preserving choice in education in pennsylvania

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Fifteen and twenty years ago I knew nothing about home schooling, cyber charter schools, or bricks and mortar charter schools. I wasn’t a parent, so I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of having such choice.

Yes, I predominantly went to private schools. But when I was in 7th to 9th grades I was in public school. Then called junior high in the much ballyhooed and over indulged Lower Merion School District. Welsh Valley Junior High School.

We had been living in the city, in Society Hill, and once we got past the 6th grade school choice as in a good and safe education meant little kids on buses and trains. So my parents made the move to suburbia at the end of 6th grade into the Magic Kingdom of the Main Line and Lower Merion Township.

The kids in the new neighborhood were awesome. They went to public, private, and Catholic school. Unfortunately, while my parents hoped that nice kids in a nicer neighborhood would translate into the public school I would be attending and it didn’t . Welsh Valley ended up being an education all right. Just not the positive or productive one that people like real estate agents would chatter about hoping you would purchase their listings. And some of those houses were classic. (And allow me a brief detour because I have to share the fact that as an 11 year old you haven’t lived until you have seen a Main Line house with not only a padded scream therapy room but a guest room devoted to a very odd collectible – an electric chair removed from some prison or something. The house was somewhere in Bryn Mawr.)

But back to public school. I have written about it before in detail, am not going into it again in such detail, so here are the cliff notes: drugs, bullying, inappropriate teachers, and behind the 8 ball scholastically when compared to my peer group in other schools, including other public school districts. I was a very bright student, smart enough to have been put more than a year ahead and my parents saw that their child was dying by inches in this educational environment that was supposed to be so fabulous. Only it wasn’t.

So the three year experiment was ended and I went back to private school. To Shipley. Private schools were almost affordable back then. Smaller classes, teachers who gave a damn, and actual academic excellence. It wasn’t a perfect Utopia, every school has issues, but I thrived. I will always be grateful that I was able to go to Shipley.

However, today private schools are ridiculous in price and their tuitions are beyond the reach of a lot of people. Even Catholic or other faith based schools are out of reach. Because of that, there is a need for education choice. We have seen the rise of cyber charter schools, bricks and mortar charter schools, and home schooling in Pennsylvania. These types of schools have filled the void created by that gargantuan public school vacuum in Pennsylvania.

I will freely admit that fifteen and twenty years ago I was a skeptic of alternative forms of education. But then I became a parent with a kid who was a faceless cog in the wheel of a giant school district who in my opinion did not care, or did not care enough. They did not care about effectively and consistently dealing with bullying even in elementary school. They did not care enough as a top down approach to education. And if you were the parents of a special needs child? Well I have friends who have children in that category and they will tell you that you have to fight for the basics in public schools every day. Even in affluent areas.

My personal experience is that of a very bright child who was suffocating. When my kid came home with “homework” that was not a book but a poorly copied copy of a Xerox copy of drivel I knew I was reaching a breaking point. When I experienced first hand a principal not dealing with overt, obvious, and repeated bullying, I knew I was beyond the breaking point. And this was not some inner city elementary school with no resources. This was East Goshen Elementary School in the West Chester Area School District. You would have thought that a school in what is supposedly Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county would be better than that, right? They weren’t.

And I know full well that teachers I know through social media who are in this district are going to be peeved at me once again. I also accept that friends of mine whose children were fortunate enough to make it through WCASD unscathed and prepared for life are not going to be happy either, but this is our experience, and I can’t dumb it down or sugar coat it, it happened.

I know I am not alone. I know a lot of parents in Chester County who either have their kids in charter/cyber-charter schools or who are home schooling. One friend in particular stands out. Her child is on the autism spectrum and was dying by inches in her Chester County school district. Her child was not getting needs even remotely met, and they were paying for it in taxes. So my friend decided to home school. The difference is remarkable. Her child is bright and articulate and is becoming a wonderful young lady who excels in school, loves to learn. She is like any other teen, and this is thanks not to the public school district where they live, but due to the determination of her parents.

We put our child in a charter school. As opposed to our parents, private school was not in the budget. The economics of today are very different, and when we were in private school we weren’t looking at $30k to $50k a year per child when all was said and done.

