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West Chester Area School Board to Vote Again on Proposed Charter School

Despite a possible second rejection by the West Chester Area School Board, supporters of the Valley Forge Classical Academy, a proposed charter school, say they plan to forge ahead.

After several years of development, proponents of a classical charter school in the West Chester Area School District filed their proposal last year, only to have it rejected by the school board in August. They reapplied in December but say another rejection is likely later this month.

VFCA Board President Jen MacFarland gave a presentation on the new charter at a July 2023 meeting. The school would use a curriculum developed by Hillsdale College that emphasizes classic literature, Singapore Math, Latin, and phonics. The history program would be Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum, which teaches both good and bad things that happened in America.

At that same meeting, Sandra Schaal of the West Chester NAACP said she opposed the charter school. Schaal said her organization had “great concerns” that the curriculum was “too Eurocentric” and emphasized American exceptionalism. Other concerns were that kids would bring brown bag lunches that poor children might not be able to afford and that students were required to have “traditional” hairstyles.

Other speakers said they thought the school might discriminate against LGBTQ students, and some said the school would teach Christianity. McFarland denied those contentions.

In a recent Facebook post to supporters, VFCA board members MacFarland, Charlie Beatty, Shelley Sanders, and Michael Peterson said they plan to continue to focus “on our end goal of providing a high-quality, challenging academic program for children and parents.”

If the West Chester board again denies the charter, the VFCA board plans to appeal to the State Charter Appeals Board for a hearing. West Chester rejected the charter proposal last August.

“We re-submitted the charter application on Dec. 1, 2023,” said MacFarland. “Per the Charter School Law, the district has 45 days to review and vote on the application. We anticipate that they will deny (it) again, and that will require us to solicit 1,500 or more signatures from supporters in the WCASD to be able to appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board for approval.  We would have 60 days to get the signatures.”

A meeting is scheduled for Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Spellman Education Center (782 Springdale Drive, Exton, PA 19341).

She added, “We will continue to move forward and make every effort to ensure that Valley Forge Classical Academy opens its doors with full enrollment in the fall of 2024.”

Charter schools offer students alternatives to public schools and are supported by tax dollars, so students do not pay tuition.

In a press release after the August rejection, West Chester stated it had comprehensively reviewed and evaluated the application and heard comments from the public.

“Ensuring the highest quality of education for our students is our utmost priority,” stated Sue Tiernan, WCASD Board of Directors President. “The decision to deny Valley Forge Classical Academy’s charter application was made after careful evaluation of the application’s alignment with Pennsylvania’s educational goals and standards and the charter school’s ability to educate to the caliber our community expects.”

The release added, “The board acknowledges the effort invested by VFCACS in the application process and commends the commitment to education exhibited by the applicant. The decision, however, was made based on the determination that the charter application did not fully align with the educational needs of the community and established criteria in Pennsylvania and the district’s charter policy.”

The idea of a charter school in the suburban district faced pushback during public hearings.

If the West Chester board again denies its application, the VFCA board will ask supporters to field petitions on behalf of the proposed charter school.

“We are committed to seeing this through, but we need YOU [emphasis original]. Working together, we can make this school a reality for your kids!” the VFCA board said on Facebook.

“For parents, taxpayers, and most of all our students, everyone should support having multiple good school options so that every child has a chance to succeed. VFCA is using a proven curriculum—and once opened, it will help improve the quality of education for everyone in the great West Chester area.”

“Politicians should stop worrying about the name on the school and focus on whether there are good school options so that parents can find a good school—and, all schools will be accountable to parents and taxpayers,” said Guy Ciarrocchi.  Ciarrocchi is the former CEO of the Chester County Chamber and serves as a volunteer board member of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

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MACFARLAND: Why Chester County Families Need a Charter School

In May 1, 2023, the Board of Education of the Valley Forge Classical Academy submitted an application for a Charter School to the West Chester Area School District (WCASD).  The application and addendums were over 500 pages.  Additional documents, including the complete K-8 Alignment of the curriculum to the PA Standards and the entire Program (Curriculum Guide) totaling over 900 pages, were submitted a week later at the request of the District.

Already, school choice detractors are spreading misinformation about charter schools.  I am taking a few moments to ensure that the facts about charter schools are available.

FACT ONE:   CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Charter Schools MUST abide by the same laws that the traditional public schools must follow.  That includes implementing IEP’s and 504s, non-promotion or teaching of religion (except in its relation to historical events), accepting ALL applicants regardless of race, color, religion, and no screening of applicants (such as entrance tests).

