What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?
In reading several news and commentary pieces covering the policy positions of the Trump administration’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, my impression is this: That parental choice is paramount regardless of resulting academic performance or fiscal transparency, and that taxpayers who are footing the bill should have virtually no say, via their locally elected school boards, in how their tax dollars are spent. I was particularly struck by the fact that 80 percent of charters in Michigan are run by for-profit organizations, in no small part due to lobbying and contributions by the DeVos family. In Pennsylvania, for-profit charters have been a wellspring of fraud, waste and abuse of tax dollars.
What does accountability look like? Tomorrow evening, I will begin my 18th year as a member of a locally elected, volunteer school board. About twice a month, at public board meetings that have been advertised in advance, we review and vote upon pending disbursements of our neighbors’ tax dollars. The meeting agendas are public and posted in advance. Members of the public have an opportunity to speak on any topic of concern. Local press provides coverage.
We review and vote on check registers, spending our neighbors’ tax dollars.
Each year, members of the school board complete and submit detailed financial disclosure forms to the state. Our meetings are televised and streamed on our website. They are run in strict accordance with the state’s Sunshine Laws.
Each year, ever the course of several public meetings, we discuss, deliberate and reach consensus on a budget for the school district which determines whether there will be an increase in our neighbors’ taxes. The budget is posted on our website. The check registers are public information, as are the salaries of all of our employees and our superintendent. Most of the time the meetings are not particularly exciting; it is democracy at work.
We are accountable to our constituents whom we see regularly at the bank, the barber shop, the soccer field or in the supermarket, and they are free to express their support and concerns. Additionally, every two years they have an opportunity to vote to re-elect or replace half of the members of the board.
For the past several years those check registers have included payments to a number of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools. Unlike brick and mortar charters, which must be authorized by local school boards, cyber charters are authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education; we never voted to authorize any of the cyber charters. Our board has had significant concerns about spending tax dollars on cyber charters whose academic performance has consistently been dismal, both under No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress measure, and, for the past four years, the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores.
Under the law, we have no choice but to approve those expenditures. If we don’t, the Pennsylvania Department of Education will just draft our state subsidy to send the payments. This is in spite of the fact that our own in-house blended programs that provide cyber education operate at about one third of the cost per student to our taxpayers. We get virtually no information back from the cyber charters other than their invoices. I have never seen any press coverage of a cyber charter school board meeting.
The two major corporations behind cyber charters, K12, Inc. and Pearson (previously Connections) were instrumental via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in developing model legislation enabling cyber charters and in significant lobbying to have that legislation enacted into law.
This past week, I tweeted a link to Morningstar’s Executive Compensation at K12 to a member of K12’s management. He responded by accusing me of an ad hominem attack. Our public tax dollars are funding windfall profits and inflated salaries for these folks who wrote the laws that preclude us from holding them accountable for their performance or their use of those tax dollars. In a public school district, the superintendent’s salary is public information.
In Saturday’s special edition of the Pennsylvania Education Policy Roundup, I have attempted to consolidate a number of pieces that provide details on this issue. It is my hope that this might serve to better inform the public discussion when considering this question: What would persuade state lawmakers to bring greater accountability to the nation’s troubled cyber charter sector?
Lawrence A. Feinberg is a fifth term school director in Haverford Township. He is the chairman of the Delaware County School Boards Legislative Council and also serves on the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The opinions expressed herein are his own.