Test your knowledge of Pennsylvania’s charter schools!

1.  What percentage of public schools in PA are charters?

A)  11.3%

B)  18.4%

C)  0.45%


2.  What percentage of PA charters made AYP in 2011?

A)  73.1%

B)  89.0%

C)  55.6%


3.  What percentage of PA’s 142 charters are in Philadelphia?

A)  22.4%

B)  41.4%

C)  56.3%


4.  What percentage of Philadelphia’s charters made AYP in 2011?

A)  78.0%

B)  92.9%

C)  54.7%


5.  After the Philadelphia School Reform Commission signed the “Great Schools Compact” in an effort to win grant money from Bill Gates, what percentage of Philly schools will be charters by 2017?

A)  15.5%

B)  33.3%

C)  43.1%



1.  The answer is C.  There are 3,096 public schools in PA, and 142 are charters (one half of one percent). 

2.  The answer is C.  Only 79 of PA’s 142 charters made AYP in 2011.

3.  The Answer is C.  There are 80 charters in Philadelphia in 2012. 

4.  The answer is C.  Only 40 out of Philadelphia’s 73 charters made AYP in 2011.

5.  The answer is C.  The Compact calls for turning around the District’s lowest 25 percent of schools into charters by 2017.  There are currently 249 traditional public schools in the District (.25 x 249 = 62.5).  Add 62 charters to the 80 already in existence, and you get 142.  This number (142) is 43.1 percent of 329 (80 charters + 249 traditional schools).

(Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website.)

What Happened to the Philadelphia School District’s 2008 Five-Year Financial Plan?

by Christopher Paslay

Tom Knudsen, the District’s new Chief Recovery Officer, is searching for consultants to help the District develop a five-year financial plan to balance the budget.  Tragically, this would not be necessary if the District simply followed its 2008 five-year plan.

I’m going to let Tom Knudsen and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in on a little secret: five-year financial plans only work if you follow them.  This nugget of wisdom is similar to the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry goes to pick up his rental car and finds there are none available.  The rental agent acknowledges that Jerry indeed has a reservation, but that he can’t get a car because the agency didn’t hold one for him. 

“Anyone can take a reservation,” Jerry says, “but it’s the holding of the reservation that counts.”

The same philosophy applies to the District: anyone can write a five-year financial plan; it’s following the plan that counts.   

A case in point is the District’s other five-year financial plan, the one Dr. Ackerman and the SRC released on June 30, 2008.  Titled, “Five-Year Financial Plan: Fiscal Year 2008-2009 through Fiscal Year 2012-13,” it was put in place to help close the $73 million “surprise” budget deficit left by Paul Vallas, former C.E.O. of Philadelphia public schools (click here to read the document).  The plan went on to make several ambitious promises in its executive summary:

“In future years, District finances are projected to continue steady improvement based on strong continued state funding levels, combined with tight fiscal restraint for District spending. Accordingly, the first year of this Plan is critical for establishing sustainable fiscal health.

A Gap Closing Plan is in development to achieve full and sustainable balance for the fiscal year ahead. The SRC Chair has requested that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Secretary of the Budget and City of Philadelphia Director of Finance work with the District to construct this approach, and the process has begun. Assuming that at least half of the initiatives in this Gap Closing Plan recur, the District is projected to produce operating surpluses in FY2010-11 and FY2011-12 and to begin to rebuild a positive Fund Balance reserve.”    

Here are the yearly budget projections quoted in the Five Year Financial Plan (p. 14 of the document):

FY2008-09:  $2,280,602,991

FY2009-10:  $2,483,103,289

FY2010-11:  $2,646,495,847 

FY2011-12:  $2,806,419,243

FY2012-13:  $3,025,631,379

To the credit of the newly appointed Dr. Ackerman and the SRC, the District did manage to successfully balance the books in 2008-09.  Shortly thereafter, however, the District’s philosophy of efficient spending went out the window.  This was undoubtedly due to the fact that a gigantic pot of Federal Stimulus money landed at their doorstep.  Here are the District’s actual budgets from 2009 to 2012:

FY2008-09:  $2,794,000,000

FY2009-10:  $3,057,000,000

FY2010-11:  $3,216,000,000

FY2011-12:  $2,770,000,000

The District’s spending not only went up nearly a half a billion dollars in three years ($422 million), but their 2010-11 costs were 570 million dollars over their original budget projections in their financial plan issued in June of 2008.    

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, the irony of the situation is two-fold.  One—the District somehow forgot to exercise “tight fiscal restraint.”  And two—there is no operating surplus for the year 2011-12.  In fact, there is now a deficit of over $700 million dollars. 

Most ironic, however, is the fact that if the SRC would have simply followed their own Five Year Financial Plan, which estimated a budget of only $2,806,419,243 for the 2011-12 school year, there would be a more manageable deficit of $36 million dollars, based on the District’s 2011-12 school year budget of $2,770,000,000.

