by Lowman S. Henry | September 17, 2019

Let’s begin by stating up front what public education policy in Pennsylvania today is not about:  it is not about children, families, or proving a quality education to all students regardless of the zip code in which they live.

Public education policy in Pennsylvania is about one thing and one thing only and that is protecting the wealth and power of the education establishment.  That education establishment includes a powerful labor union, school boards – on which sit many union members who teach in other districts, the state Department of Education, and of course, elected officials who sup at the trough of union political dollars.

First and foremost among those whose campaigns have been substantially financed by labor is Governor Tom Wolf who recently repaid his benefactors by placing onerous new restrictions and fees on charter schools.

Charter schools are like kryptonite to the education establishment.  They are, however, a lifeline to many students who otherwise are trapped in failing schools, forced into a one-size-fits-all education system, or otherwise ill-served by public schools.  Students in charter schools are disproportionately low income (62%), and minority (67%).

A good example is the Harrisburg School District.  It is one of the worst districts in the state, suffers from chronically low graduation rates, has been administratively chaotic and inept, and worse suffered from occasional outbreaks of violence.

A variety of efforts have been made to fix the district including having it taken over by the Mayor of Harrisburg, placing it under control of a financial recovery officer, multiple superintendent changes, and now it is under control of a receiver.

The new receiver plans a number of changes, but the one change she ruled out was approving charter schools.  She would rather trap students in a failed district than allow them the opportunity to receive a quality education – something her district is unable to provide – at a charter school.

Student enrollment in public charter schools, private charter schools, and cyber charter schools has been increasing.  This is because, especially in failed districts like Harrisburg, charter schools offer parents and students the option of receiving a quality education.  In other words they out-compete the public school.

Competition is anathema to the education establishment so it has ratcheted up its attack on charter schools.  Doing the bidding of his campaign donors Governor Tom Wolf announced recently new fees on charter schools.  The Department of Education will now charge charter schools a $15 fee-for-service every time the department is asked to redirect school district funds to cover unpaid charter tuition payments.

School districts frequently break the law by refusing to send payments to charter schools.  The education establishment operates on the mistaken belief that school district dollars are the government’s money, not the student’s money.  As a result 151 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts last year refused to send payments to charter schools.  Charter schools must turn to the Department of Education to settle the funding dispute and receive payment.

Essentially, the new fee imposed by the Governor will charge charter schools to have the Department of Education enforce the law.  While the governor claims he is recouping administrative costs the intent and actual impact is a punitive new fee on charters designed to make them less competitive.  In other words rather than make public schools up their game, he is trying to make charter schools less attractive.

In an effort to thwart the establishment of new charter schools Governor Wolf also has imposed an $86,000 fee on new charter school applications.  This is supposedly to cover the administrative cost of having the Department of Education review such applications.  The practical impact – by design – is to place yet another financial hurdle in the path of those seeking to open a charter school.

All of this is further proof that providing all children with a quality education is not the top priority for Pennsylvania’s education establishment, including Governor Wolf.  Their primary goal is to protect a monopoly education system that delivers uneven results and it’s just too bad if your child happens to live in a failed district.  To them that is just a cost of doing business.  To the students it is a life-altering tragedy.

 (Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected])

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