FACT TWO:  THE HILLSDALE K12 CURRICULUM

All of Hillsdale’s Member Schools provide an education that is both classical and American in its orientation. It is rooted in the liberal arts and sciences, offers a firm grounding in civic virtue, cultivates moral character, and teaches and supports universal values.

FACT THREE:  CHARTER SCHOOLS DO NOT DRAIN DISTRICT BUDGETS

Charter Schools bill the child’s home district for the instructional expenses needed for the enrolled child. The billed amount is not 100 percent of the per pupil expenditures of the district.  In fact, the district subtracts transportation and administrative fees off the top, and the charter school is provided about 70% of the per pupil expenditure.  So, for example, if the home district has approximately $20,000 per pupil expenditure in the district, as in the case of the West Chester Area School District, the charter school payment is about 30% less than that or approximately $14,000.  Consequently, the WCASD is paying LESS to educate charter children than those enrolled in the district and keeping the difference of $6000 in their pockets! Right now, WCASD budget shows only about 2 percent of its funds go to charter schools….and those funds are educating children residing in the WCASD, not those coming from another nearby district!

The truth is that the taxpayers of the West Chester Area School District DO NOT “pay for the school” as I heard someone claim. The district pays only for the students in the WCASD that attend the charter. Your taxes are not going up because of the addition of a charter school.  Public schools in Pennsylvania are allowed by law to raise taxes per the Act 1 index for their school district EVERY YEAR, and they do so, with or without cause.  Charter schools are just the scapegoat.

In addition, right now we have 93 students pre-enrolled, and most of them are NOT from the WCASD.

FACT FOUR:  CHARTER SCHOOLS EMPLOY CERTIFIED TEACHERS

Charter Schools must hire at least 80 percent state certified staff.  They are given some leeway in hiring non-certified staff for in-demand positions, such as a high school physics or math teachers.  The state requires that person be emergency certified, meaning a temporary grant of certification, while completing the requirements over a specific time period.  Or in the case of a drama teacher or the like, in which there is no state certification, yet the program is offered at the school.  ALL staff must provide clearances and background checks to be hired.

FACT FIVE:  CHARTER SCHOOLS OUTPERFORM PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Forbes Magazine ran this story in 2018, by Emily Langhorn: Five Reasons Why Independent Charters Outperform In-District Autonomous Schools.  The article states they have autonomy; are schools of choice; are held accountable for student performance; go through a careful authorization process; are sustainable.

FACT SIX:  VALLEY FORGE CLASSICAL ACADEMY IS A NON-PROFIT SCHOOL

Valley Forge Classical Academy Charter School is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.  All of the people working on bringing this school to the community are VOLUNTEERS and have generously donated their time and talents to ensure a strong application.  None have received any remuneration for their work.  All of the people who have donated their time and talents strongly believe in parental choice and in this particular school model.  We believe that a curriculum that meets or exceeds Pennsylvania State Standards and has high expectations for all students is sorely needed, not only in Chester County, but across the nation, and we are willing to devote our energies to make it happen.

The real argument here is whether or not you believe in parental choice.  Do you believe that all children must attend the public school supported by their parent’s tax money?  Or do you believe that parents should have the right to determine where their children and their tax money should go? Does one teaching style serve all learners? Do larger schools turn out better students and citizens?  Are smaller schools safer?

The beauty of a charter school is that if it doesn’t fit your child or align with your beliefs, your child doesn’t have to attend there!  Doesn’t a parent of a child for whom the traditional public schools aren’t working deserve the same?

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CLARK: School Choice Provides Opportunity for PA Kids

I believe in school choice for Pennsylvania because I am a product of school choice. I attended private and public schools through the 70s and 80s. Also, I appreciate the high-quality education my children and grandchildren have received at public brick-and-mortar charter schools, cyber public charter schools, traditional public schools, and private schools.

It has been amazing to choose for each of my children and grandchildren which schools met their unique needs. I am proud to say that my adult children all contribute positively to our society from the skills and knowledge they acquired at Pennsylvania Schools.

They have cultivated the entrepreneurial spirit into their work lives directly from education choices. My oldest granddaughter has been accepted to six universities here in Pennsylvania due to her public charter school and private school education. Also, arduous work on her part. She credited her success to the charter school, giving her a sense of community, and her private school gave her coursework that excelled her learning. Would these outcomes be the same if my zip code had dictated the schools?

The ongoing debate around funding school choice in Pennsylvania has damaged our national and local reputation as a state that doesn’t value education.

