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McKeesport, Duquesne, S.A. claim charters are ‘ineffective,’ demand more oversight
McKeesport, Duquesne, South Allegheny and other local school districts will participate in a statewide rally on Thursday demanding more oversight of Pennsylvania’s charter schools.
A group called Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, or PLUS, is planning simultaneous press conferences at 12 noon at nearly 20 different school districts, calling on Gov. Tom Wolf and the state General Assembly to address what its leaders call “unfair and inequitable” funding.
“We are coming together in solidarity to stand up for fair funding,” said Stephen Rodriguez, president of PLUS and superintendent of the Pottstown Area School District, located about an hour northwest of Philadelphia in eastern Pennsylvania.
Other local districts planning to participate in Thursday's rally include Clairton, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.
In Pennsylvania, charter schools are funded by school taxes but are overseen by separate, independent boards of directors. Many are operated by non-profit institutions but some are run by for-profit management companies.
Some charter schools offer specialized arts, science or language programming not available in public school districts, and proponents say they provide parents with a choice for their children, especially those who live in communities where the local school system is struggling.
But critics --- including many public school officials --- claim that charter schools drain public resources, and that most offer no better or worse education than nearby public school districts. State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has called Pennsylvania's charter school law, passed in 1997, "the worst in the nation."
Today, more than 8 percent of Pennsylvania elementary and high school students --- roughly 1 in 12 --- attend a charter school. Pennsylvania has the sixth-highest charter school enrollment in the U.S.
McKeesport Area school directors have said that approximately 8 mills of property tax paid to the district --- more than $7 million annually --- is spent on tuition payments to two charter schools in the district, Propel McKeesport and Young Scholars of McKeesport.
“We are calling on parents, staff and community members to contact local legislators and tell them that the current system of funding is harming our urban schools, and that charter and cyber funding reform is long overdue and crippling our school systems,” said Kristen James, spokeswoman for McKeesport Area School District, in an emailed statement.
Cyber-charter schools offer primarily online instruction, using computers.
PLUS is tying Thursday's rally to the 64th anniversary of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. That event began on Dec. 5, 1955, after a Black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
Parks' arrest, and the subsequent boycott of Montgomery buses by Black residents, is considered one of the seminal events of the U.S. civil rights movement.
Rodriguez said about 33 percent of a school district's funding comes from the state. “We are 47th in the nation in the proportion of state funding for schools – and as a result we have the second-worst school funding gap in the nation when it comes to wealthy versus poor districts,” he said in a prepared statement.
A PLUS spokeswoman said the group is especially critical of what they call a "lack of oversight" of charter schools, including provisions that allow up to 25 percent of instructors at charter schools to teach without current Pennsylvania teaching certificates.
The group is also critical of the use of private, for-profit management companies to run charter schools.
“In some instances, private corporations are making millions off money supplied by taxpayers,” Rodriguez said.
PLUS also criticized provisions in state law that require school districts to make the same tuition payments to "cyber-charter" schools that they make to conventional "brick and mortar" schools, even though cyber-charters have lower expenses.
According to published reports, out of 15 cyber-charter schools operating in Pennsylvania in 2017, all but one were ranked in the bottom 25 percent of all schools statewide.
“Taxpayers are funding highly ineffective schools,” Rodriguez said. “Our public schools are making gains, and the mandate that we must divert our funding to charters is truly short-changing our schools and our students.”
In September, Wolf came to McKeesport to tour Twin Rivers Primary-Intermediate0 School and promote his own plan for charter school reform. State Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport also has introduced legislation aimed at changing the way schools in Pennsylvania are funded.
But Wolf and Brewster are both Democrats, and the state Senate and General Assembly are both controlled by Republicans.
Many of the urban districts participating in Thursday's rally are struggling with high percentages of students who underperform on standardized tests as compared to state and national averages.
But PLUS argues that urban districts also have many students living in poverty and facing severe challenges.
They say their students deserve the same opportunities that students in well-off suburban school districts have, including advanced course offerings, adequate counseling services, infrastructure and safety improvements, access to more early education resources and a more stable workforce.
“In Pennsylvania, the bulk of funding for public schools comes from local taxes, which puts urban schools at a dramatic disadvantage,” Rodriguez said. “We feel the quality of a child’s education should not be dependent upon a zip code. But the state’s urban schools are increasingly asked to do more with less. It’s simply cheating our students.”
This story was written by Jason Togyer, editor of Tube City Almanac, from press releases and additional research.
Originally published December 04, 2019.