Friday, August 30, 2013

Philadelphia's Charter Problem

There have been a number of developments this week as far as charter schools and their lack of financial transparency are concerned. It is even more frustrating for advocates of public education here in Philadelphia that these gross ethical violations - amounting to nothing more than stealing from children - have come to light as schools prepare to open in a clearly unsafe environment that, dare I say it, may result in the serious injury, or even death, of a pupil during the 2013-14 school year.

Tom Ferrick, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist during his time at the Inquirer, wrote an excellent summary of the history of charter schools in Philadelphia earlier this week that is well worth your time. To summarize, charter schools came to fruition in 1997 as then-Governor Tom Ridge sought to brandish the badge of "education reformer" while he set his sights on higher political goals. Although Ridge's coveted voucher program was defeated with the help of public school advocates and teachers' unions across the state, a consolation prize "charter school law" was passed in Harrisburg (mainly because the very idea of charters was still fairly new in 1997). Little did anyone realize that charters would bloom so quickly in Philadelphia - growing from the first charter established in the city, Community Academy of Philadelphia, to the nearly 60,000 pupils currently enrolled in over 80 charters today.

As of 2013, Pennsylvania has approximately 170 charter schools (you can download the list here), the vast majority of which are located in urban districts throughout the state - over half in Philadelphia. In fact, when charters have tried to open in relatively wealthy suburban, low-immigrant, majority white school districts, they have been shot down time and time again. Just check out the above-mentioned list. (Ignore the highlighted blue schools which indicate cyber-charter schools and, therefore, can enroll students anywhere in the state). This "Better not open a charter in my School District!" scenario, along with inevitable charter rejection, plays out every year all throughout Bucks and Montgomery Counties, just as it did last year in North Penn. Even extremely popular and relatively successful charter schools in Philadelphia, like MaST, are shot down once they try to expand outside of the city. Why?

Do you really need an answer $$$???

Charters divert funds from the public schools in two manners. They drain resources as the money follows the students who leave and also create a lower demand for the tuition-based private schools in that district. This is exactly what has happened in Philadelphia as Catholic schools are rapidly shrinking (causing the District to pick up the tab) and district buildings go underutilized while still incurring the same upkeep costs (you can't heat half a school, even if enrollment has dropped by half). In fact, since the advent of charters in Philadelphia, Catholic school enrollment has shrunk by 35% and the Archdiocese has closed over 80 schools as the School District of Philadelphia struggles to pick up the added cost of more students with no additional funding from the city and state. (Ironically, mostly charters have purchased these shuttered Catholic school buildings - with publicly-funded dollars of course.) No wonder those well-off suburban districts steer clear of charter expansion!

What about Philadelphia? Well, Philly schools have, over years and years of bad oversight and management, been written off as "bad schools" that need to be reformed... "So why not enroll my kids in a charter school!!" (Wait a minute, didn't we just establish that they drain a district's finances even further?) Charters, in Philadelphia at least, have the REPUTATION of being better simply because - frankly - they aren't Philly schools. Charters, as a whole, perform no better or worse than Philadelphia public schools. A number of studies have shown this, such as this one from 2008 "The analysis indicates that students' average gains attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experience while at traditional public schools." Don't get me wrong - there are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools JUST AS there are excellent Philly public schools (some of the best in the state!) and bad public schools. So, why do many parents line up for charter schools while they malign the public school down the street? Basically, they have a better marketing strategy and are able to more successfully "sell" their product (unlike what the School District of Philadelphia is currently doing with this fiscal showdown fiasco).

