Dec 15 11:57 AM

Pennsylvania town poised to make all public schools for-profit charters

Phineas Davis Elementary School in York County, Pennsylvania.
Chris Dunn / York Daily Record / AP

York, Pennsylvania, could become the second school district in the country to offer only charter schools to the area’s residents if a court ruling likely to come this week turns over control of public schools to the state.

In what appears to be a last-ditch effort to carry out a two-year-old plan to turn all of York’s schools over to for-profit charter corporation Charter Schools USA, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education filed a petition in a York County court earlier this month to take away almost all local control from the school board, and put the district in the “receivership” of state-appointed York education official David Meckley.

Meckley, a local businessman who once served on the board of a nearby school district, was appointed in 2012 to oversee York’s financially beleaguered school system under a 2012 law that allowed the state to appoint “recovery officers” for any school districts with significant debt. His plan for York [PDF] involves a slew of concessions from the district, from teacher layoffs to extracurricular cutbacks. But the most controversial part is the handing over of the entire operation of the district to Charter Schools USA.

While the school board has approved other parts of Meckley’s plan, it tabled the charter plan last month, saying there wasn’t enough evidence that Charter Schools USA could do a better job of running York’s schools than the current administration. That’s when the state took York to court. If Judge Stephen Linebaugh grants the Department of Education’s request for receivership, Meckley could unilaterally turn the school system over to Charter Schools USA before Jan. 20, when incoming Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is opposed to the plan, will be inaugurated.

If that happens, legal experts believe York would be committed to its charter school contract, which stipulates Charter Schools USA will run the schools for a minimum of five years and up to 15 years.

“Clearly [Gov. Tom Corbett’s] administration wants to put the district into receivership so they can sign the contracts before the new administration comes in,” said Michael Churchill, a lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that has overseen several court cases related to education funding in the state. “That could lock them in for 15 years.”

Neither Meckley nor Corbett’s offices responded to a request for comment on the plan, which has been opposed by many parents, students and teachers, including teacher’s union Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the local NAACP.

Charter schools are controversial for several reasons. Some oppose the transfer of public money to private hands, while others question whether charter schools do in fact provide a better education than failing public schools, as proponents have proclaimed.

While placing struggling school districts in state control is relatively common across the U.S., a state has only converted an entire school district to a charter system once before — in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Education says the charter plan is necessary to turn around York’s struggling schools, but opponents have countered that Corbett’s education funding cuts are a large part of the reason the schools are struggling.

“York is the epicenter of the fight in the state over the future of public schools being locally controlled by locally-elected school boards,” said Wythe Keever, the assistant communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “Corbett lost on Nov. 4 and he’s pushing to lock-in his bad educational policies on his way out the door.”

York has been struggling for years to meet state testing goals. Last year, none of York’s eight public schools averaged reading and writing scores above 70, the state’s benchmark for success. But Wythe said York performs just as well as schools that have similar populations of disadvantaged and special needs children.

“The school district is right about where you’d expect it to be when you have an urban school district serving an impoverished population that’s already been decimated by Corbett’s budget cuts,” Wythe said. “Corbett starved the schools and then blamed the school district.”

York’s funding has been cut by nearly $8.5 million since Corbett took office, about 15 percent of the district’s total budget. That’s led to dozens of layoffs, and the end of several extracurricular activities.

“We’ve gone from having you name it – arts, all kinds of extracurriculars, to having barely anything,” said Clovis Gallon, a special education teacher at York’s schools who also has three sons who attend schools in the district. “It’s demoralizing.”

In 2012, Gov. Corbett signed into law Act 141, which allowed the state to appoint a “chief recovery officer,” (CRO) to school districts in financial distress. York, which has about $5 million in debt, is now one of four districts with a CRO. But after York’s school board repeatedly voted down and delayed votes on Meckley’s all-charter proposal, state officials said it was time to implement the reforms without the consent of the city.

“What’s been in place in the district has not been working and the board is failing to move forward to improve the district’s academics and financial condition,” Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said in an email. “The Secretary [of Education Carolyn Dumaresq] has a responsibility to the students, parents and taxpayers of York City School District to ensure that the children of York City are provided with a high-quality education and the district’s finances become stabilized for the long-term benefit of the district and the community.”

But educators, advocates and parents aren’t convinced that Charter Schools USA can do a better job in York than traditional public schools. A 2011 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University [PDF] found that charter schools on average performed worse in Pennsylvania than their traditional public counterparts.

It remains unclear whether the Department of Education would have enough time to complete the transfer of all the schools to Charter Schools USA before Jan. 20, when incoming governor Wolf assumes office. Wolf did not respond to a request for comment on the charter school plan.

“This administration has been extraordinarily supportive of charters,” said Churchill. “Their policy has been to help charters replace many traditional schools. This was the best opportunity and the last opportunity for the Corbett administration to do it on a district-wide scale.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter