“It was really a great group of people with broad interests and backgrounds and experiences, with schools and with charter schools . . . We all have different experiences and perspectives, and so we wanted to broaden all of our understanding.”
“We did feel it was important for members of the charter school community to be involved and that we got their perspective as well. And we realize, charter schools are here to stay, and online and hybrid instruction can be a really good instructional delivery and so on, but at the same time, we would like to see a little bit more of a level playing field for everyone.”
“One of the profound things that I took away was just how important this issue and how passionate people are about this issue across the entire state of Pennsylvania.”
“If we can get with better transparency and a little more accountability and reconciliation, I think that’ll be a big move in the right direction.”
“I’ve been following this issue closely for 20 years and I think there’s more momentum now than ever before.”
Q: Edie, Al, as co-chairs of the task force, can you tell us about the work that the task force did to study this issue?
A (Edie): Sure. As you said, we began at the end of 2019 and we set out…we had a grand plan about outreach meetings across the state and lots of speakers coming in to speak to us. And then, the pandemic put the kibosh on a lot of that kind of stuff. And then, everybody was struggling to just get school back in session, so we really didn’t get started for almost a year after that. And in that time, I had a different co-chair and then he had to step down and then Al came along and helped us start things back up again. So, we got to start it really in December of 2020, doing mostly Zoom meetings. The composition of the task force was about 20 people, about 12 board members and a number of superintendents, five or six superintendents and administrators, a couple of attorneys who turned out to just be so useful, just with so much information. I learned a lot from them.
So, it was really a great group of people with broad interests and backgrounds and experiences, with schools and with charter schools. As I said, our listening tour was canceled, but we did some seminars for our information to help inform the task force. We had one from Alison Peterson who’s a lawyer who works mostly in Philadelphia area in charter school law and was actually a member of the task force. And she gave us a long, detailed, in-depth webinar on charter school funding. I learned so much from Allie. And then, we also had a webinar from Dr. Maurice Flurie, who was the president and CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, because we all felt that it was important to bring in the voice of the charter schools.
Q: You went about learning the subject matter very comprehensively before setting about doing the work.
A (Edie): We did. I think we wanted to enter this in a well-informed kind of way. And it was important to the task force to hear both sides of that. I think many of the school board members on the task force have charter schools in their districts and we all have different experiences and perspectives, and so we wanted to broaden all of our understanding.
Q: That makes a ton of sense.
A (Edie): Yeah. Yeah.
Q: Having both perspectives, hugely important. It’s not a one-sided issue clearly.
A (Edie): Absolutely. Absolutely.
Q: Did the task force get any feedback or input from members of the charter school community? And you mentioned the one participant of the discussions, was there any other participation? And again, talk a little bit about why that was important to include that perspective.
A (Edie): Al, would you like to give your perspective?
A (Al): Sure. I’d like to back up a little bit though, just to share a little bit, being a practitioner and a superintendent in Pennsylvania, of two different schools for 10 years. My last 10 years before starting my encore career at McDaniel College as a professor, but then also being a vice president of the school board here in Gettysburg. Part of my biggest motivation was, and what I had realized through very firsthand experiences in my school districts, was that we as public schools and again, charter schools are public schools as well, but in the traditional school system, I think we do a pretty good job of holding our stakeholders, especially our students and our parents, accountable for attendance issues, behavioral issues, academic issues and so on. I still believe, and maybe, hopefully I’m on the right track, is that public schools are still the great equalizer. And I just think there’s a strong appreciation for it, even if some of our students aren’t mature enough to realize it at the time, that in the long run, those things are pretty important.
The other thing that was really evident to me, seeing it firsthand, when some of our students, many of our students that would end up returning back to our school system, that were in the cyber, especially the cyber charter school, is that it really required a high degree of remediation and academic assistance to those students because of the lost learning that we were seeing across the board. And again, I don’t want to personally generalize there, but I would just say in general, that was definitely problematic for us. And I realize, our friends in the legislature in Harrisburg are trying to do the right things for their constituents and so on. And I do think it’s a flawed way of thinking, that creating this competition or the funding source, leaving our per pupil expenditure, a much higher amount than what the charter school is actually realizing how much that hurts our local schools.
Just here in Gettysburg alone, where I’m on the board, we’re bleeding about $4 million a year, and we see that rising. So, that was a big part of my motivation to be involved. And I realize, that’s more in line with the first question and so on. But again, I would agree wholeheartedly with Edie, that we did feel it was important for members of the charter school community to be involved and that we got their perspective as well. And we realize, charter schools are here to stay, and online and hybrid instruction can be a really good instructional delivery and so on, but at the same time, we would like to see a little bit more of a level playing field for everyone.
Q: Yeah. That’s great. That’s great insight. And hopefully your perspective was heard by the charter school participants as well. Hopefully it was an ability for them hear the perspective from the public school districts, as well. As the task force was going about its work, was there anything that stood out to you or anything that surprised you about the state of affairs with charter schools?
