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School Officials Seek Relief,
Changes to Charter School Laws

McKeesport's Holtzman: Current system 'just cannot continue'

By Richard Finch Jr.
The Tube City Almanac
December 11, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Mark Holtzman Jr., McKeesport Area School District superintendent, voices his frustrations with Pennsylvania's charter school law at a press conference on Thursday. (Richard Finch Jr. photo)

Related story: Mon-Yough area districts say 'we all face similar challenges'

Charter schools are causing “financial instability” to urban school systems, said McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. and officials from other area districts, who participated in a state-wide rally Thursday to ask Pennsylvania legislators for charter school reform.

The news conference held in McKeesport was part of an effort among nearly 20 other districts and timed to coincide with the 64th anniversary of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts sparked by Rosa Parks.

State Sen. Jim Brewster joined Holtzman and school district superintendents Sue Moyer of Duquesne City, Nancy Hines of Penn Hills and Linda J. Iverson of Wilkinsburg to discuss the impact of charter school funding in Mon Valley school districts.

Also attending the conference were school superintendents Lisa Duval of South Allegheny, James Harris of Woodland Hills, Ginny Hunt of Clairton and Ed Wehrer of Steel Valley.

Thursday's event was organized by the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools. PLUS leaders called the rally to address “unfair and inequitable” funding and are looking to Gov. Tom Wolf and the state General Assembly for help in reforming Pennsylvania's charter school law.

PLUS is 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,” said PLUS president Stephen Rodriguez, in a prepared statement. Rodriguez is superintendent of the Pottstown Area School District in Montgomery County.

The statewide push for reform comes several months after Wolf toured the McKeesport Area School District with Brewster to promote his plan for charter school reform. Wolf and Brewster are both Democrats, and their bills did not pass the Republican-majority Legislature.

MASD serves roughly 3,200 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, spending about $7 million on charter school payments for 600 district students who attend either brick-and-mortar or cyber charter schools.

Holtzman said his district cannot continue to carry the burden of expenses created by charter schools. “Charter school cost is over 10 percent of our operating budget," he said, noting that his district raised property taxes 3.4 percent last year --- above the state's so-called index of 2.5 percent.

"The burden has become the taxpayers' burden,” Holtzman said. “It just cannot continue.”

Brewster said he is hopeful a better partnership between charter and public schools is attainable.

He said one of the most recent proposed charter reform bills, H.B. 355, never made it our of committee due to “extreme, heavy lobbying in Harrisburg.”

“Anything we do by way of reform will not hurt a student in any charter school, will not hurt a teacher and will not hurt a parent,” he said. “Don’t let the lobbyists convince you that reform hurts you.”

Brewster said there are four Democrats and eight Republicans on the education committee. “I don’t think I have to say anything more,” he said.

“Don’t let the lobbyists convince you that reform hurts you,” State Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport said to residents. (Richard Finch Jr. photo)

Holtzman said the cost of funding charter schools is not the only challenge urban school districts face. 

“We do have intense poverty issues and our fair share of challenges,” Holtzman said. One of those is a huge transient population, he said. 

“Around 45 percent of our student body either will start school a little late --- after the first day of school --- or they will leave during the school year and likely attend one of our colleagues' school districts," he said.

But, Holtzman argued, charter schools have preyed on struggling districts such as McKeesport. "Charter schools have attacked areas like the Mon Valley and taken advantage of the challenges facing our communities in an effort to convince families that they are a tuition-free educational program,” he said.

Critics of charter school reform, including the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that they're not to blame for public school budget problems.

“It is misguided to blame public charters schools that teach a high percentage of minority and economically disadvantaged students for the school districts’ budget problems,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of PCPCS, in statement released Thursday.

“There are 143,000 students in Pennsylvania public charter schools,” Meyers said. “They should not be forced to go to a failing school just because of their zip code. Public charter schools are the only option for many families that can’t afford private education or moving to another area.”

In McKeesport, Holtzman said officials understand that charter schools offer competition and are working to retain students in the district.

But that's become more difficult, too. Since 2012, Holtzman said, more than 115 professional and support staff positions have been eliminated.

Two of the remaining staff are designated to work with families so their children don't leave for a charter school, “so we can stop the bleeding.” Holtzman said.

"We really just want reform and some oversight and (to know) where the money is going,” said Moyer, Duquesne's superintendent.

If there's supposed to be true competition, said Hines, the Penn Hills superintendent, then charter schools should be recruiting everywhere --- not just in poor areas.

“Let the charter schools back off, let them go to the affluent districts that can compete with them, with their budget and what they have in terms of staffing and programming,” she said.

Holtzman is also tired of urban school districts, including McKeesport Area, being labeled as "failing schools."

He challenged “any community member or politician that could not be here today, to visit the our district, he said. “Come and see what the inside of our public schools look like, I think we're very comfortable in stating, in all of our schools, and I speak for everybody.

“We are creating productive young men and women that are going to be productive citizens, homeowners, taxpayers --- young people that can go on and manage this world and navigate this world at a very high level,” Holtzman said.

Whatever challenges already faced by McKeesport Area and neighboring school districts are being increased by charter schools, he said.

Students may exit McKeesport Area to attend a charter school and then be expelled for disciplinary or attendance reasons, and return to the public system, Holtzman said, but the behavior issues are not often communicated back to the home school district.

“We have to educate all children regardless of what the circumstances are,” Holtzman said.

In Penn Hills, Hines said the district's students score higher than most of the cyber-charter schools on standardized tests, but “people don't know this because we can't afford to compete with the ad campaigns and recruiting available to charter school systems.”

“Charter schools continue to deplete (our) resources with no accountability or financial responsibility,” Holtzman said. “Taxpayer money is used to flood the media with commercial billboards, especially at the start of the school year, to recruit our students away.

“They’re using our finances to recruit our children away from our schools – it doesn't make a lot of sense or it doesn’t help us at all,” Holtzman said.

Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at finchr43@gmail.com.

Originally published December 11, 2019.

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