Wolf school plan creates 'separate and unequal' policy

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Gov. Tom Wolf.

In addressing the decades-long financial crisis facing the Chester Upland School District, Gov. Wolf has insisted that he is committed to educational reform, educational accountability, and fiscal accountability. However, the governor’s proposed recovery plan, rejected in Delaware County court on Tuesday, would have not only served to punish those who have practiced the very ideals to which he ascribes, it would have also created a separate and unequal application of state policy regarding education funding.

The Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester, the state’s first university-based, independent charter school, has a proven record of educational and fiscal accountability. The results of the school’s educational testing compared with district-operated schools, and the results of its annual financial audits, stand as solid evidence that effective, cost-efficient education is achievable in the district.

For too long, charter schools that serve the Chester Upland district have been lumped together and labeled as the key culprit of the district’s financial woes. The fiscal mismanagement in the district existed long before the charter schools. It was a combination of this mismanagement, violence in district-operated schools, substandard facilities, and the poor quality of education that prompted many parents to seek alternative opportunities, such as the Widener Partnership Charter School, at which to educate their children.

The most concerning aspect of the governor’s recovery plan for the district is that it would have created a separate class of students. The plan proposed the application of a new special-education reimbursement formula for charter schools that was recommended by a bipartisan funding commission. However, this new formula would have been applied arbitrarily to Chester Upland. By all measures, the district’s children are among the most vulnerable in the state. It is unconscionable that the governor would choose the state’s most vulnerable children to penalize in this way.

In applying this new reimbursement rate specifically for special-education students attending charter schools in the district, Wolf’s plan would have resulted in funding far below all surrounding school districts. The $16,131.77 rate proposed under the Wolf recovery plan would have been nearly $5,500 lower than the Penn-Delco School District, and $13,660 lower than the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District. On average, the governor’s proposed reimbursement rate would have been more than $10,000 lower than the surrounding 11 school districts.

It is ironic that the governor’s plan is promoted as “the first step in ensuring equal access for all district students to quality and meaningful education.” Clearly, it would have accomplished quite the opposite.

The governor’s plan aimed to fund the financial recovery of the district at the expense of charter schools, regardless of their level of success in educating students or their demonstrated commitment to fiscal responsibility.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the two highest-performing brick-and-mortar schools that serve the district are nonprofit charter schools. The governor’s plan would have punished higher-performing schools by dramatically reducing their funding and giving that money back to the district, which has a dismal record of academic performance.

The governor’s financial recovery plan is just that — a financial recovery plan. It makes little reference to how this recovered revenue would be used to improve teaching and learning in the district. Furthermore, the court concluded that the recovery plan was inadequate in that the district would still be more than $20 million in debt by the end of the school year, and would very likely not have enough cash to finish out the year or pay the charter schools the proposed reimbursement rates.

Perhaps the governor’s plan should include an examination of what is working — fiscally and educationally — in schools that serve the district well and work to implement those best practices district wide, instead of taking draconian measures to rescue a model that clearly isn’t working.

Paula Silver is chairperson of the Widener Partnership Charter School Board of Trustees and dean of the School of Human Service Professions at Widener University.  ptsilver@widener.edu