Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, believes while the iFiscal Code doesn’t directly impact the state’s 170-plus charter schools, tensions between the administration and the school choice movement haven’t subsided.
“Absolutely we are still at war,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is the unstated, but very real attack on charters and school choice in Pennsylvania.”
Fayfich cited nearly a dozen instances since Gov. Tom Wolf assumed office that he says undermine existing charter school policy and leave organizations like PCPCS playing defense — constantly. As of this month, the coalition is party to at least three pending lawsuits involving the state, two of which have hearings scheduled for June.
Former Philadelphia School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green’s announcement that he would file suit against Wolf to get his job back after being ousted in March 2015 joins this growing list of grievances, Fayfich said.
“Gov. Wolf defied the law by removing me from office for purely political purposes,” Green said. “The powerful teachers’ unions that gave $1.6 million to Gov. Wolf’s election campaign oppose charter school expansion. Our students deserve better, and they deserve options. To protect the integrity and independence of the SRC and the office of chair from political manipulation, I am suing the governor.”
Green, who stepped down from Philadelphia City Council in 2014 to join the five-member SRC, is described in legal documents as the local teachers’ union chosen “whipping boy” because of his role in the cancellation of their expired contract with the city’s school district and his public support of charter school expansion. Gov. Wolf removed him from the commission just weeks after he voted to approve applications for five new charter schools — a turn of events Green’s general counsel, David Osborne of the Fairness Center, claims is no coincidence.
“Gov. Wolf exceeded his authority in firing Bill Green,” Osborne said. “The statute clearly says an SRC member may be removed from office only because of wrongdoing and with written justification. Neither was present here. Like the Arneson case, Gov. Wolf acted arbitrarily for partisan reasons. We expect the court to reinstate Bill to his former position as chair of the School Reform Commission.”
Jeff Sheridan, an administration spokesman, said “misguided and poor decisions” in Harrisburg are the root of the School District of Philadelphia’s woes and Green’s removal offered a chance for new leadership.
“Gov. Wolf used his authority, as provided by statute, to appoint the chair of the School Reform Commission and to bring new leadership to the school district, which has been devastated by education cuts,” Sheridan said. “Even now, after the governor has fought for greater investment in education at all levels and started to restore the funding Philadelphia lost, the district is in dire financial straits and our children are at a disadvantage. Due to misguided and poor decisions made by Harrisburg politicians, the district has been forced to lay off educators, cut important programs and slash transportation, security and other vital services. Gov. Wolf will continue fighting for more funding for education and to provide a new path forward for Philadelphia’s schools.”
Sheridan did not directly address the “war” against charters. He most recently denied that characterization in January.
Despite the Wolf administration’s denials, Fayfich said the administration only continues its onslaught and, with a 2016-17 budget impasse likely, payment disputes between charters, districts and the state will get worse.
Last fall, as Gov. Wolf and Legislative Republicans negotiated a slew of failed budget deals, cash-strapped districts got creative when it came to paying their charter school tuition bills. Which meant, in some dire cases, not paying anything at all.
Fayfich said the Department of Education’s announcement in January that it would no longer mediate payment disputes between districts and charters for any money owed beyond the current school year means that charters have only one avenue left to collect the payments: through the courts.
“PDE saying they are no longer going to do that leaves tens of millions on the table,” he said. “They are saying they are going to renege on their legally-mandated responsibility to act in this way and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
PDE cited a 2012 Commonwealth Court decision regarding a $7 million underpayment dispute between Chester Upland School District and Chester Community Charter School that found the department should only redirect money from a school district’s state subsidy to a charter school it owes if the payment is due in the current school year.
PDE spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman said the text of the memo sent to charter schools back in January regarding the policy change reads: “In 2012, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court [Chester Community Charter School v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, 44 A. 3d 715, 722] determined that the mandatory withholding requirements of section 1725-A (a)(5) of the Charter School Law apply only to claims on current year funding. The prior administration delayed the implementation of the court’s decision. PDE cannot contravene the law, and therefore will cease the end-of-year reconciliation process. Instead, charter schools may work directly with resident school districts to reconcile each school year’s tuition payments based on the number of days that each student was enrolled in the charter school.”