There’s a lot going on atop the Greene County Courthouse, and according to an architectural firm, none of it is very good....
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More and more, it appears that Pennsylvania’s charter schools want to have it both ways.
They want generous servings of public dollars while, at the same time, avoiding the accountability that comes with being the recipients of taxpayer beneficence.
For evidence, look no further than what appears to be their spotty compliance with the state’s Right to Know Law. Last week, Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Office of Open Records, told a state Senate committee that the 180 charter schools operating in Pennsylvania routinely ignore requests for information, despite being publicly funded institutions.
“They don’t feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you,” Mutchler said. To drive the point home, she added, “They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy Right to Know Law.”
Mutchler told senators that her office had handled appeals in 239 cases where charter schools thumbed their noses at requests for information, such as details on payrolls and budgets, and in all but six of those cases, the schools were forced to hand over the information as requested. Roberta DiLorenzo, the superintendent of Washington School District, can also attest to the tendency of charter schools to hold their files a little too closely to their chests. DiLorenzo told the district’s school board earlier this year that she requested attendance and progress reports from the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Beaver, along with notification of when a student drops out of the program, but was not provided with details. Instead, she received a “cease and desist” brush-off letter from the school’s attorney.
This in spite of the fact that the district has shelled out $1.9 million over the past five years so that about 60 Washington-area students could enroll in cybercharter schools.
Advocates of charter schools, both of the brick-and-mortar and cyber variety, say they imprint marketplace principles of competition and rigor on the educational endeavor, offer students a choice beyond the one-size-fits-all offerings of public schools and provide a degree of accountability unknown to their public counterparts.
But several nationwide studies of charter schools have shown that the academic performance of students enrolled in them differs little from those in public schools. It’s much the same here in Pennsylvania. Figures released earlier this year showed that no cybercharter school in the commonwealth made Adequate Yearly Progress on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 2012, while only 43 of the state’s 180 charter schools hit AYP benchmarks. Earlier efforts to treat individual charter schools as districts to tabulate AYP scores, which would have limited the number of grades tested, were shot down by the U.S. Department of Education, which said such a switch would not be consistent with federal regulations.
Recently, legislators in Harrisburg have been making noise about overhauling the way tuition money is paid to charter schools. They are also talking about tinkering with how the school’s charters are renewed and mandating that the schools provide greater transparency and accountability. These are all good ideas. Legislators should also demand that charter schools be more forthcoming when it comes to providing information to the people who are paying their bills.
In the years since 9/11, one need not be among the more hysterical reaches of either the right or the left to be concerned about actions undertaken in the name of national security that have, in fact, eroded due process and endangered fundamental rights and liberties.
Torture. Warrantless wiretapping. The endless detention of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without charges. Drone warfare conducted with few checks and balances.
Officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued about the necessity of such measures in order to prevent another attack on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001 atrocities. But we believe terrorism can be aggressively battled while American ideals of transparency and fair play continue to be upheld.
And now comes word the Department of Justice surreptitiously seized two months worth of phone records from reporters and editors from the Associated Press, apparently to unearth the identity of a source who leaked information to the news organization about a plot hatched in Yemen to blow up an airliner. Justice Department officials apparently got their hands on records from 20 different phone lines of Associated Press writers and editors in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn., including cellphone and home numbers. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week he did not make the decision to go after the records, passing that buck to Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, but nevertheless defended it, arguing that sneaking classified information to AP represented a “very, very serious leak … within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen,” adding “it put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole.”
Of course, we have no way of evaluating whether this is hyperbole or not given the secrecy in which this is draped. And if the administration wanted to go after the source, it should have drawn up narrowly focused subpoenas, in keeping with the Justice Department’s own guidelines, rather than secretly casting a wide net to see what it would haul in. Actions such as these can’t help but have a chilling effect on the press’ vital watchdog role.
Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of the Associated Press, said it well in an indignant letter to Holder: “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all newsgathering activities … and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
No, Obama is not now, nor has he ever been, a dictator. Barring any unforeseen developments, he will be departing the White House on schedule Jan. 20, 2017, and leaving the keys to his successor, whether that is Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Andrew Cuomo, or someone from the back of the developing 2016 pack. But actions such as these are what you would expect from authoritarian rulers who operate under few, if any, restraints. Seizing the AP’s phone records sets a particularly troubling precedent. As someone noted in one of the articles written in the days since this story came to light, we had a right to expect a little bit more from Obama, who is, after all, a former professor of constitutional law.
The president says he supports a federal media shield law, which would safeguard reporters from having to reveal confidential sources. Fair enough. But, in this instance, the president’s rhetoric has fallen well short of his own administration’s conduct.
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