Government Unions, Progressive Donors Finance Assault on Pennsylvania’s Charter Schools

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Liberal groups aligned with the Washington consulting firm Arabella Advisors have spent over $1 million to support attacks on school choice in Pennsylvania, joining public employee unions that have pumped tens of thousands of dollars into targeting charter schools. 

An organization called Education Voters of Pennsylvania has published a series of articles and reports critical of the state Legislature’s funding of charter schools in general and so-called cybercharter schools in particular.

Harrisburg-based Education Voters, funded by liberal groups linked to Arabella Advisors, has raised questions about how these alternatives to regular public schools spend and allocate taxpayer funds.

It’s a “classic tactic” by union operatives to sway public opinion against charter schools, said Mike Watson, research director at Washington-based Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank that monitors nonprofits.

Informed citizens likely know that teachers unions opposing school choice have a vested interest in collecting dues from public school teachers, Watson told The Daily Signal. 

But when the arguments of a teachers union are “put into the mouth” of a public policy outfit, Watson argues, even well-informed citizens may not see the machinations of special interests that seek to obscure their involvement. 

In this case, that outfit is Arabella-funded Keystone Research Center, which is closely tied to Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

“The actual money is coming from liberal donors we don’t know who see an opportunity to advance a progressive agenda in the state,” Watson said. 

Watson points to public records connecting seemingly small advocacy groups such as Education Voters with union benefactors and other large donors.

Besides being a consulting firm, Arabella Advisors oversees a philanthropic network of nonprofit funds that donate to progressive causes. As of 2020, these funds had revenues exceeding $1.7 billion and expenditures of $1.3 billion, according to Capital Research Center’s Influence Watch. 

One of the most influential “dark money” organizations that shield donors, Arabella is known for financing “pop-up groups” that often have a website and little else. 

Union-Funded Activism

Charter schools, which don’t charge tuition, receive most of their funding from enrolled students’ resident school districts. The amount is based on a state formula that accounts for both “special needs” students and “mainstream” students. 

Pennsylvania’s charter school law dates to 1997. Over 160,000 students were enrolled in the state’s charter schools for the 2021-22 year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 

Over the past few months, Education Voters of Pennsylvania targeted Commonwealth Charter Academy, or CCA, with negative reports based on the results of open records requests. 

Also known as Education Voters of PA, the group has served as a conduit for donations to union-backed Keystone Research Center while criticizing Commonwealth Charter Academy, whose over 20,000 students make it the largest cybercharter in Pennsylvania. 

Unlike conventional public schools, cybercharters deliver online instruction to students who use a computer at home to access lesson plans. The specialized schools use interactive technology and multimedia instead of in-person classroom instruction.

In one article, Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters, argues that CCA’s spending on field trips and private activities amounts to a waste of taxpayer resources.

“It is unacceptable that while school districts are starving and property tax increases are squeezing home and business owners, cybercharter schools are so awash in excess money that they are using property tax dollars to pay for students’ private activities and trips and giving cash payments to families,” Spicka wrote. 

CCA declined The Daily Signal’s request for comment for this report. 

Spicka told readers that Education Voters “is a small organization” and “the only organization in Pennsylvania working to expose the waste, fraud and abuse in the cybercharter sector.”

But the money behind Spicka’s nonprofit, nonpartisan organization suggests that Education Voters isn’t so small. 

Left-Wing Backers

Education Voters of Pennsylvania identifies itself as a project of Keystone Research Center on the webpage where it solicits donations. Keystone is registered with the Pennsylvania State Department as a lobbying entity. 

The Daily Signal sought comment about Education Voters from the Pennsylvania State Department, but the agency didn’t respond by publication time. 

The most recent 990 tax form available for Keystone Research Center, dating to 2019, makes no mention of Education Voters of Pennsylvania or any group with a similar name. 

But Education Voters’ donation page indicates that contributions are directed to Keystone. Capital Research Center’s Influence Watch identifies Keystone as a “left-of-center policy organization” with revenue of  $1.8 million and assets of $1.4 million.

Steven Herzenberg, Keystone’s executive director, worked at the Labor Department on labor-related trade issues under President Bill Clinton. The center’s vice president, Bill Dando, is the legislative director of a public employee union: Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 

Labor Department financial disclosure records show that in 2021 the Keystone Research Center received $25,000 from AFSCME Council 13; $25,500 from the state teachers union Pennsylvania State Education Association;  $13,000 from the teachers union’s National Staff Union; $5,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers national headquarters; and $20,000 from UFCW Local 1776. 

A section of Education Voters’ website detailing its mission says the group, established in 2007, promotes “a pro-public education agenda in Pennsylvania.” 

On the same site, Education Voters identifies an entity called Education Voters Institute as a “sister organization,” but a webpage for Education Voters Institute doesn’t appear to be active. 

Government records show Spicka is a registered lobbyist for Education Voters in addition to being its executive director. 

The Daily Signal sought comment from Spicka by phone and email, asking whether she could substantiate her claim that charters are “awash in excess money” compared with other public schools. She had not responded by publication time.

