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‘Innovative and bold’ or an ‘attack’ on charters? Reactions to Wolf budget plan

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Was it an “innovative and bold” step forward or a bloody “attack” on charter schools? After Gov. Wolf’s budget address, some groups immediately turned up the heat on legislators to “put our money where their mouths are,” while others took a breath and celebrated a “solid first step” toward universal pre-K.

Here’s our round-up of reactions from the education world to the governor’s proposals.

The politicians

Mayor Nutter thinks that Wolf’s proposals are “both innovative and bold,” and that Philadelphians will benefit from both tax relief and extra school funding. “It’s a budget that’s good for schoolchildren, taxpayers, and city government pensioners,” he said.

Ex-Council member and mayoral candidate Jim Kenney said the budget proposals would provide “new opportunity to Philadelphia’s children,” and then took the opportunity to wax eloquent about his vision of “a thriving public school in every neighborhood” and “high-quality pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in need.”

At a press conference outside the Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia City Council at-large candidate Helen Gym heralded Wolf’s budget as “a historic proposal that begins to reverse years of damage done by his predecessor.” She also pointed out the impact of years of advocacy from the parents who surrounded her as she spoke. “We stood up to [Gov. Corbett’s] slash and burn agenda by voting him out of office, and today’s new budget proposal is a direct result of what happens when we demand more of our elected officials and when we refuse disinvestment in our communities.”

People inside schools

In a joint statement, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and a host of other administrator organizations (PAESSP, PARSS, PASA, and PASBO) threw their support behind the governor’s budget and turned the spotlight on the legislators. "Citizens of the Commonwealth are watching to see if their elected officials will support a quality education for children in every community. [We] today called on the General Assembly to approve Governor Wolf’s budget request and adopt a new state funding formula that will ensure equity and adequate funding for all schools beginning next school year."

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite described himself as “very pleased” with the governor’s address, citing the push for a fair funding formula and overall increase in funds, changes that would bring Philadelphia about $160 million more in state aid next year. “These new funds will allow us to move our focus beyond gap-filling exercises. … The District cannot make substantial progress without recurring revenues and resources. We are deeply appreciative of Gov. Wolf’s proposed investments in education that will support a statewide system of equitable, high-quality schools.”

The advocates

Charter school supporters were not happy with the governor’s changes to charter funding policy, to say the least, which include changes in how cyber charters are funded and a provision that charters would be audited yearly and required to return to their host school districts any tuition money that they don’t spend on students.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools described Wolf’s budget address in blistering language, calling his proposed charter school policies as a “first salvo in [the] war on Pennsylvania charter schools.” They accused him of using “grossly inaccurate comparative data” and “flawed logic.” Clearly, PCPCS is worried about what’s next: “There is no doubt in our mind that if this proposal is successful, the next attack will be on brick and mortar public charter schools.”

Tim Eller from the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools appeared to be even more alarmed: “[This proposal] would effectively shut down charter schools across Pennsylvania. … The governor’s spending plan would benefit the adults (for example, union members) in the system at the expense of students” and “if the Governor is going to require charter schools to return excess funds to school districts, he should also require school districts to return their excess funds to taxpayers."

On the other hand, early learning advocates walked away feeling cautiously optimistic:

Pre-K for PA described the $120 million put toward early learning programs as “a solid first step” and warned that while “the governor’s proposal for child care access will be improved, the Commonwealth needs more aggressive investments in the years ahead to increase child care access.”

Joan Benso, the president of PA Partnerships for Children, celebrated the governor’s plan to make up for “lost ground” in early childhood education and emphasized the need for a fair funding formula. However, she warned that the additional $120 million for pre-K won’t go far enough. “While that’s an impressive increase, it still leaves about three-fourths of our young learners missing out on the benefits of high-quality pre-K. Clearly, we have more work to do in the years ahead to reach the governor’s vision of universal access to high-quality pre-K.”

Susan Gobreski, the executive director of Education Voters of PA, saw the address as a victory. “Gov. Wolf was sent to Harrisburg to get Pennsylvania back on track, and in particular to change course on funding our schools. I am extremely gratified that he is proposing to invest in children [and] restore cuts that hurt students and burdened communities.” Gobreski ended with a warning to the General Assembly. “Every legislator who said they support education, care about kids, opposed budget cuts, etc., better put our money where their mouths are.”

The Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners executive director, Mike Wang, stayed diplomatic. “We are encouraged by the governor’s desire to invest in education … [but] funding alone doesn’t guarantee a better education. If the goal is to level the playing field for Philadelphia families, we owe it to children and to taxpayers to both invest in education and to ensure that our schools are meeting the needs of their students.”

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