now as you no doubt recall from your own summer idylls floating off of the French Riviera, *Fishin’ 4 Schools* belongs to a figure of speech that the French know fondly as le double entendre meaning that it means two things at once. Hage and Pozuolli’s handsome vessel is literally fishin’for schools of fish unlucky enough to be lingering in the depths off of Florida’s Gold Coast. But the fast-growing charter chain is also fishin’ for schools. Charter Schools USA currently operates 58 schools in 7 states and has ambitious plans to reel in many more in the coming years. And both kinds of fishin’ involve *chartering*—or for our purposes, *charterin’.*
charteringDoing gr8 by doing good
Speaking of schools, Hage and Pozuolli belong to one that I think of fondly as the *Doing Gr8 by Doing Good* school. In their fiercely urgent drive to bring outstandingness, excellence and achievement to Florida’s little ones, the two men are also doing, ahem, rather well by themselves. Just how well? Consider Charter Schools USA’s recent fishin’ trips for the financing needed for the company’s aggressive expansion plans; since 2010 Hage et al have hauled in more than $200 million in financing. And as the excellent Florida blogger Bob Sikes documents on his Scathing Purple Musings, all that bank has enabled the company and its captain to do things like run TV advertisements for one of their charters, while conveniently forgetting to mention its *F* grade. And don’t forget all the love that Hage has laid on GOP politicians.
That's the always fresh and excellent Edushyster, doing what she does best. Hage, however, isn't the only charter operator getting fat off the Pennsylvania taxpayer. Vahan Gureghian -- Tom Corbett's biggest contributor for his first race -- made huge bank at the expense of the Chester-Uplands school district.

How long until York faces the same fate? How many more districts full of deserving kids and concerned families will have to fall for the benefit of the Hage and Gureghian and their ilk before Pennsylvania finally comes to its senses?

I'd like to be able to lay blame for all of this at the feet of Corbett. But there's a special group of folks we really need to pay tribute to here: the ones who provide the pseudo-intellectual cover for this wholesale ransacking of the public treasury.

You see, for several years now, a group of highly influential academics have been promoting a few particularly pernicious ideas:

  1. School funding reform doesn't really matter; properly funding schools is little more than "throwing money" at them.
  2. The real problem is efficiency; schools already have enough money, so they need to learn how to spend it better.
This is the theoretical platform from which the school privatization movement was launched. If we could just get some market forces involved, the reasoning went, we won't have to raise taxes on the wealthy to properly fund our public schools. Just get a few more for-profit charter operators in there, and maybe some vouchers while we're at it, and -- presto! Awesome schools, awesome profits. Everybody wins.

The problem with the argument is that money does actually matter, and worries about efficiency are a smokescreen. You can't expect York to educate its children without the proper resources; turning its schools over to private interests won't change that.

It's sick and it's sad that we have come to this: a large segment of our political class has willingly convinced themselves, thanks to the prodding of misguided economists, that modeling our schools after the military-industrial complex is a good thing. 

It's quite clear, however, that the wholesale destruction of our public schools systems, while clearly sending shivers up the spines of libertarian fantasists, will be bad for taxpayers, bad for families, and bad for students.

Stay strong, York. I don't know what it will take to resist, but let's hope, for your children's sake, that you can find a way for your schools to survive. 

God bless York, PA.

ADDING: A message of hope from York:
don't count us out yet. Bearcats never give up! We will fight to the end!
Now that's a city with guts and soul.


Peter Greene said...

The additional bad news is that Meckley and the York Foundation both have ties to governor-elect Tom Wolf. It's possible that they know he's NOT going to back this play and this haste is about doing the deal before the guard changes in Harrisburg. But it's also possible that Wolf thinks this is a super plan. I guess we're going to find out really quickly where the new Gov's allegiance lies when it comes to public ed. In the meantime, I hope York fights this crap every step of the way.

Duke said...

It wouldn't surprise me, Peter. PA has a history of electing neo-lib Democrats like Casey and Rendell. Rendell used to brag on his support of charters:


walt sautter said...

The only people that can stop the take over of public schools by moneyed, connected interests are the teachers themselves. The only people that can stop the teaching profession from being reduced to the status of factory workers are again the teachers themselves. Unfortunately all I see from teachers (and their unions) is whining and whimpering. The only teachers that actually stood up for themselves were in WI and they failed probably because when they turned around and looked behind them no other states joined the fight. Where were the toothless NJEA and NEA? http://wsautter.com/
PS - I have ended my blog -http://teachersdontsuck.blogspot.com/ out of discouragement by the inaction and apathy of educators in general! I was hoping for a grassroots movement to begin to turn the tide but alas it appears it will never happen. The days of the 70s are gone and never to return !!

Jackie Conrad said...

Don't give up. Join BATS. National: Badass Teachers Association. There are state groups as well. Find a small group of like-minded individuals and advocate.

Unknown said...

The other cities inAmerica that are being taken over by reform need learn from this. Godspeed, York.