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Charter school advocates howling mad over Wolf’s budget

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By Evan Grossman
Watchdog.org
March 4, 2015

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is out to destroy charter schools, and his budget provides evidence, school choice advocates say.

“What the governor proposed,” said Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “is a budget that would effectively shut down charter schools across Pennsylvania.”

On Tuesday, Wolf presented a budget that restores more than $1 billion in public education funding, including $160 million in support for Philadelphia schools. The infusion of cash would effectively close the district’s $80 million deficit.

But included in Wolf’s soaring spending plan are policies that would cut funding to online cyber charter schools and seize the reserves built by brick-and-mortar charters.

James Paul is a senior education policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, which supports school choice. He said Wolf setting the regular education tuition rate for cybers at $5,950, about a third of where it stands now, is “not based in reality,” and singling out the schools “seems punitive and unfair.”

The budget requires all charter schools to refund money to the individual school districts if the audited expenditures for a respective charter school are less than its tuition revenue.

“Curtailing a charter school’s ability to maintain fund balances threatens the future existence of public charter schools across the state,” Eller said.

Wolf calls for a fair funding formula for all Pennsylvania public schools later this year,which charter supporters and opponents support. But his budget stops short of enacting other school reforms that groups such as the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, which recommended $3 billion in additional education spending last week, have called for. These include eliminating seniority as the sole factor in determining teacher layoffs, expanding the network of charter authorizers and providing tools to intervene in failing schools.

“The lack of budgetary support for charter schools is disappointing but not surprising given Wolf’s misguided refusal to back new charter applications for Philadelphia students,” said Alison Zgainer, executive VP of the Center for Education Reform.

Reformers say thousands of students are on waiting lists to get into one of Philadelphia’s 86 charter schools. Last month, the School Reform Commission, which controls the district, voted to add five more schools for the first time in seven years. Charter supporters were disappointed additional applicants weren’t approved — rejected applicants can appeal to the Charter School Appeal Board — while school choice opponents felt that five were too many.

Eller, a former state Department of Education spokesman, said Wolf is beholden to teachers unions that helped to elect him, and the budget Wolf proposed this week caters to “union members.”

Teachers unions, which are ideologically opposed to charter schools, contributed more than $1.5 million to Wolf’s campaign last year, helping him become the first gubernatorial challenger in more than 40 years to oust an incumbent.

Earlier this week, Wolf sacked Bill Green as chair of the SRC and replaced him with commissioner Marjorie Neff, a former principal and union favorite who gained popularity when she denied all 39 charters the SRC reviewed last month. Green’s demotion was chalked up as payback for the charters approved under his watch.

“I think the governor was very direct … that he did not want any more charter schools approved,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said of the move.

Green, appointed to the position by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett last year, said he is going to fight the demotion in court, arguing that Wolf has no legal basis to strip him of the job.

“It’s a shame Governor Wolf is choosing to play politics at a time when nearly 30,000 Philadelphia students on charter school wait lists remain without education options,” Zgainer said.

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