So a word to the wise: if the District is going to spend a bunch of money hiring a consultant to write a five-year financial plan, it must make sure it follows it.  Writing a financial plan and not following it is like giving out a reservation for an automobile but not holding the car.

Payroll Woes: Is the Philadelphia School District the Next Chester Upland?

by Christopher Paslay

The Chester Upland School District recently ran out of money and can no longer pay its teachers.  At the latest SRC meeting, Feather Houstoun admits that this summer, the Philadelphia School District may not ‘be able to pay people in July for work they did in June.’    

In three years, the Philadelphia School District blew through a sick amount of money.  A sick amount.  From September of 2008 to June of 2011—the Ackerman-Archie years—the District spent in excess of $9 billion dollars.  The craziest part is, the more money they spent, the less they seemed to have to show for it. 

In the 2008-09 school year, with 169,000 students enrolled in District schools, the District had an operating budget of approximately $2.79 billion.  Things weren’t perfect but they were stable.  Athletic programs were fully funded, as were extracurricular clubs and after school activities.  Schools had fulltime nurses, photocopiers were supplied with paper, and most importantly, people who showed up for work were able to get paid. 

In the 2009-10 school year, with the help of federal stimulus money, the District’s budget increased to over $3 billion.  Student enrollment dropped to 165,000.  The following school year, in 2010-2011, the budget jumped again—to $3.25 billion.  Student enrollment sank to just under 160,000. 

In 2011-12—the current school year—things came full circle: the operating budget has dropped back to what it was in 2008-09, which is a cool $2.77 billion.  Of course, there are now only 146,000 students enrolled in District schools.  And now, somehow, after all that extra money came into the District during those zany stimulus years—a half a billion dollars of it!—the District is flat broke.  Busted.  Down and out. 

Many athletic programs have been shut down.  After school clubs have been axed.  School nurses have been cut.  Teachers, NTAs, and counselors have been laid off.  In many schools (like mine), teachers have to buy their own paper.  And now, according to the recent comments made by Feather Houstoun at the latest School Reform Commission meeting, the District may have a hard time paying people; they need to cut another $61 million by June.                        

“We’re basically going to limp through May and June,” Houstoun said at the meeting. “We’ll cover payroll. We’ll cover debt service because we absolutely have to. But we’re going to have to have such a pile up of cash deficit that we’re basically not going to be able to pay people in July for work they did in June. If we haven’t fixed this and have a credible plan for next year and the next year, we may not even be able to go to credit markets.” (Click here to read Inquirer Reporter Kristen Graham’s blog of the meeting).    

Not be able to pay people in July for work they did in June?  Which people are we talking about here?  Teachers?  Principals?  Who? 

Although it’s not the current administration’s mess, it really makes you wonder what in the world was going on down at 440 N. Broad for the past three years.  Where in the world did all that money go, for heaven’s sake?  But more importantly, when and how is the District finally going to have the wherewithal to get their finances back in order and put a stop to all the bleeding?

Bloomberg and Christie Ignore Major Findings on Performance Pay

by Christopher Paslay

Despite growing evidence that performance pay has no effect on student achievement, politicians continue to push for its use.   

In July of 2011, the RAND Corporation issued the following news release about their study on performance pay in NYC public schools:

“A New York City program designed to improve student performance through school-based financial incentives for teachers did not improve student achievement, most likely because it did not change teacher behavior and the conditions needed to motivate staff were not achieved, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

From 2007 to 2010, nearly 200 high-needs New York City public schools participated in the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program. The study, commissioned by the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers and funded by the New York City Fund for Public Schools and National Center on Performance Initiatives, is the most comprehensive study on the city’s performance pay program.”

How has New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reacted to the news?  He wants to double-down on performance pay.  In his State of the City speech last Thursday, 1/12, Bloomberg stated he would push to overhaul the city’s teacher evaluation system, and give top teachers $20,000 bonuses.     

Why has Bloomberg ignored the conclusions drawn by the RAND study?  Because politicians such as Bloomberg realize that the public is more interested in the heightened regulation of teachers than in the actual education of students.      

In 2010, two additional studies on performance pay were released with the following conclusion: performance pay had no effect on student achievement. The first study, by Mathematica Policy Research, took place in Chicago and was published in May of 2010. Of the study, Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk writes:

“Preliminary results from schools taking part in a Chicago program containing performance-based compensation for teachers show no evidence that the program has boosted student achievement on math and reading tests, compared with a group of similar, nonparticipating schools, an analysis released last week concludes.”

A second study, which involved almost 300 middle school math teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and was released in September of 2010, revealed much of the same results. Of this study, Education Week reporter Sawchuk writes:

“The most rigorous study of performance-based teacher compensation ever conducted in the United States shows that a nationally watched bonus-pay system had no overall impact on student achievement—results released today that are certain to set off a firestorm of debate.”

