Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Back in 2012, the long-beleaguered Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania ran out of money — literally — and the unionized teachers and staff agreed to work without pay. (When it made national news, first lady Michelle Obama invited a Chester Upland teacher to sit with her at the State of the Union speech that year.) Well, it’s happened again — at least the part about the district being out of cash and all of the teachers, support staff, bus drivers and other adults in the system agreeing to work for free when the 2015-16 academic year starts on Wednesday.

“We knew we had to do it, again,” said John Shelton, who has been an educator in the district for 23 years and now is dean of students at a district middle school. “With great pain, we agreed to work as long as our families allow us to.”

Why does this keep happening?

About 20 miles west of Philadelphia, Chester Upland is one of the poorest districts  in the state and has been in financial distress for many years.  Under state control for most of the last two decades, it now enrolls about 3,300 students, fewer than the total number of students who attend charter schools in the district.

As teacher Stephen Singer explained on the Badass Teachers Association blog, Pennsylvania lawmakers failed for years to adequately fund Chester Upland (and other poor districts in the state) and left the district “to survive on the drip of local property taxes from residents who, themselves, don’t have two pennies to rub together.”

Making matters worse is the funding controversy involving the district’s charter schools, which were encouraged and supported by Pennsylvania lawmakers and the former Republican governor Tom Corbett. The largest charter in Chester Upland, as my Post colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote in this story,  is Chester Community Charter School, a nonprofit institution managed by a for-profit company (headed, incidentally, by one of  Corbett’s largest individual political donors). As Layton noted, Chester Upland pays local charter schools about $64 million in tuition payments ever year — more than the district receives in state school aid.

Lawmakers set up a funding formula in which Chester Upland’s charter schools get far more in public funds to educate special education students than traditional public schools receive. The disparity is huge: charter schools get about $40,000 per special ed student; traditional public schools, $16,000. And the traditional schools enroll more students with severe disabilities than do the charters.  Here are details from an Aug. 24 report from Chester Upland’s state-appointed receiver, Francis Barnes, which I am including to show just how outrageous the funding problem is:

Let’s look at Chester Upland’s special education enrollment, while considering that, in general, special education students diagnosed with autism, emotional disturbance and intellectual disability require the highest expenditures, while those with speech and language impairments require the lowest expenditures.

Special education students on the autism spectrum – generally requiring high expenditures – make up 8.4 percent of the entire special education population at the school district, compared to 2.1 percent at Chester Community Charter School and zero percent at Widener Partnership and Chester Community School of the Arts.

In the emotional disturbance category, another often requiring high expenditures, 13.6 percent of all special education students are categorized as emotionally disturbed in the school district, compared to 5.3 percent at Chester Community Charter, none at Widener or Chester Community School of the Arts.

For the intellectual disability category, the final category generally requiring high expenditures, the school district again serves a much larger percentage of this category: 11.6 percent for the school district, 2.8 for Chester Community Charter School and none for the others.

Conversely, for special education students requiring the lowest expenditures, the speech and language impaired, only 2.4 percent of the school district’s special education population falls into this category, compared to 27.4, 20.3 and 29.8 percent, respectively, at the charters.

Clearly the lion’s share of the need requiring the highest expenditures remains with the school district, but an exorbitant amount of funding goes to charters, where most special education needs can be addressed for comparatively low cost.

Despite this, key elements of a district financial recovery plan offered by Barnes were rejected last week by a Delaware County Judge Chad Kenney, who refused to agree to reform the way charter schools are funded for special education students. Barnes, who had the support of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, also sought — but did not get — permission to cap tuition rates of cyber charter schools.  What was unusual about the ruling (among other things) is that Kenney acknowledged in his opinion that it is clear charter schools are getting far more money than they need to educate special ed students:


Still, the judge ruled Barnes could not now change the rates and said the receiver’s financial recovery plan was not adequate. Wolf said in a statement about the ruling:

The amended financial recovery plan submitted by Chester Upland School District Receiver Dr. Francis Barnes called for drastic, but necessary, corrective action to fix a massive budget deficit that has put the district in danger of not opening.

The portions of the plan that were accepted by Judge Kenney include initiating a forensic audit to reassure tax dollars are being spent properly, bringing in a financial turnaround specialist to find immediate savings, and restructuring a loan agreement with the Department of Education. All of these actions are imperative in putting Chester Upland on solid financial footing. But Judge Kenney’s decision to reject necessary reforms to the special education rates paid by the school district to its charter schools will unfortunately allow a decades-old problem to persist, and the district’s massive budget deficit will only worsen.

It is clear serious financial reforms are still needed and my administration will evaluate its options moving forward.

But there is no time for the students, teachers, administrators and staff, because school starts this Wednesday.

Teacher and blogger Peter Greene wrote on his blog Curmudgucation,

The financial problems are further complicated by the lack of a state budget. Now over fifty days behind, the legislature in Harrisburg has failed to get their budgetary house in order, an almost-yearly ritual in Pennsylvania that results in all manner of state-funded enterprises, departments, and employees being strapped for cash as they move into the fall. Many school districts are, at this moment, dipping into reserves or taking out loans while waiting for our elected officials to decide how much money schools will get (though, of course, school budgets were due to the state a while ago) and then sending it to them. Thanks a lot, elected officials.

Some districts can weather the budget storm. CUSD, sucked dry of money by charter schools, cannot. So while the state’s elected officials cannot get their jobs done for pay, Chester Upland teachers and staff will get their jobs done for free. Tell me again about how teachers and their unions are the big obstacle to education in this country.