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Poverty, hunger are major distractions for many students
Linda Iverson, Wilkinsburg school superintendent, says some of her students are dealing with multiple generations of poverty and trauma. (Richard Finch Jr. photo)
Related story: School districts seek relief, changes to charter school law
School superintendents who attended a press conference in McKeesport on Thursday said most urban school districts in the Mon-Yough area --- and across the country --- face similar challenges created by poverty.
In the Wilkinsburg School District, about 99 percent of approximately 1,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, said Linda J. Iverson, superintendent.
Some of them are coming from generations of poverty and "fragmented" home environments, she said.
“It's not just that they're coming in from trauma-informed instances," she said. "They may not have had food or sleep the night before, or they may not have clothes.”
Emotional or physical outbursts draw attention away from education for teachers and staff members, as well as for fellow students, she said.
Besides the human and demographic pressures, there are financial challenges as well, said Mark Holtzman Jr., McKeesport Area superintendent. "We continue to fight rising education costs, relatively flat funding and rising pension costs," he said.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, there are currently five school districts in “financial watch” status because they face severe financial difficulties. They are all in small cities or urbanized boroughs --- Aliquppa, Erie City, Reading, Steelton-Highspire and Wilkinsburg.
Last year, Iverson said, Wilkinsburg spent approximately 20 percent of its $30 million budget on charter school funding. The district paid charter schools $12,879 for each regular-education student and $40,226 for each special-education student.
But, Iverson said, "the kicker" is that Wilkinsburg uses many of the same providers and curriculums for services as the charter schools do --- yet it pays "a fraction of the cost" that the charters charge Wilkinsburg.
Penn Hills spends $3,650 for regular-education students and $32,096 for special-education students to attend charter schools, totaling $15 million annually for charter school tuition and an additional $8 million in transportation costs, according to district Superintendent Nancy Hines.
The charters provide no explanation on why students who have a “speech-only” impairment need the same level of assistance as a student with physical mobility challenges, she said, but the district is charged the same rate, regardless.
"You cannot tell me that the speech-only disability requires that level of programming," Hines said. "What are they doing with the extra money?”
Penn Hills is one of six school districts in Pennsylvania in “financial recovery” status, along with Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg City, Scranton and York City.
All of the districts are in older urban areas.
Penn Hills doesn't have the resources to compete with the marketing and ad campaigns available to charter schools, Hines said, but works hard to retain students.
In Wilkinsburg, because funding is tight, Iverson said her district adopted an aggressive grass-roots marketing approach in an effort to keep students from leaving to attend charter schools.
“When I hear of a student considering enrolling in a charter school, I contact the parents through letters and follow-up phone calls, to let them know what Wilkinsburg School District can offer,” she said.
Duquesne School District works to show parents the opportunities that students receive by staying within the system, said Sue Moyer, superintendent. (Richard Finch Jr. photo)
Duquesne City School District has saved about a half-million dollars per year by recruiting students back from charter schools, Superintendent Sue Moyer said. The district had nine fewer charter school students this year than last year.
“We are working very diligently, nine students is a start but not nearly enough as we continue bringing parents in to show what we are doing with educating children at Duquesne, showing the engagement, showing the features of what we do,” she said, adding that “what cannot be measured is the students who didn’t leave because of what we've been able to showcase.”
Still, the district spends about $4 million per year on charter tuition, or about 20 percent of its budget.
Charter schools are "hunting and feeding" on poorer, urban districts, says Nancy Hines, superintendent of Penn Hills School District. (Richard Finch Jr. photo)
Hines said the 11 school districts in PDE's financial watch and financial recovery statuses need additional protection and support.
“We are in extraordinary circumstances and we are getting support, but there has to be some protection for us," Hines said. "(It's) like the protection afforded to state game lands—you can't hunt there. Well, the charter schools are hunting and they're feeding on us.”
She suggested that districts in financial recovery or watch status should be allowed to pay a discounted charter school tuition, or that a cap could be placed on charter school enrollment from those districts to give them time to heal.
“I think it's in everybody best interest to at least have protection for the 11 districts in PDE oversight,” Hines said.
Students are being lured into charter schools with false promises, Hines alleged, including claims that charters are "safer" or offer more rigorous programming and greater achievement, “a list of promises goes on and on and as my colleagues pointed out, there is no evidence that their experiences are better, safer and so forth.”
All of the public school officials who attended Thursday's event argued that charter schools need stronger oversight.
Iverson claimed that one charter school that serves Wilkinsburg students is skirting state law in how it calculates the amount of money the district pays to it each year.
Rather than using the current year's budget to calculate Wilkinsburg's tuition payments, Iverson alleged, the charter school has been using the previous year's actual spending --- and ignoring legal deductions that school districts are allowed to make.
That has the effect of inflating the cost to Wilkinsburg's taxpayers, she said, "and that is against the law.”
“The district needs the support of the community and the legislature," Iverson said. "This is bankrupting us.”
Hines said the cumulative effect is that public school students are being "left behind and exploited" by unscrupulous charter school operators.
"What do they have to look forward to?" she 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published December 11, 2019.