A (Edie): Well, definitely that the devil is in the details. I think as a board member as you begin, you start to read about it, and it can be a little bit maddening, as you go through the authorization process or just go through your budget every year and watch a significant amount of money being spent on charter schools and it’s out of your hands. But with the task force, we really got into a lot of those details and the solutions are not simple. It’s not an ideal situation and the solutions are not simple. I mean, I think that’s something that stood out for me is that you think, “We should get rid of the charters,” but it’s just not that easy.
So in fact, and perhaps this is back up in question number one again, but the goals of the task force … Well, we had a number of goals that were our chart of work if you will. But we agreed at the beginning, at the outset, that charter schools are a part of the Pennsylvania landscape, education landscape. And what we needed to find as a task force, were reasonable solutions that would be feasible and palatable to the Pennsylvania legislature. It’s all well and good to get your ire all up about charter schools, but we need to change the law, and that requires us to come into the table, willing to examine the details and do the work.
And I think that we had a great group for that. We got into a lot of the details and sometimes we got off on tangents too, but thanks to the PSBA folks who kept us moving forward. One other goal really, was to find not only reasonable solutions, but if you will, bite-sized chunks, so that they could be individual pieces that could be negotiated and adapted, and that could be worked through with the legislature to try and reach solutions. So, that was an important part of it, was to break things down into different pieces that could be negotiated and agreed upon and adopted finally. So, that was an important part of our goals.
Q: Al, anything that stood out or surprised you through the course of the work?
A (Al): Yeah. I’m not sure if it surprised me or not, but one of the profound things that I took away was just how important this issue and how passionate people are about this issue across the entire state of Pennsylvania. And that we really, here in Adams County, we are not alone. This is a statewide issue where we really need to see some reform and get some relief. That really stood out, just how passionate people were. And as Edie referred to, the devil is in the details, we got into a lot of detail. So, our thought was, trying to keep it as simple as possible and bring forward some recommendations that we thought had a reasonable chance with our friends in Harrisburg, that they would consider those things. And again, our people from PSBA, they’ve been on top of this issue and they’ve been very, very helpful and leading and guiding us through this process, and we’re very appreciative of their help.
Q: So, that brings me to the outcome of your work and that’s the report. So, let’s find out from you, when can we expect that the report will be released and what are some of the recommendations that are going to be included in that?
A (Edie): Sure, the report was compiled based on our work by our folks at PSBA, and we’ve been working on it over the last few weeks. And my understanding is that within the next week or two, that report should be finalized and should be released to the public. So, that’s excellent.
A (Edie): It’s May now, and I know that the state is working on its budget. We were aiming for March because of the legislative session, but it’s May, and we’re getting the work done, and we’re doing our best. As I said, we were looking for discrete units, if you will, of items that could be worked on with the legislature, that could be adapted into law. So, there are eight recommendations. The first couple, I think are ones that many people who follow charter school law at all and legislation and charter school issues are aware of. For example, applying a tiered special education funding system for charter schools, that will, as Al said, level the playing field with regard to special education. School districts spend a lot more money on special education than charter schools do.
A second recommendation is to apply a statewide tuition rate to students enrolled in cyber charter schools. Since that is a more evenly distributed kind of education, it should be evenly funded as well. There are a couple of recommendations that we made with regard to transparency, because as we know, all of our school districts have to abide by the Sunshine Law and reporting to the state, and that playing field is not level either. So, we made a couple of recommendations along those lines. And then, there are some, as I said, devil in the details kind of things about how monies are actually directed to school districts or to the charter schools, and how they reconcile that at the end of the year. And those are boring, but important details, that we have parsed out and are making recommendations along those lines.
Q: Great. Anything to add to that, Al? Any recommendation, highlights, that stand out for you?
A (Al): Yeah, maybe just a few things. I think Edie really did a nice job summarizing those things. But in general, just ensuring greater transparency, I think is really important. And looking at the accounting requirements and the reconciliation process in the relationship and partnership between our traditional public schools and the charter schools and so on, I think is important. When I read some of the information regarding fund balances of charter schools and especially these cyber charter schools, I’m not sure why they need a large savings account when they’re not dealing with facilities and those kind of resources, and so on, and that’s really concerning.
Sometimes you look at some of these salaries of the CEOs in the charter school world, and it does make you wonder profoundly, what is going on here? And so on. And that these taxpayer monies, that are leaving our traditional school systems, that most of our parents probably aren’t aware where monies are being spent on advertising and marketing and promotion and things like that, that we historically have not done in the traditional public schools.
And so, in general, I think, Edie did a real nice job explaining that, but again, I would hit on that special education issue. Some of our districts are paying $24, $30,000 per student and we really need to look at what is the actual cost of the program that they are receiving across the board there? And I do think it’s somewhat of a flawed system. And again, if we can get with better transparency and a little more accountability and reconciliation, I think that’ll be a big move in the right direction.
Q: Great. Well, I can’t wait to read it. So, this past March, PSBA created the Keystone Center for Charter Change. Larry Feinberg is the director of the center and is with us. Larry, you’ve been quiet so far, so I’m going to jump over to you now. Can you explain a little bit about the purpose of the center?