So where's the problem? Again, it comes down to the money. All of the money that goes through public school districts is carefully recorded, accounted for and, if discrepancies arise, audited. Books are kept. I wish I could say the same about charter schools. Charters have free reign because the state and city charter-oversight offices are woefully understaffed and underfunded. For example, only three of those over 80 Philly charters have even been audited since 2008. In fact, Harrisburg is full of lobbyists pushing for laws to make it even EASIER to open charter schools instead of focusing on increased state supervision. If you want to make a quick buck with taxpayer money and disguise it as helping out those "poor urban" kids, why not open up a charter school? Come on... Everyone's doing it! With such poor oversight, who's going to stop you? I bet, even the director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority - that "great educator" of children, pun intended - wants his own charter! (In fact, HE DOES. I kid you not.)

This all leads me, finally, to this week's news. As you read these highlights, keep in mind that this money should be going to a School District that is in the hole $300million - a District asking its teachers to give $133million in labor concession.
  • Where has all the PA education money gone? Why not ask the founder of PA's largest cyber charter school... which syphons off even more money from traditional public schools than brick-and-mortar charters because PA law reimburses them the same amount per pupil, even though it's significantly cheaper to educate a student online. Well, the FBI recently discovered that the founder and former CEO of PA Cyber (while producing horrible academic results) stole "more than $8 million from the school through a network of companies, then scheming with his accountant to avoid income taxes." Among other things, he even had the audacity to buy a $1 million Florida condominium and houses for his girlfriend and mother, along with nearly $1 million in personal expenses, including groceries. All of this, of course, made possible because charter schools don't have the same oversight as district-run schools.
  • That first charter established in the city all the way back in 1997... Community Academy of Philadelphia? It has a history of ridiculously high salaries, charges of nepotism, and fund mismanagement while producing poor academic results and collecting over $20million in public tax money. This week, the school secretary that informed on them to the Feds back in 2009 finally settled her whistle-blowing lawsuit. Charges against the charter are still pending.
  • The President of Harambee Charter School, another of the city's oldest charters dating to 1997, was charged with using his position to steal nearly $90,000.
  • ASPIRA Inc of PA, the operator of 5 charters here in Philadelphia and one of the city's largest, was recently audited. It was discovered that they had shuffled around $3.3 million of public tax money towards private debt-service and a property purchasing entity. "...the network’s combined real-estate holdings increased from $13.34 million in 2011 to $23.15 million in 2012, according to the audit." Meanwhile, just a few months ago, it was disclosed that ASPIRA was spending a publicly-funded $17,094 in legal fees to discourage its staff at the newly acquired Olney Charter High from forming a union.
  • Finally, although this does not have to do with Philadelphia, the New York Times did a piece earlier this week on how charter schools across the country prefer younger and less-experienced teachers. It profiled the numerous charters that encourage teachers to leave within 5 years, making them a perfect match for Teach For America and other "resume building" teacher programs. Even though numerous studies have concluded that more experienced teachers coupled with staff stability and less teacher turnover produce the best academic results for students, these charters throw that research out the window. Instead, they once again look at the bottom line: costs and profits.
Obviously, many local groups have realized the hypocrisy involved and are demanding that these mismanaged charters pay back their ill-gotten gains. They are calling on the State, City, and District to balance their books by seeking reparations from these frauds - not by stripping away the livelihood of hard-working teachers.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Today's Contract News & Reflections

What a busy day! I was out with the kids from early morning until this afternoon and came back to find President Jerry Jordan has said he would propose healthcare contributions and a pay freeze for members to the District at the negotiating table!!!

While he stated that there would be "NO WAGE CUTS" I was livid because, as you all know, whether we call it a pay cut or healthcare contributions, at the end of the day it still means less money in our paycheck and is, therefore, a pay cut. Over the past decade, this has been, in my opinion, the compromise we were given compared to teachers in other districts - worse salary but better benefits with lower costs. After doing some basic math, what the District wants - 13% healthcare contributions - amounts to about a 6% pay cut for me under my plan (Family HMO). It could be more or less depending on your situation. As a reminder, percentage contributions ARE NOT STABLE seeing as healthcare costs continue to rise exponentially due to this country's dysfunctional healthcare system.
  • The Family Plan HMO from 8 years ago cost $856.
  • In 2008 it rose to $1023.
  • Then (DESPITE a WORSE plan with higher deductibles that we were enrolled in after our last contract in order to save the District money) it rose yet again to $1587.
  • Finally, in July of this year it reached a whopping $1711, all in a matter of 8 years. (If you have PPO, they've risen even more).
While we have had - I believe - four or five 3% raises since 2005, barely keeping us in line with inflation and definitely lower than our suburban counterparts, our healthcare costs have more than doubled for what is, effectively, a worse plan. Here are the numbers if you want to check how your rates have doubled since 2005:

