Jonathan Cetel is the founding executive director of PennCAN. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Wolf Administration wants you to believe that they are friends of charter schools.  

On Tuesday, Secretary of Planning and Policy John Hanger said, “The governor has made the point that he supports good-performing charters”

In March, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said that Governor Wolf recognizes that charter schools are…“a viable option for the 130,000 students who are enrolled in the state’s 174 charter schools.” 

Governor Wolf has been in office for eight months, which means we can begin to assess his record by his actions and not only his words.

His record is clear: Governor Wolf’s actions demonstrate his desire to undermine Pennsylvania’s charter school sector. Below is a compilation of every executive action the Governor has taken that relates to charter schools (readers, if I miss any, please let me know!):

  • Governor Wolf’s proposed budget eliminates unassigned fund balances for charter schools. Legislation moving through the General Assembly allows schools to save between eight and 12 percent of their budget for a rainy day. Nearly all business officers recommend a fund balance because of the possibility of a sudden loss of revenue (e.g. budget stalemate!) or sharp increase in costs (pensions!). In fact, bondholders require charter schools to save at least five percent of their budget. Yet, Governor Wolf believes that charters should return every unspent dollar at the end of the year back to the home district.
  • In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission was deliberating over 40 new charter school applications. Most policy analysts concluded that at least 12 of the applicants could be considered “high-performing.” Behind the scenes, Governor Wolf lobbied the SRC to deny every single charter school application, even those with a consistent track record of success. Ultimately, the SRC approved just five schools. The Governor responded by firing Bill Green, the Chairman of the SRC and chose Margery Neff, who voted against every charter application, to replace him.
  • In York, the state-appointed receiver developed a plan to convert the beleaguered district into an all-charter district. When Governor Wolf came into office, he removed the receiver, appointed his own person, and developed a plan that calls for audits, an improvement plan, and not a single charter school. 
  • In Chester, Governor Wolf petitioned the court to approve an amended recovery plan that solves Chester Upland’s structural deficit by shifting $23 million from Chester charter schools to the District. The savings would come from applying a new special education funding formula to charters that the legislature rejected last year and by applying a new cyber school reimbursement rate that the legislature has yet to approve. 
  • On the same day as the Chester announcement, the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued new guidance prohibiting cyber schools from requiring students to attend learning facilities. This guidance was targeted at one Philadelphia-based operator, which primarily serves students with learning disabilities. Parents at the school are calling it a “kill order.” 

Taken separately, it’s possible that each action could be justified on some policy grounds (e.g. the special education funding formula for charters is clearly broken in PA and it’s especially problematic in Chester). But taken together, these actions demonstrate a callous indifference to the low-income families in communities like Philadelphia, Chester, and York who are justifiably frustrated with the status quo. 

These are the same families who are supporting Governor Wolf’s message of increasing public education spending.  After all, pro-charter organizations like the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools and PennCAN are part of the Campaign for Fair Education Funding.   

In neighboring states, Democratic Governors have formed alliances with charter school organizations and families to advance a truly pro-child agenda. 

In New York, Governor Cuomo has blocked Mayor De Blasio’s attempt to evict high-performing charter operators like Success Academy. In Rhode Island, Governor Raimondo helped thwart efforts that would have put a de facto moratorium on public charter schools.

They are being responsive to the evidence that charter schools are doing a better job at serving low-income and minority students.  For example, the most recent CREDO study concluded that the typical student in an urban charter school receives the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning growth in math and 28 additional days in reading in a year, compared with their matched peers in traditional public schools. In Philadelphia the results are more dramatic: approximately 40 additional days of learning in both math and reading. Added up over the span from kindergarten to 12th grade, that is the equivalent of nearly three years of additional learning.

Governor Wolf has yet to sign his first budget. He still has plenty of time to evolve on this issue.  Until then, if the Governor wants to support all public schools, he needs to stop saying he supports charter schools and start showing this support with his actions.

Because with “friends” like Governor Wolf, who needs enemies?


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