la academia.jpg

Students exit La Academia Partnership Charter School at the end of a school day in 2017.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the February 20, 2018 edition of The Caucus, a publication of LNP Media Group, Inc. 

Pennsylvania’s decades-old charter school law ranks among the worst in the United States because it provides “insufficient accountability and inadequate funding” to those educational facilities, a national advocacy group found.

Research conducted of all 50 states by the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found Pennsylvania’s 1997 law deficient because it places restrictions on charter- school growth and fails to ensure “equitable operational funding and equitable access to capital funding and facilities.”

The findings lend weight to the argument made by charter-school advocates in Pennsylvania that the state isn’t doing enough to help the alternatives to kindergarten through 12th-grade schools thrive and that the law, signed by Gov. Tom Ridge, should be fixed.

But they do not address how, specifically, Pennsylvania should solve one of the biggest issues separating charter-school advocates and opponents: The level of funding public school districts, and taxpayers, spend to send children to charter schools.

“We think the tuition rate calculation is flawed,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, which supports charter-school reform.

Critics, in turn, say there’s not enough transparency or accountability in how charter schools spend money they receive under the state formula. They routinely cite the thousands of dollars in spending on advertising, travel junkets and blue-chip Harrisburg lobbying firms.

“Those aren’t your dollars. Those are tax dollars,” said state Rep. Mike Reese, a Westmoreland County Republican who has pushed for charter-school reform for six years.

Charter-school critics and advocates both want reform for different reasons. But repeated efforts to change the law have fallen short over the past decade in Harrisburg.

“The debate seems to be stalled,” said David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and a member of a charter school board.

Charter schools, created to operate independently of public schools to stimulate innovation, are funded with taxpayer money. The public education establishment claims alternative schools get too much money. Charter advocates think it’s not enough.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools study found Pennsylvania and the school districts in which nearly 200 charters are authorized do not provide adequate funding for educating some 140,000 students.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of a charter-school reform bill making its way to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk this year. She said previous efforts fell victim to “angst and rhetoric against charter schools” pushed by charter schools opponents.

Indeed, the authors of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools made note of similar efforts to undermine charters schools across the country last year, citing “an increasing amount of pushback from long-time opponents.” But the group also said charter schools are making great strides — mostly in other states.

“We don’t want to minimize the threats we are facing,” wrote Nina Rees, the group’s president and chief executive officer, and Todd Ziebarth, its senior vice president of state advocacy and support. “We need to take them very seriously. At the same time, though, we are achieving some major policy wins for students across the country. We should not lose sight of this progress.

Reese, the lawmaker who is pushing for greater transparency among charter schools, said elected school board members in the state’s 500 public districts “would be run out of office” if they incurred the kinds of travel expenses some charter school directors do. Charter school board members are appointed, not elected, and are not accountable to voters.

His legislation, House Bill 97, would allow for longer renewal terms for high performing schools, and add stronger ethics, transparency, governance and auditing measures. It would also a commission responsible for assessing the level of funding to charter schools. The bill passed the House in April and the Senate in July. But it’s been sitting in the House Rules Committee since then.

 

CRITICAL OF SPENDING 

Charter-school critics in the Legislature cite spending on travel, lobbyists and advertising as evidence of the need for more accountability.

From the Big Easy to Las Vegas and Orlando, charter school board members have racked up room service charges, stayed at top-tier hotels and dined at taxpayer expense while attending conferences and meetings, records show.

Some expenses might seem like small potatoes. But when you’re arguing for more money, charging taxpayers $18.25 for orange juice, eggs and bacon at the Hershey Lodge like then-Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School CEO Michael Conti did in October 2015 might send the wrong message.

A month later, Conti stayed at the Harrisburg Hilton and racked up more than $60 in room service charges for dinner and breakfast, including a $7 chocolate torte and a $9 Belgian waffle. In June 2015, Conti traveled to New Orleans for a conference and stayed at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside and dined at Mr. B’s Bistro. His dinner party dined on crab cakes, ribeye steaks, pecan pie, s’more cake and a molten cupcake dessert.

Reimbursement for the meal was $205 for three people, or about $68 per person.

Conti is now the CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School in King of Prussia. Overall, he did not think his expenses at Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School were excessive, but he acknowledged that some might have been a “little high.”

Some of the spending, he said, came at conference site hotels, which were usually higher-priced facilities.

Conti said charter schools use taxpayer dollars and they “need to be good stewards.”

“We should all examine what we spent,” he said. “I support as much transparency as we can get in the charter school community.”

Commonwealth Charter Academy, a Harrisburg-based school with 9,200 students throughout the state, lists three lobbying firms and sends its school board members and employees to conferences throughout the United States. It also paid Harrisburg-based Bravo Group $6.5 million for advertising services, according to a federal tax filing from 2015.

Commonwealth Charter Academy CEO Maurice Flurie told The Caucus that of the three lobbying firms, one of them, Bravo Group, Inc., is only listed on the Department of State lobbying disclosure website in case the firm does engage in lobbying work. Two other firms currently handle the school’s lobbying work, while Bravo handles advertising and marketing. Responding to criticism of charter school’s advertising costs, Flurie said it was a “legitimate question.” He countered that school districts don’t have to recruit students because they serve the students living in the district.