It has hurt how teachers feel about teaching. It has impaired young people’s desire to become teachers. It repels teachers from moving to or staying in our educational system. Over the course of the last 10 years, teachers applying for certification went from over 15,000 to teachers to less than 6,000 in 2021.

It has caused division in our communities when the authorizing district approves and funds the charter school. It is not in their interest to support or allow charter schools to expand. The authorizers impose enrollment caps that limit the number of students who can enroll in charter schools. It also blocks students’ enrollment in public charter schools. It is hard to believe that there is even a debate when all the funds come ultimately from taxpayers like you and me.

It is time to put all differences aside. It is time to see ourselves as a state that values high-quality education for all children and adults from kindergarten through post-high school studies, regardless of where they attend school.

We must declare that we value our students, parents, teachers, and leaders. We must train and empower our school boards to make appropriate decisions on the future of our schools and always maintain in sight that the parents, grandparents, and communities are paying for our schools.

Everyone’s voice is needed, matters, and will allow all schools to create opportunity, innovation, and unity for all children of Pennsylvania. Finally, we must recognize the positive effects school choice has on all schools and our economy.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools will continue to be the catalyst for educational excellence through opportunity, innovation, and unity.  Also, please join us with millions of school choice supporters across the Nation during National School Choice Week by sharing your story on social media.

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PA Military Charter School Proposed at Valley Forge Military Academy & College

Robert Mensch, a Republican who recently retired from the state Senate where he represented parts of Montgomery, Bucks, and Berks Counties, is throwing his weight behind a new charter school.

The Pennsylvania Military Charter School will be based at Valley Forge Military Academy and College.

Mensch, an alumnus who went on to serve with the Army Engineers in the Reserves, said the new K to 12 charter school will be completely separate from VFMAC. It will rent facilities.

The new charter and VFMAC officials are currently hammering out an agreement, said Joshua Johnson, de facto chairman of the charter school’s board.

However, both the Radnor Township School Board and the Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board would need to approve the charter school, since the VFMA property lies within the boundaries of both districts.

“That’s a sticky wicket,” said Mensch, who joined the charter school’s board. “No school district wants a charter school.”

And while districts complain about charter schools taking money from public schools, Mensch said that is not the case. The public schools receive the money first and disperse it if their students attend the charter. With both the Radnor and Tredyffrin/Easttown vying to be the top school district in the state each year, they are unlikely to lose many students to a charter.

“It’s minimal,” said Mensch. “We’re talking one percent, maybe less, of the total operating costs.”

“I think we need to give parents and students options,” said Mensch.

Johnson, a former Army Green Beret who served 32 years and retired in 2020 as a sergeant major, completed multiple tours of duty overseas. A Carlisle resident, he is currently a leadership consultant. He says he believes there is a great need for a school emphasizing leadership.

“Our goal for the Pennsylvania Military Charter School is to provide an alternative to traditional education based on the foundation of the U.S. military that focuses on the leadership development of the students. We want to make the great leaders of tomorrow.”

Eventually, there could be about 975 students at the charter.

“If we can get people graduating high school understanding the basic tenants of leadership, and they’re promoting these roles, I think they will have a leg up on anyone else,” he said. “I’m excited to do it because it’s leadership-based and military-based.”

While the new charter would not be part of the VFMAC, it will be its neighbor, said Johnson.

“It’s good to know your neighbor and find those common interests and see where and when we can be mutually supporting,” Johnson said. “But it is two separate organizations.”

VFM is a private institution, with tuition of $39,000 for boarding students, and $24,000 for those who commute. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded

In his final year in office, Mensch sponsored a bill signed by Gov. Tom Wolf that allotted unused federal ROTC funds to VFMA for scholarships.

“It will lead to an early commissioning program,” said Mensch, who has fond memories of his days at VFMC, where he played saxophone and clarinet in the band.

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MORGAN: Why Cyber Charters Must Exist – A Student Perspective

If you ask teenagers and kids today how they feel about school, you will find many are unhappy with their placement. At my school, however, this is not the case. I attend a cyber charter school, and ever since switching from public brick and mortar, my life has become infinitely better.

Before the pandemic, I attended my local public middle school in a highly rated school district. I went to school five days a week in person, and I was emotionally drained from the toxic environment and copious amounts of busywork. I was not being challenged enough, either. In addition to schoolwork, the environment was anything but ideal. A classmate was heavily bullying me to the point where I would cry every day after school. What made it even worse was that I am Jewish, and this school had numerous antisemitic kids. I was extremely dissatisfied with my education, but I was fortunate to have parents who sought alternative options.