A (Larry): Sure. The purpose of this center is to build support and accompanying political will for the development and enactment of legislation that would provide regulatory and funding changes to Pennsylvania’s 23-year-old charter school law. I guess, the shorter answer to that question is the purpose of the center is to try and help push charter reform across the finish line.
Q: Okay. And so, anyone listening that might be interested in either learning more or becoming part of the effort, where can they turn for that information?
A (Larry): I have a special deal for you today. We have five items in response to that question.
Q: Wow. Okay.
A (Larry): Number one, they can visit our website, which is pacharterchange.org. And there’s a great deal of information and reference material regarding the charter issue. The second thing they can do while they’re on that website, is they can sign up for our daily PA Charter Change Roundup. Every morning, I survey the news statewide and some of the national news that applies to both charters and cyber charters and collate that. And along with the folks at PSBA, we package it up and send an email out to a few thousand people. So, if you’re not on that list, I’d recommended it. That will keep you up-to-date with the latest information and latest news, but also the latest research reports and latest developments. You can also circulate that to your board colleagues.
The third item would be if your school district has not already done so, please consider passing a resolution, a board resolution in support of charter change. We’re pretty darn close to 400 out of the 500 school districts passing those resolutions. It’s a great way to keep the public informed and to help keep your legislators informed. You can find information about resolutions on the PA Charter Change website. You can see which districts have already passed resolutions. You can download a sample template, and if your board passes a new resolution, you can upload an executed resolution back to PSBA.
The fourth item is you could encourage your legislators to co-sponsor. There’s a bill in the House and a bill in the Senate. The House bill is House Bill 272. The Senate bill is Senate Bill 27. The most significant provisions in both of those bills are a flat rate cyber tuition statewide, and applying the three-tiered special ed formula that districts live with, to charter schools in general.
The fifth and the last item that folks could consider is writing a letter to the editor or doing an op-ed on this issue and how it impacts your district, your taxpayers, your students. So, those are all things that we would heartily encourage. If folks are looking for any assistance in those endeavors, and if they reach out to me on the PA Charter Change website, contact information is out there, I’d be happy to help in any way.
Q: Great. Okay. You mentioned letter to the editor, that would be in their local markets or any of their media contacts, just to get that message out there to their community. So Larry, you’ve been working on this issue a long time. I mean, the issue has been around for a while and you’ve been working on it for some time, through your role on your school board. And do you see anything significant that’s changed with respect to charter schools recently? Or do you see anything … It sure feels like there is change coming, but what kind of changes have you seen or would you predict?
A (Larry): Well, just a little bit of context and frame this a bit: one of the things I want to make clear is that PSBA supports choice as long as the accountability and transparency that our regular public schools are subject to, applies to the charters. The other item is that we’d like to see that tuition be in line with actual costs, because it’s tax dollars. And as school board directors, we actually have to put our hands in our neighbor’s pockets to raise that money, charter operators do not. I’ve been following this issue closely for 20 years and I think there’s more momentum now than ever before. In terms of a reason for that, I think for most of those 20 years, the Philadelphia school district was the most impacted by the charter law, because that’s where most of the brick-and-mortar charters are.
The cyber tuition, the cyber charters have impacted all 500 districts for some time, but with the COVID pandemic, that has really exacerbated the impact of cyber charters to all 500 districts. And this time of year, all our districts are going through their annual budget exercise. So, it’s becoming painfully clear in every article you read about a board discussion on budgets, cyber charter tuition has been mentioned, and I think that’s a lot of the impetus. I think the legislators are hearing it from enough folks, often enough, that they’re starting to understand what that impact actually is. I’m hoping if we can just keep the pressure up. If folks can go back to that previous question that had the five responses, and just go through that list, and pass it along to their colleagues and to other public ed stakeholders, I’m hoping that we may actually see some movement this year.
Q: And you mentioned that 400, or nearly 400 out of 500 districts have adopted the resolution and just to be clear, and they can find that language on the website, I know, but those resolutions pertain to the reform that you’ve all been talking about. And it’s not about removing choice, and it’s not about eliminating charters. It’s about introducing reform that is much needed.
A (Larry): Absolutely.
Q: Well, thank you all for the work that you have done on this effort, and we will be looking forward to releasing that report very shortly here, in the next couple of weeks, as you mentioned, Edie. So, that will be really interesting to find out what you all came up with. So, I want to thank you for talking a bit with us today on Keystone Education Radio. Thanks, all of you, for making the time.
A (Al): Thank you. Thank you.
A (Larry): Thanks for having us.
A (Edie): Thanks for having us.
Edie Gallagher and Al Moyer
Edie Gallagher and Al Moyer are the co-chairs of the PSBA Charter School Task Force. Ms. Gallagher also serves as the board president for the School District of Lancaster. Mr. Moyer is the board vice president at the Gettysburg Area School District.
Larry Feinberg is the Director of the Keystone Center for Charter Change at PSBA and also serves as board president for the School District of Haverford Township.