“By the charter school law, we have to prove we’re not targeting or recruiting certain types of students,” Flurie said. “We need a broad-based marketing and media campaign no matter where they live.”

Commonwealth Charter Academy records show school board secretary Marcie Mulligan, of Bethlehem, racked up expenses totaling $2,431 in June 2015 — meals in New Orleans at restaurants including Cane’s, Camilla Grill, Gumbo Shop, Yo’ Mama’s, Haagen Dazs and Copeland’s Gourmet. Board president Ralph Dyer also traveled to the National Charter School Conference in New Orleans and submitted expenses of $2,318.

Former school board member Gail Hawkins Bush turned in an expense form in September 2015 for $2,502 to travel to Las Vegas, as well as to attend a charter school conference in New Orleans. She stayed five nights and listed twelve entries for “food,” without any specifics, for a total of almost $400.

Many public schools spend their fair share on travel, too, though.

The Pittsburgh School District spends $28,000 a month on professional development and conferences, KDKA investigative reporter Andy Sheehan revealed last month.

The travel included sending 15 staffers to Costa Rica in 2016 at a cost of $23,000, and six staffers to Dublin, Ireland, in 2017 at a cost of $11,600, KDKA reported.

Nathan Benefield, vice president and COO of the Commonwealth Foundation, said his organization supports school choice, including charter schools. But, traditional public schools and charter schools alike must be cautious in their spending.

“It’s a question of if there’s value in professional development trips where you can learn best practices,” Benefield said. “The question is, when does it cross the line of becoming excessive and becoming more for entertainment?”

There are conferences on charter school governance that board members could benefit from, Benefield said. Such conferences should distinguish between learning how to manage a school rather than simply be a perk of being on the board.

Meyers, of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said out-of-state conferences offer training opportunities for both staff and board members. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association does not train charter-school employees, so those workers often attend national charter conferences to get ideas about what practices will result in a “better end product for children.”

“It’s not just flying off for no reason at all,” Meyers said.

She also suggested the money being spent on conferences is relatively small. Some charter schools hold retreats, such as a 2015 winter retreat held in Florida by the Wexford-based Pennsylvania Distance Learning Charter School. But that retreat, which cost more than $11,000, was cheaper than holding the event at the Hershey Lodge, where the Pennsylvania Department of Education holds events, Meyers said.

Traditional public schools are required by the school code to report conference expenditures at the next school board meeting. But that law does not apply to charter schools, the state department of Education said. Meyers said, though, that charter schools are held accountable in annual audits.

ISSUES OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Annual charter-school audits provide a snapshot of revenue and spending but generally don’t drill down into travel specifics. In order to determine travel details, The Caucus filed requests under the Right to Know Law with a selection of charter schools throughout the commonwealth.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School was one of the schools that told The Caucus it needed 30 days to produce receipts and invoices for board members’ and the CEO’s expenses. The school’s response said it had “bona fide staffing limitations” that required a delay.

When the records were turned over, they included receipts from May 2017 showing the school’s CEO, Brian Hayden, charging for food, candy and snacks, including $1.49 for Dentyne Ice and a Cadbury Caramel Single for $1.99 at Sheetz; a staff dinner for nine people at BJ’s Steak and Rib House in Selinsgrove totaling $280, including almost $30 of chocolate peanut butter cake; and a $225 staff dinner for five people at Joe’s Crab Shack in King of Prussia, PA.

In a phone interview with The Caucus, Hayden said his executive team is often on the road, traveling through Pennsylvania. The school is the largest cyber program in the state, and educates almost 11,000 students.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School’s performance was reviewed by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in September 2016. Among other findings, DePasquale determined a lack of oversight led to high costs and poor accountability. The school’s former CEO is awaiting sentencing for federal tax fraud.

“We usually just stop and grab a sandwich, cheese sticks or fruit,” Hayden, the current CEO, said. “It is not a practice here to go out to fine dining establishments when we travel.”

The April 2017 Sheetz total was $23.19 for three people.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has a $55-per day limit for food, Hayden said. Sometimes the per diem rate is exceeded, as with the Joe’s Crab Shack and BJ’s Steak and Rib House dinners. In each of those instances he was paying for staff dinners and reimbursed the school for overages. The overage for the BJ’s meal was $57.69 while the overage for the Crab Shack meal was $70.40.

After reviewing receipts provided to The Caucus, Hayden said the school will now be double checking to ensure per diems are not exceeded, as they appear to have been at times in the past. Hayden has been the school’s leader for 13 months.

Kevin Shivers, executive state director of the National Federation of Independent Business and a former Ridge staffer who has served on a charter-school board, said the obstacles to significant charter-school reform is the opposition from traditional public schools.

“Gov. Wolf and his allies in the Legislature, bolstered by Pennsylvania thrive and exist,” said Shivers.

Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the union represents a small but growing number of charter-school employees in addition to traditional school district employees.

“Any suggestion that PSEA is against charter schools is completely untrue,” Keever said.

Keever said PSEA supports “common-sense” changes to increase the accountability for charter schools that would allow them to be more successful academically and financially.

Keever pushed back at the notion that PSEA is leading the charge against charter schools.

“There’s plenty of legislators and the auditor general of Pennsylvania who are making these criticisms,” he said. “It’s the auditor general of Pennsylvania who stood up last year and said Pennsylvania has the worst charter school law in the country."