Once the pandemic hit, I transferred to an online cyber charter. I immediately was impressed by the academic rigor and the cooperative environment. In eighth grade, I found genuinely extraordinary human beings I am lucky to call my friends. Everyone was much more accepting of other people, and people were more diverse in their interests. In addition to the more welcoming environment, kids are more emotionally mature, and meaningful conversations occurred daily.

Many adults who have little experience with cyber charters assume that students receive no social interaction, but that is false. Through my new school, I can socialize with my friends while also not being drained from seeing people constantly. We also have Zoom classes every other day where we can interact in live time with our peers and teacher. Another criticism is that cyber students do not learn anything, but that is wrong. I have learned more in two years of cyber school than in five at a public school.

My life drastically changed for the better. No longer am I bullied, bored, and dreading school. I genuinely enjoy going to school to learn, and my teachers are beyond helpful. On top of this, I obtained the 504 plan I needed. At my old school, they denied accommodations requested by my doctor because I am a straight-A student despite having ADHD and anxiety. With my cyber charter, I have extra time and am less anxious about tests.

Additionally, more neurodivergent kids accept you for who you are at my cyber charter. There is less ableism and we are all focused on bettering one another. Going to my new school is honestly the best decision my parents and I have ever made.

Some students in brick-and-mortar schools could benefit from attending a cyber charter but are afraid to express their concerns to their parents. Numerous parents are not open to cyber charters due to misconceptions. That needs to change. My advice to my peers is to talk to your parents if you have fears or dislike brick-and-mortar school. Finding a school that is best for you should be the most important concern for your family. My advice to parents is to research cyber charter schools. Find the facts and how they work, talk to people who work there, and most importantly, listen to your children. Children should have a say in their education because it is their lives.

Cyber charter schools have remade my life in the most magical way. I am genuinely filled with joy while learning, and I am no longer doing busy work just because I finished my assignments early. I found true lifelong friends who share the same values as me. All of this is because my parents listened to my concerns and found a better option. Giving cyber charters a chance may offer a positive change in your child’s life.

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HRONCICH: Residential Assignment Is The Real Cause of Coaches’ PIAA Woes

Recent complaints from some Pennsylvania basketball coaches about unfair competition from private and charter schools make some legitimate points. Public schools can only take students from within their geographical districts, but private and charter schools can take students from anywhere.

Some coaches are calling for separate playoffs for district schools and other schools in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA). “It would help if schools with boundaries don’t have to play ones that don’t have boundaries,” said Aliquippa coach Nick Lackovich.

But pushing kids from private and charter schools into separate playoffs isn’t the answer. Rather than reducing opportunities for some kids, coaches and other leaders should try to expand opportunities for all.

What do I mean? The root cause of the problem the coaches are citing is that Pennsylvania—like other states—assigns children to schools based on where they live. This probably made sense in the 1800s when cars and phones didn’t even exist. It would have been difficult to give children a variety of educational options.

In 2022, it makes no sense at all.

The answer is to fund students and let families choose the education that works for them. That would result in a tremendous flourishing of opportunities for all students. Maybe some schools would recruit athletes and become basketball, football, or track powerhouses. But other schools would focus on art or music and attract kids who excel in those areas. Some schools would emphasize vocational training and offer unique programs for their students. There would probably even be hybrid schools where students learn at school some days and at home other days.

This isn’t a pipe dream. In Pennsylvania, we already have tax credit scholarships and charter schools that allow some families to choose a school beyond the one they were assigned to. Other states offer vouchers that can be used at private schools. Education scholarship accounts (ESAs), which are already operational in six states and approved in five more, are the most flexible option. With ESAs, funds are deposited in restricted-use accounts that parents can spend on approved education-related expenses.

Funding students instead of a system would alleviate the competitive problems the coaches are complaining about. But more importantly, it would allow each child to attend the educational environment that suits them best. Imagine if schools were competing to be the best at academics, art, theater, vocational training, or speech and debate the way they currently compete in athletics. It would open a world of new possibilities for children.

The coaches who are complaining about the current system attempted to compare it to other levels of basketball. According to New Castle coach Ralph Blundo, “NBA teams don’t play Division I college teams. Division I teams that have scholarships don’t play Division III teams for championships because the circumstances are different. The ability to obtain players is different. I get all that. But you have to acknowledge and handle it because it hurts kids.”

