It’s no secret that Harrisburg is a hive of lobbyists, each representing industries and interests that spend millions to persuade state lawmakers to bend laws in their favor.
But perhaps what makes the charter-school lobby unique among the pack, says State Rep. Bernie O’Neill, a Republican from Bucks County, is its ability to deploy children to its cause.
In 2014, O’Neill experienced that first hand after proposing changes to a funding formula that would affect charter schools. Parents and children stormed his office and barraged him with calls and emails.
“They were calling me the anti-Christ of everything,” O’Neill said. “Everybody was coming after me.”
In recent years, as charter schools have proliferated – particularly those run by for-profit management companies – so too has their influence on legislators. In few other places has that been more true than Pennsylvania, which is one of only 11 states that has no limits on campaign contributions from PACs or individuals.
According to a PennLive analysis of donations on Follow The Money, a campaign donation database, charter school advocates have donated more than $10 million to Pennsylvania politicians over the past nine years.
To be sure, charter-school advocacy groups aren’t the only ones spending big to influence education policy in the Keystone State. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 170,000 teachers and related professionals, has spent about $8.3 million over the same time period according to Follow The Money.
But what perhaps makes the influx of money from charter-school groups unique in Pennsylvania is the magnitude of spending by only a handful of donors and, in recent years, some of their high-profile successes in moving and blocking legislation.
“They are mobilized,” O’Neill said. “Let me tell you something: they are mobilized.”
Big schools, big donations
In Pennsylvania, a charter school has to be set up as a non-profit. However, a charter-school company can get around that by setting up a foundation to file the application and then contracting with the foundation to run the school.
While not all charter schools in Pennsylvania are run by for-profit management organizations, many are.
Jessie Ramey, a historian of social policy based in Pittsburgh, said there’s little doubt that charter schools have become big business in Pennsylvania as they have in many states.
For both investors and charter-school managers, as the industry has become more valuable so too has protecting their interests.
“These are big players who have a lot of money,” she said. “And they are playing big Harrisburg politics.”
Among one of the lobby’s biggest donors is Vahan Gureghian, the CEO of CSMI, which manages the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County. According to Follow The Money, Gureghian pumped $336,000 into the campaign coffers of former Gov. Tom Corbett – making him his second largest individual donor over his gubernatorial career.
Gureghian has also donated close to a million to other Pennsylvania politicians and PACs.
Meanwhile, the American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports the growth of charter schools and “school voucher” legislation, has pumped in $3.7 million to Pennsylavania lawmakers. A trio of investors in Montgomery County – Joel Greenberg, Jeffrey Yass, and Arthur Dantchik – have donated about $4 million under a PAC dedicated to similar aims.
Collectively those donations have been spread across scores of Pennsylvania politicians. Generally, that money has flowed to a greater number of Republican candidates but Democrats also have been big recipients.
The biggest recipient of all, by far, is State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat with ties to the charter-school sector. Williams has collected $6 million in donations, the bulk of which came during his 2010 bid for governor. Williams finished third in the Democratic primary, with only 18 percent of the vote, but remains a leading member on the Senate’s education committee.
Bills and appointments
Lawrence Feinberg, founder and co-chair of Keystone State Education Coalition, an advocacy group for traditional public education, said it was easy to see a pattern between donations to lawmakers from the lobby and subsequent votes or actions by lawmakers.
After he was elected governor in 2010, Corbett appointed Vahan Gureghian to two posts on his gubernatorial transition team – a group that plays a critical role in shaping the agenda of an incoming administration. Gureghian was appointed to Corbett’s education committee and as co-chair of his transportation committee.
In his first year of office, Corbett made the passage of a school “voucher system” for Pennsylvania a key priority. Under a voucher system, a parent is issued a certificate, a so-called voucher, which parents of a student can direct toward the school of their choosing – be it inside or outside their district. The legislation is considered part of the “school choice” movement, which shares similar goals and ideological ground as charter school advocates.
Corbett was ultimately unsuccessful in passing that voucher bill, but in 2012 he and other school reformers were able to pass something similar: An expansion of a tax program, called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, that increased money for scholarships for students to attend schools outside their district.
“So the EITC was probably the major thing, the major thing they’ve impacted,” Feinberg said, referring to school reform advocacy groups.
But Feinberg said signs of the lobby’s influence were often subtler.
For instance, he said, language in 2012 was added to a bill that would have shielded charter school operators from disclosing financial information under the state’s public disclosure laws. Philadelphia Magazine reported that the amendment was pushed by Gureghian. The bill ultimately never got off the ground.
One of the more notable examples of the lobby’s potential influence, Feinberg said, occurred around 2012. The Department of Education was investigating four charter schools and 10 school districts for testing irregularities in 2009, 2010, and 2011, including Gureghian’s schools in Chester County. The state found a statistically improbable number of answers had been erased and changed to correct answers.
The state ultimately let Gureghian’s company investigate itself in 2012 and, after its internal investigation proved inconclusive, the state dropped its own investigation. That wasn’t the case for other schools.
“That’s how powerful they are,” Feinberg said. “That’s an example of how powerful.”
A spokesman for CSMI did not respond to PennLive requests to interview Gureghian.
The power of inaction
Critics of the lobbying influence of charter school groups say one of the biggest goals of the lobby, more often than not, is inaction on bills that might affect them rather than action.
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.’
One parent told O’Neill that her child, who attended a charter school at the time, was encouraged to make posters against O’Neill.
Ultimately, the special-education funding bill was passed in 2014. But O’Neill was still frustrated by a change to it, pushed by the charter school lobby, that meant the formula would be phased in slowly for charter schools.
“So in my opinion,” O’Neill said, “they’re still ripping off the public.”
Charter schools say unions are big donors too
Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, argued that while charter operators have donated to campaigns, the teacher’s union also has donated millions in recent years.
“I think it’s unfair to look at just the donations on behalf of charter schools as opposed to all the donations that go to political candidates and legislators from all elements of the public school spectrum,” he said.
Fayfich added that while his group, which represents 120 of the state’s 176 charter schools, does hire lobbyists it doesn’t make campaign donations itself. Although he is aware that charter operators and advocacy PACs do donate to lawmakers
Fayfich said, on that note, that it was worth remembering that charter school advocates are not a homogenous group.
For instance, Fayfich said, his group didn’t represent Gureghian’s company and sometimes opposed items that he lobbied for – such as his push to shield charter schools from disclosing financial information to the public.
“We think that transparency is an absolutely fundamental responsibility you have as an organization receiving public tax dollars,” he said. “So we were at odds with him on that piece of legislation.”
Ultimately, some observers say, be it concern about the spending of charter school groups or teachers unions, their influence won’t be diminished until Pennsylvania tackles the root of the problem.
The fact of the matter, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, is that the state has some of the loosest campaign finance laws in the nation.
“We are just so far behind the rest of the nation in protecting the integrity of our elections and protecting our government from the influence of political money,” Kauffman said. “No wonder people are cynical.”