Call it what you will, a 13% contribution to healthcare ("without salary reductions") is in fact a 5% salary reduction. Even worse, it is a 5% salary reduction that will balloon into a 10% salary reduction in a few short years if healthcare cost trends continue, and there is no reason to believe they won't. (Math teachers, correct me if I'm wrong here!)

I was ready to go to the PFT meeting on Monday and vote a resounding "NO!" on this proposal. Many other PFT members on message boards across the Internet have expressed that they will do the same. After all, the last contract was only ratified by 2/3 of the members after they found out that "Renaissance Schools" would be introduced into the district, and we see what damage they have done to our job security. ( In fact, the PFT Constitution also allows for recall votes if the membership feels its leadership does not properly "represent the viewpoint of the PFT before legislative and public groups." You can view the PFT Constitution here:

After I calmed down, I realized that the PFT has NEVER negotiated in public - let alone told the press what it is proposing at the negotiating table before it actually negotiates it behind closed doors. Immediately following Jordan's press conference, the School District and Governor's Office prompty issued a response stating the proposed healthcare givebacks and salary freeze are not enough. The District wants more and Corbett would still refuse to release the $45 million - even if we agreed to these proposals during a membership vote. Read their response here:

So, did Jerry Jordan actually cave in to the District's demands or was this a public relations stunt to show that the PFT is willing to meet the City, State, and District halfway - even though Jordan knew they wouldn't take the bait - in order to put us in a positive light? I'm not sure... Draw your own conclusions. All I can say is that Monday is going to be a VERY INTERESTING meeting and, to all my fellow PFTers: make sure you COME OUT AND VOTE!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An Open Letter to Mayor Nutter

Dear Mayor Nutter,

I am a Philadelphia School District teacher, parent, resident, and registered Democratic voter who found your remarks from last week's press conference regarding the situation with the district to be extremely insulting. You stated that I and my fellow teachers in the PFT are the only ones who have yet to financially contribute to the school funding solution. What gall!

Last year, the PFT gave $58 million to the financially strapped School District, more than the city and state, combined, have contributed thus far. Here's the article in case your memory fails you:  That money, by the way, came from the PFT's Health & Welfare Fund, managed by the union and the union's accountants. The PFT keeps sound financial footing and makes sure to keep its books in check, which resulted in that surplus. Unfortunately, the SRC cannot do the same with the District's books but they don't seem to mind... They would rather balance them on the backs of the hardworking members of the PFT.

On top of that, I must buy my school supplies every year for an underfunded and understaffed school building while continuing to work under sub-standard conditions and lower pay than my counterparts in other districts. What kind of professional, other than a Philadelphia school teacher, is FORCED to buy their own copy paper, year in and year out. I have bought my classroom computer out of my own pocket and a projector out of my own pocket, just so my students aren't compelled to learn under a 20th century model without the slightest access to technology. In a GOOD year, I spend over $1000 out of my own salary on basic supplies and upkeep for my vastly underfunded school - housed in a building, by the way, that dates from the 1930s. Now, you expect me and my colleagues to give up nearly 15% of our salary because of a manufactured state crisis which we did not create?

I am attaching a picture of the boxes of paper I must buy in order to have a successful school year, again out of my own pocket.

In closing, Mr. Mayor, let me ask you... WHAT HAVE YOU CONTRIBUTED OUT OF YOUR OWN POCKET?

--George Bezanis