That analogy doesn’t hold up. People aren’t assigned to NBA teams or to college based on where they live. They choose where to go based on who accepts them and what they think is the best fit. The coaches aren’t calling for college placement to be based on where people live to make an even playing field. But they fail to realize that residential assignment makes no more sense in K-12 than it would for college.

These coaches seem to think separating the private and charter kids into their own playoffs will ensure fairness. But there will always be some schools—and some children—who have more advantages than others. Schools that spend more on sports are likely to outperform other schools. Similarly, schools with more kids who can afford outside coaching or leagues are likely to outperform other schools. The answer isn’t pushing some kids out of the way. The answer is to change the system so each child can pursue his or her dreams.

Funding school systems or buildings is so 1800s. It’s 2022. It’s time to fund students and let all kids pursue the education that works best for them.

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PA Independent Regulatory Review Commission Votes for New Charter School Rules

In a 3-2 ruling along party lines, the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) voted Monday in favor of new charter school rules championed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf, a Democrat, welcomed the commission’s decision.

“These regulations are a vital step in clarifying charter schools’ responsibilities to the taxpayers who fund them,” Wolf said. “We were forced to take this path when the legislature refused to act on our comprehensive reform package. Charter schools received nearly $3 billion in publicly paid tuition this school year. Parents and taxpayers have a right to know how those resources are being used.”

However, others believe it will make it harder for parents who want to send their kids to charter schools.

Previously, the House and Senate education committees rejected the rules and sent the IRCC letters saying they opposed approval.

“Wolf once again acted unilaterally to circumvent the legislature,” said Nate Benefield, senior vice president of the

Nathan (Nate) Benefield is the Senior Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation.

Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank. “This ‘Lone Wolf’ strategy does a disservice to Pennsylvania voters, parents, and students.”

More than 40,000 children are on a waiting list for charter schools in the Delaware Valley region, the foundation said in a press release.

In 2020–2021, more than 170,000 students attended charter schools—an increase of almost 23,000.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools are public schools open to all students. And while charter schools serve more low-income and minority students than traditional district schools, they receive, on average, 25 percent less funding, the foundation said.

“Our governor hasn’t set foot in a charter school in seven years but insists that he knows what’s best,” said Benefield. “Instead of trying to stifle choice for families by unilaterally designing a bureaucratic labyrinth, Wolf should work with the legislature to empower parents and provide more education opportunities for every child in the commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, a study from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed Pennsylvania charter school enrollment rose 15.5 percent from 2020 to 2021 as public school enrollment dropped by 3.2 percent. Statewide, the number of charter school students grew to 169,252 pupils.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said the IRRC decision would hurt students.

“This regulation could result in numerous harms,” including lowered charter school tuitions, negatively impact minority operated and run charter schools, and increase the already “ballooning” waiting list,” the group said in a press release.

“Overall, the regulation could reduce educational choice options for Pennsylvania students, including the most vulnerable of minority and economically disadvantaged students. Public charter schools kept teaching our scholars during the pandemic, and recent enrollment numbers show that more and more parents are choosing charter schools.”

Jennifer Arevalo, CEO of Souderton Charter School Collaborative

The coalition slammed Wolf for reducing the money going to charter schools by $373 million in his budget request, noting that charter schools already get 25 percent less state funding than other public schools receive.

Jennifer Arevalo, CEO of the Souderton Charter School Collaborative said, “The new regulation would harm charter schools and charter students in the following two ways. The regulation will place additional requirements on new charter school applicants that extend beyond Charter School Law. While promoting a standard application, it does not limit districts from asking for more information from the applicants.

“The regulation does not resolve the redirection issue where some districts simply do not provide tuition for students who attend charter schools. This places charter schools in a precarious position of not being able to pay their bills. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) should make districts comply with school law.”

The Wolf administration listed the regulatory changes in its statement about the approval: “Provide clear application requirements for entities seeking to open a charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school; ensure that all Pennsylvania students are able to access charter schools; clarify the ethics requirements for charter and cyber charter school trustees; require school districts and charter schools to follow the same fiscal management and auditing standards; streamline the process for charter schools to request tuition payments from school districts and the state; and provide a consistent, common-sense method for charter schools to meet the employee health care requirements in state law.”

Those rules must still go to the state legislature for passage or revision and then to Wolf for his signature or veto.

There are 179 charter schools and cyber charter schools operating in Pennsylvania this school year. All 67 counties in Pennsylvania have students enrolled in some form of charter school.

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