Daniel Simmons-Ritchie: Charter schools’ influence on Pennsylvania politics
Reporting for the Courier Times, Daniel Simmons-Ritchie looks at the many ways that the big business of charter schools lobbies in Harrisburg.
Critics of the lobbying influence of charter school groups say one of the biggest goals of the lobby, more often than not, is inaction, rather than action, on bills that might affect them.
O’Neill, the Bucks County Republican, said he was besieged by the lobby after he co-chaired a commission that investigated flaws with how special-education students were funded. As a former special-education teacher, the issue was close to his heart.
O’Neill’s commission found that, statewide, charter schools were enrolling students with minor special-education needs, such as a hearing impairment, but not students with more expensive needs, such as an intellectual disability. That was leading to huge funding inequities in the system between charter schools and traditional public schools.
A 2014 analysis by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a media outlet that covers education, found that Pennsylvania charter schools received $350 million for special education students but spent just $156 million to meet their needs.
O’Neill’s commission recommended a new funding formula that scaled funding for special education students based on the need of the student — but charter schools vehemently objected to it.
“They’re saying, ‘If we lose this money our doors are going to close.’ “ O’Neill said. “Well then, there’s something wrong with your business model if you’re relying on keeping your doors open on the backs of special-education students.”
Before the commission was formed, O’Neill said the lobby had already tried to unseat him because of his advocacy for special education funding reform. In 2012, charter school groups poured $83,000 into the coffers of Brian Munroe, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged him.
Over 2013 and 2014, as O’Neill’s commission’s investigation progressed and its recommendations were released, O’Neill said the lobby intensified its campaign against him.
“What they do is they bring the kids out of school and mobilize them in Harrisburg,” O’Neill said. “The parents and the students believe what they’re told, whether it’s the truth or not, and they bring them by the busloads to Harrisburg and have them do rallies, you know, and have them go visit their legislator, ‘You’re trying to close my school if you do this.’”