Charter schools are public schools, but operate independently from school districts. They are created under charters from local school boards. The idea is to provide parents, students, and teachers with expanded choices for educational opportunities. 

Charters are excused from some, but not all, public education mandates and are set up as public, nonprofit corporations. Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education shows that for the 2021-22 school year, the state has 179 charter schools, including 14 cybercharters, with 163,625 students. 

Exploiting Federal Dollars

Contrary to what Education Voters asserts, charter schools have operated with diminished financial resources in recent years, Dave Hardy, a senior fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank in Harrisburg, told The Daily Signal in an interview. 

When charter schools initially were established in Pennsylvania in 1997, Hardy estimates, they were set to receive about 75% of the public funding that regular district schools received. But he now finds that charters receive just over 50% of what district schools get.

“The charter schools were supposed to receive what the districts received per student, minus six specific items the districts could deduct from the reimbursement,” Hardy said. “But this number was raised in a statutory change [by the state Legislature] to something like 24 items.” 

Hardy also said he sees an effort on the part of some school districts to exploit their ability to deduct federal funds in their budgets from what they owe charter schools. 

“If the charters receive federal money, and the districts receive federal money, the districts can deduct it,” Hardy said. “But the districts have been replacing their regular budget money with federal money, so when it comes time to do the reimbursement [to charter schools] the following year, the charter reimbursement amount goes down. This is certainly not the spirit of the law, but that’s what they’ve been doing, and Philadelphia is especially adept at this.”

Even with declining reimbursements from school districts in Pennsylvania, Education Voters insists that charters are engaged in “wasteful spending” that is harmful to public education.

The group is calling on lawmakers to address what it describes as “flaws in Pennsylvania’s system for funding cybercharter schools.” It also favors a “Level Up” approach to funding for public schools, to compensate for what it calls insufficient resources devoted to K-12 education. 

But Marc LeBlond, director of policy for EdChoice, a national  nonprofit that supports school choice, told The Daily Signal that the union-backed Education Voters proceeds from a faulty premise about finances. LeBlond cites updated research from the Commonwealth Foundation that shows education spending in Pennsylvania at an all-time high. 

“Pennsylvania exceeds the national average for local, state, and federal per-pupil spending on public schools and ranks eighth in the nation for total per-student public-school spending,” according to the Commonwealth Foundation.

‘What’s Really Happening’

Figures for the 2020-2021 school year show Pennsylvania spent about $20,000 per pupil.

Even so, LeBlond points out, Pennsylvania ranked relatively low on the Nation’s Report Card, a project of the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

“This is particularly true for the students who are already in the bottom 25% of achievement for reading and math,” LeBlond said. “African American pupils were particularly hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many years of their academic growth wiped out.”

“But charter schools are one entity that [has] worked out well for them, and not just during the pandemic,” he said of black students. “Why would you want to attack the one sector of education that has worked best for the most vulnerable students?”

Teachers unions and allied groups that attack charter schools are doing a “great disservice” to the public education system they claim to represent, LeBlond said:

We should all want the best education possible for the students and the highest level of accountability. But Pennsylvania school districts should take this opportunity to be more transparent with the performance data so we can make an apples-to-apples comparison between them and the charters. 

What’s really happening here is the institutional power structure sees declining enrollment in their schools and they see dollars leaving because students’ needs are not being met. That’s why you see groups like Education Voters of PA pop up to toe the establishment line.

Pennsylvania ranks relatively low on The Heritage Foundation’s Education Freedom Report Card, coming in at No. 37 of 50 states and the District of Columbia. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

But the state does receive a higher ranking of 29 from Heritage in the category of school choice initiatives.

 “Pennsylvania does fairly well in allowing parents to choose among private and charter schools, but could do more to expand education choice,” Heritage’s report says. 

Arabella Money

Supporters of education reform in Pennsylvania are up against a lot more than just union money.

That’s because Keystone Research Center also gets significant financial support from out of state to push liberal causes, according to data from the Capital Research Center. 

Keystone received $426,500 from the Hopewell Fund in 2020 and $645,000 from the New Venture Fund in 2020. Both funds operate as nonprofit branches of Arabella Advisors under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. 

The Daily Signal emailed Kirstin Snow, Keystone’s communications director, to ask for comment on the organization’s relationship with Education Voters and the financial support Keystone receives from public employee unions and Arabella Advisors.

Snow did not respond by publication deadline. 

Arabella’s involvement with Keystone is an indication of Pennsylvania’s importance in public policy debates, Capital Research Center’s Watson told The Daily Signal. 

“Pennsylvania is not just a key state, but a big state with a couple of big cities,” Watson said, adding:

There’s a lot at stake, so it makes sense that it’s not just the state-level institutional liberal donors like the teachers unions, but also the people who are contributing to the Arabella funds. The actual money is coming from liberal donors we don’t know who see an opportunity to advance a progressive agenda in the state. 

Pennsylvania is politically competitive between conservatives and liberals, so an entity like Keystone Research [Center] is important for institutional liberal donors who would use Arabella as an advising group to advance their agenda.

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