Teachers in This Broke School District Are Working for Free

Pennsylvania’s former secretary of education says charter schools are to blame for Chester Upland’s budget woes.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It was déjà vu on Wednesday for teachers and staff at the Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania: Three years ago they made headlines for continuing to work despite their bankrupt school district’s being unable to pay them. On Wednesday, owing to the district running a deficit and a delay in Pennsylvania’s legislature passing a state budget, educators in the 3,800-student district 20 minutes west of Philadelphia welcomed students back to campus despite not knowing when they’ll be paid.

“We have no idea when that first paycheck is coming, but we’re going to stay here as long as we’re financially able,” Michele Paulick, president of the Chester Upland Education Association, told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week after the union’s members agreed to keep working despite learning that the district would be unable to make payroll on Sept. 9.

At the heart of Chester Upland’s crisis is the amount of cash being passed along to three charter school operators in the district, which enroll about half the area’s students.

Schools in Chester Upland “have been in deep deficit because of competition with charter schools and cyber charters that suck funding away from the public schools,” education historian and NYU professor Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog last week. It’s a scenario that charter school opponents have long warned of: taxpayer dollars that pay for underfunded districts and unionized teachers getting diverted to schools operated by the private sector—which are often funded by the likes of the Walmart billionaires’ Walton Family Foundation.

Charter school backers retort with the maxim, “The money should follow the child,” and it was no different in this instance.

“When a family decides to enroll their child in a public charter school, that child merits equitable funding in terms of having all the dollars associated with him or her at the traditional public school that they would have attended follow that child to the public charter school,” Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the Washington, D.C.based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told TakePart. “Same thing if the family says, ‘Hey, I want to move my child to a traditional public school from a charter.’ So we don’t view it as bleeding public schools because these [charters] are public schools.” That’s true in that they receive public funds—they just aren’t operated by public employees and don’t operate by the same rules as traditional public schools.

RELATED: The Number of Charter Schools Suspending Kids Is Totally out of Control

Francis V. Barnes, the district’s state receiver and formerly the state’s secretary of education, blasted “unreasonable special education and cyber payments to charter schools” in an open letter posted on the Chester Upland website last week. Charters receive the same amount per child regardless of what a child’s disability is, yet special ed kids at local charters enroll far fewer (and in some cases zero) kids with the most costly disabilities than do the district schools—and far more kids with the least costly disabilities, compared with district schools.

“The district is required to pay charter schools more than $40,000 per special education student, regardless of the actual cost to educate that student, while the district receives less than needed to educate its own special education student,” wrote Barnes.

Barnes and district officials went to court last week to try to get a judge to amend the funding formula for cyber charter and special education payments.

In his decision, Judge Chad F. Kenney acknowledged that charters in Chester Upland are pocketing $14,000 to $40,000 “per student over and above what it costs to educate them.” Kenney also wrote, “It is clear that the Legislature did not mean for its averages to provide such windfalls to the Charter school industry in a distressed district,” but he still refused to amend the funding rates, as the change would be “wholly inadequate to restore the School District to financial stability.”

“States shouldn’t have different types of funding systems for traditional public schools versus public charter schools,” said Ziebarth. “From a general principle perspective, there should be equity in funding in special education services in both types of school so that kids get support and the resources that they need.” Ziebarth expressed support for transparency in funding formulas and amounts for both types of schools.

The racial and class implications of these financial shenanigans can’t be ignored. More than three-fourths of Chester residents are black, and the majority of students enrolled in the town’s schools come from families who live below the poverty line.

RELATED: Federal Complaint Puts Charter School Segregation on Blast

“Historically, Chester has been a black town,” said Camika Royal, who grew up in Philadelphia and is an urban education professor at Loyola University–Maryland. Royal said African American educator Ruth Hayre’s book Tell Them We Are Rising provides keen insight into the long history of racial segregation in the area’s schools. Black educators weren’t allowed to teach or hold permanent teaching jobs at secondary schools or hold permanent jobs in schools in Philadelphia in the 1930s. “When black teachers weren’t permitted to teach in Philly, they went to Chester,” said Royal.

“I see this situation as further neglect of a predominantly black town and as a casualty of integration. Chester’s reputation is that it’s so poor and crime-ridden that no one with options and means would choose to live there,” Royal added. The district has suffered financial woes for the past 25 years and has a $22 million deficit. Although the state has filled Chester Upland’s coffers with $74 million in onetime emergency infusions over the past five years, putting the district under state control, the Pennsylvania state budget is now 52 days past due, which means no eleventh-hour rescue is imminent.

Meanwhile, a community member has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the educators who headed to work despite the financial turmoil. “These teachers are not paid, and they’re still teaching us,” Chester High junior Moses Ramos told ABC 6 News on Wednesday morning.

“None of us are here to be millionaires,” English teacher Jennifer Archibald said. “We’re doing this for a purpose—a calling, if you will. And that hasn’t changed.”