Interestingly, a “firestorm of debate” didn’t materialize. In the weeks following the report’s release, supporters of merit pay, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all but ignored the study, dismissing the findings as premature and too narrow. In fact, like Bloomberg, some education reformers held even tighter to the idea of using merit pay to boost student achievement. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one week after the findings were made public, announced that he was going to indeed tie teacher pay to student achievement.

Despite enthusiasm from politicians such as Christie, many of America’s school teachers insist they are not motivated by merit pay. According to a 2010 report conducted by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation titled Primary Sources: America’s Teacher’s on America’s Schools, supportive leadership is listed by educators as the most important factor impacting upon teacher retention. Time given for teachers to collaborate is ranked second, followed by access to high-quality curriculum and a clean and safe building environment. Ranked ninth—dead last—was merit pay.

Likewise, not many teachers felt monetary rewards for teacher performance would have a strong impact on student achievement. Of the 40,000 teachers surveyed in the study, 30 percent said that merit pay would have no impact at all, while 41 percent said it would only have a moderate impact.

Still, supporters of performance pay insist it’s a viable way to increase learning. Dom Giordano, the Philadelphia-based broadcaster and radio personality, wrote in a 2010 commentary for the Philadelphia Daily News that, “all signs point to the conclusion that teachers should join the real world and get paid based on performance.” Giordano’s less-than-polite remarks are not only typical of the public’s anti-teacher sentiment but also an example of how grossly misinformed the average person is on the workings of education (yes, I am well aware that back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Mr. Giordano was a school teacher).

Merit pay may indeed deserve further exploration, but to insinuate that teachers live in some fairytale world is preposterous. If teaching is so easy, if educators are taking free money, then why do so many quit every year? Why is teacher retention costing America seven billion dollars annually?

The fact remains that teaching isn’t easy, that despite low test scores, nearly all teachers face enough daily challenges to earn their keep.  In addition, quality teaching is based on a complex set of variables, teacher motivation being the least of them.  Let’s hope that politicians in the Philadelphia area make an effort to acknowledge this reality, and don’t waste money and resources on policies that have little effect on student achievement.

Schools’ decline echoes values

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is planning to close 49 schools, and thousands are feeling the pain. Michael Wetzel, a veteran English teacher at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High Schools in Drexel Hill, told The Inquirer that the news of their closing was “tantamount to a death.”

I sympathize with Wetzel. I graduated from Monsignor Bonner in 1990, and I understand his sense of loss. Students will be uprooted, and teachers will be out of jobs. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Schools’ decline echoes values.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Cashing In On Kids: The Miami Herald’s Must Read Series on Charter Schools

by Christopher Paslay

Principals serving as board members and overseeing management contracts.  Discrimination against the poor and students with special needs.  These are just some of the issues the Miami Herald tackles in their recent investigative series on charters.                

“On a sun-drenched weekend in September, a group of South Florida charter school principals jetted off to a leadership retreat at The Cove, an exclusive enclave of the Atlantis resort. A Friday morning meeting gave way to champagne flutes, a dip in the pool and a trip down a waterslide. The evening ended at the casino.

Leading the toast by the pool: Fernando Zulueta, the CEO of Academica Corp., which manages the principals’ schools.

Zulueta had reason to cheer. During the past 15 years, Zulueta and his brother, Ignacio, have built Academica into Florida’s largest and richest for-profit charter school management company, and one of the largest in the country. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Academica runs more than 60 schools with $158 million in total annual revenue and more than 20,000 students — more pupils than 38 Florida school districts, records show. . . .

But the Zuluetas’ greatest financial success is largely unseen: Through more than two dozen other companies, the Zuluetas control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.

These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show.

Academica has fostered a close-knit culture among its schools, recruiting principals and teachers who rarely leave the ranks and are often promoted from one Academica school to another — though the staffers technically work for their respective schools, not for the management company.

But the principals play another crucial role: Several also serve as board members at other Academica schools, where they approve and oversee Academica’s management contracts and the real-estate leases — including the leases with the Zulueta companies. . . .”

This is an excerpt from the story Academica: Florida’s richest charter management firm,” one of nearly a dozen recent investigative pieces in the Miami Herald’s Cashing in on Kids series.  Other articles in the series include:

Interestingly, the abuses mentioned in the above articles are not limited to Florida.  This kind of behavior is widespread, and anyone interested in keeping education fair and equitable—especially to the poor and disadvantaged—should take note. 

These articles are also a must read for the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, who recently agreed to sign over 50,000 seats—or 25 percent of District schools—to charter operators as a part of “The Philadelphia Great Schools Compact,” all in exchange for millions of Bill Gates’ dollars.