Our child is in Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville, and is thriving. The teachers care, they educate, the kids are nicer and brighter. Classes are smaller, which means your kid does not get lost, they are not just a cog in the wheel. And the irony is we are now in arguably the best school district in Chester County and we choose to keep our child there. He is happy. That also makes us lucky if we had to make a change, but most in charter or cyber charter schools can’t say that. And we all deserve choice. We are paying for it.

Another thing about how I feel now about alternatives to public school has to do with my peer group, my friends. I have two very good friends who are involved with charter and cyber charter schools. One in development and one from the administrative and educational side of the table. They are two of the brightest women I know and as a parent they are exactly the kinds of women I want in education today.

I am a realist, and I am not immune to what critics say about these schools. Yes there are issues with schools everywhere. We have seen it recently with an elite private school and some very upper crust public schools feeling the sting of a drug bust, and well then there is that principal from Chadds Ford who has “retired” after a PSSA testing scandal.

So are we bullet proof literally and figuratively no matter where we send our children to school? Absolutely not, but we pay enough in taxes every year to fund public school education that we should be able to have choice.

And there are two bills winding their way through Harrisburg that would rob parents of choice and detrimentally affect children’s lives. Especially those kids with special needs who often don’t get enough help now. Here, I will let Renaissance Academy describe it as they did in a notification to parents. It is fair and balanced and tells it like it is:

Last year, the legislature passed Act 3 which was an honest attempt to bring rationality to the funding of special education children. A commission was formed to draft a report and further legislation to achieve that objective. The commission did admirable work creating a three-tiered system and multipliers for each category of special education student. But two inequities arose in the recommended implementation. First, only in the case of charter schools is the funding based on basic education funding. Second, while the implementation is to apply only to the $20 million in new special education proposed by the Governor for traditional schools, it is applied to the total $1 billion in special education funding for charter schools.

These fundamental differences lead to two serious inequities. First, the discriminatory treatment of one class of special education student based, not on their challenges, but solely on the type of public school they have chosen to attend. The same child, with exactly the same challenges, would receive more state financial support if he or she were in a traditional school than if the family had chosen a charter school. Second, the decreased funding for charters destroys the ability of charter schools to meet state and federal FAPE requirements, and in some cases to continue to exist as a financially viable school.

To learn more about the specifics of these two bills HB 2138 and SB 1316:

Click here for HB 2138

Click here for SB 1316

I am not going to say all public schools are bad. They aren’t . But charter schools are a choice we should be allowed. Our child is in a very successful charter school and a public charter school is alternative public education. This is education we pay for, so we should not let lobbyists and politicians vote into laws things that remove educational choices.

This is of course another reason why I think people need to send Harrisburg a message this upcoming May primary. I think these bills are but another reason to render Governor Tom Corbett a lame duck. So use the power of your vote. Anyone who supports these bills either publicly as a sponsor or behind the scenes shouldn’t be representing us in Pennsylvania.

However, don’t just send a message with your vote, write your legislators. In Chester County it is suggested that you contact some or all of the following ASAP:

 

Dan Truitt (House/R) 610-696-4990

Robert Tomlinson (Senate/R) 215-638-1784

Pat Browne (Senate/R) 610-821-8468 – CO-SPONSOR of SB1085

Anthony Williams (Senate/D) 215-492-2980

Andy Dinniman (Senate/D) 610-692-2112,

Bernie O’Neill (House/R) CO-SPONSOR 215-441-2624

Dwight Evans (House/D) 215-549-0220

Jake Corman (Senate/R) 814-355-0477, Education & Appropriations committees

 

More information on what politicians do in Harrisburg:

House Education Committee:

Majority Members

Clymer, Paul I. – Chair YEA (215)257-0279

Aument, Ryan P. YEA (717) 295-5050

Christiana, Jim YEA (724) 728-7655

Emrick, Joe YEA (570) 897-0401

English, Harold A. YEA (412) 487-6605

Fleck, Mike YEA (814) 644-2996

Gillen, Mark M. YEA (610) 775-5130

Grove, Seth M. YEA (717) 767-3947

O’Neill, Bernie YEA (215)441-2624

Rapp, Kathy L. YEA (814) 723-5203

Reese, Mike YEA (724) 423-6503

Rock, Todd YEA (717) 749-7384

Simmons, Justin J. YEA (610) 282-3901

Tallman, Will YEA (717) 259-7805

Truitt, Dan NAY (610)696-4990

Minority Members

Roebuck, James R. – Chair YEA

Carroll, Mike YEA

Clay, James YEA

Conklin, Scott YEA

Harkins, Patrick J. YEA

Longietti, Mark YEA

Molchany, Erin C. YEA

O’Brien, Michael H. YEA

Santarsiero, Steven J. YEA

Wheatley, Jake YEA

Senate Appropriations Committee:

Majority

Tomlinson, Robert M., ViceChair
Pileggi, Dominic, Ex‑Officio
Scarnati, Joseph B., III, Ex‑Officio
Argall, David G.
Baker, Lisa
Brubaker, Mike
Eichelberger, John H., Jr.
Gordner, John R.
Greenleaf, Stewart J.
Mensch, Bob
Rafferty, John C., Jr.
Smucker, Lloyd K.
Vance, Patricia H.
Vogel, Elder A., Jr.
Vulakovich, Randy
Minority

Ferlo, Jim, MinorityViceChair
Costa, Jay, Ex‑Officio
Blake, John P.
Farnese, Lawrence M., Jr.
Schwank, Judith L.
Solobay, Timothy J.
Washington, LeAnna M.
Wozniak, John N.
Yudichak, John T

Be polite when you contact these people. Suggested talking points are as follows:

1. These changes would ensure that that the same special education child, with exactly the same challenges, would receive 30–60 percent less state financial support if he or she were in a public charter school than if the family had chosen to remain in the traditional public school. That is outrageous and blatantly discriminatory. At RA we have 160 Special Education students, this will be nearly a $1.5 million dollar impact on our small school.

2. This inequity will most likely also prevent my school from meeting mandated state and federal FAPE (Free and Appropriate Education) requirements, and could cause us to close –based, not on quality, but on insufficient funding.

3. The financial implications of the implementation of this bill is disastrous for one class of special education students, and will be a major step in the direction of eliminating educational choice for Pennsylvania parents.
There may not be any charter schools left in PA if this bill passes. Why are our public charter school kids being discriminated against as if they are not as worthy as traditional public school students? Our charter school kids deserve the same funding as every other public school child.

4. Children, regardless of the school they choose, should be getting the same amount of money. These are real children, with real disabilities who will get hurt by this. And if this passes, ALL of the kids in the school will be hurt because the school will not survive. We ask you, in the best interests of ALL our children, to not support this legislation.

My friends who work for an with charter and cyber charter schools are telling me that right now schools are trying to figure out how to cut 10% and more out of their budgets. Want to know why I admire charters other than the choice they provide our kids? They actually do more with less every single day. As opposed to traditional public schools and school districts they actually try harder. And well, yes, a lot of charter and cyber charter schools are making traditional public school systems look bad and work harder. I am all for that.

Students and parents deserve choice. Please join the fight to preserve such choice.

I hear a lot of parents who have kids in Charter Schools will be going to Harrisburg on May 6th. That is next Tuesday. A lot of these parents can’t really afford a day off, but they are making the choice for their children.

I hope the media will pick up on this as well. Education is so important. And the media is NOT talking about this, it’s not sexy enough for them or sensationalistic. It’s only education, right?

You can find information on the website of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

Your voice is needed to preset student equity and my final note is this is not merely another pissing match between traditional public schools and public charter schools. As the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools says (and I quote):

This is not a traditional vs. charter school issue. It is about institutionalized discrimination against special education students based on the school they have chosen to attend. A special education student in a charter school will receive between 30-60 percent less than a student with the same challenges in a traditional school.

My child is not special needs. He is merely a kid who needed a better choice in public education and a charter school has provided that. But I have friends with special needs kids. I know how they scrimp and sacrifice. So for them as well as more generally speaking, anyone who chooses alternative public school education for their children, I write this post. It is also my belief that it won’t be just special needs kids who suffer if these bills are just passed into law the way they are now.

Thanks for stopping by.