Public Education Questionnaire – Candidate Dr. Dean Donaher

The Following answers are from Dr. Dean Donaher from our Bethlehem School District Board of Directors, running for State Representative, Northampton County 138th Legislative District
1. Do you believe state funding for public education is adequate to meet all student’s needs?
No. Currently state funding is not equitably distributed. The “Fair Funding Formula” recently passed by the legislature only applies to “new” money in the state budget. Long standing overpayments to districts and the consequential underfunding of other districts has now been set in stone. It will take twenty-five years or more for the funding of public schools to reach some form of equity within the commonwealth. The timeline for equity should be advanced so the rightful equality of funding of school districts can be realized sooner rather than later.
2. What would you do to re-direct current resources at program that improve the quality of education?
I would gather leadership from the most successful school districts and their cooperating partners and have them analyze the components of their programs, They would be charged with developing an action plan for implementation to be shared with other lower performing districts. The parts of the plan would include academic programs, curriculum development and best practices, community partnerships, financial return on investment, as well as others components of a school system to evaluate the opportunities for success.
3. What would you do, if anything, to increase the funding resources for public education?
This answer has two parts. First, steps must be taken to slow the drain of taxpayer dollars out of a school district for duplicative services. There are some things I would propose which in effect would provide more financial resources to the district. (1) Create a true and accurate cost for charter school and cyber charter school tuitions; (2) Reduce the mandatory transportation rule. (3) Eliminate some of the unfunded mandates, especially those that involve standardized testing, and (4) Mandate that special education evaluations conducted through the home school district be the final determination of eligibility. This would preclude students being classified as in need of special services after they enroll in a charter school thereby doubling the tuition cost to the home school district. Second, I would propose an education tax on Marcellus Shale, as well as closing the Delaware Loop Hole used by corporations to dodge paying Pennsylvania State Taxes. The second part would increase the funds available to support public education in the Commonwealth.
4. Do you believe property taxes are a problem in Pennsylvania? If so, what solutions would you suggest providing property tax relief to homeowners?
I do believe property taxes are a problem for a number of homeowners, especially those on fixed incomes. I would propose a “property tax rebate” through the Commonwealth. This takes the school district out of the mix and places pressure on the Commonwealth to uphold their end of the bargain, something it has failed to do with school districts. I would propose a phase in rebate of 10% per year for three consecutive years. An Education Tax on Marcellus Shale of 2% per year for three consecutive years, totaling a 6% tax on Marcellus Shale, would fund this. This year-
by-year rebate would provide the Commonwealth the time to evaluate the process yearly. If additional funds are collected they could speed up the rebate program, extend the rebate beyond 30%, or be used to support infrastructure initiatives throughout the Commonwealth. I would keep the index for school district budget growth and work with school leaders (superintendents and Boards), to determine other methods of evaluation to make sure the taxpayers are getting the most for their money.
5. Do you support the elimination of property taxes?
No. I believe education is the responsibility of the local community. Each community must decide what their public educational system will look like and their corresponding investment in it. The elimination of property taxes will take away local control and force districts into a “one-size fits all” process. I do not believe the Commonwealth can find the money to support all the public school districts in Pennsylvania, therefore it would not take long before school districts would be told to “make it work” when they do not receive adequate funding. This would leave the citizens of the district with no recourse to provide the education they want for their children.
6. Charter Schools:
a. What is the appropriate role of charter schools?
Charter schools were intended to provide “choice” to parents of children in low performing public schools. Charter schools were also to be a “laboratory” for innovation and experimentation in methods surrounding education. The results of which were to be shared with the home school district. Neither of these two pillars of the intent of charter schools is currently being followed. Statistics show that less than half of the students attending charter schools come from low or poor performing schools and programming successes have not been shared with home school districts.
b. Do you think charter schools are improving educational quality? Why or why not?
In some instances I am sure the educational quality of a charter school exceeds that of the home school, however it may be due to circumstances unrelated to the school itself. Entrance examinations, performance auditions, and other screening techniques used to filter the students accepted into the charter school result in a higher level of ability and/or commitment from the student and/or parent. It is not the result of what the charter school is doing day to day but rather the academic quality and commitment of the children in the school that makes the difference. If the home school could filter out poor performing or unmotivated students and not have to educate all students that show up at the front door, then the home schools would show the same results as the charter school.
c. What would you do, if anything, to change the existing charter school law in PA?
I believe there are a few things that need to change: (1) A more equitable funding formula for charter school needs to be developed. The cost should be the same regardless of the school district a student comes from. (2) Accountability related to Charter School Boards must be developed, including how Board members are recruited and selected. Unlike public school boards, charter boards are not voted on by the public, in fact the public has absolutely no input or voice in who is spending their money at a charter school. (3) In order to equate apples to apples, I believe the demographics of a charter school should match the demographics of the home district in which the school is chartered. To that end a charter school should reflect the: racial, ethnic, socio-economic, special needs, and other categories representative of the home district. This would provide a more equitable view of the success or failure of the charter school.  (4) If the true goal of charter schools is to give choice to parents of children in a “failing” school (as the commonwealth calls them), then why not let the charter take over the particular “failing” school and show the home school district how to increase the academic performance of the children in the school.
d. What are the significant ways that you think charter schools should be governed and regulated differently than community school districts? Why?
(1) Charter school boards should be directly responsible to the people of the community not just the parents and children enrolled in the school. I am not sure how that would happen. I am not sure if charter school board members would need to be voted on in the same manner as local public school boards or not. A plan would need to be developed that would provide a direct line of responsibility to the general public much like the school district board,
(2) a rigorous evaluation of student performance and financial responsibility should be developed and overseen by a citizens committee to evaluate the success or failure of charter schools in the commonwealth. Benchmarks should be set and held to for a charter school to remain in business. This is taxpayer money we are talking about and it is very expensive to the taxpayers to maintain a charter school,
(3) monies raised by a charter school through fundraising efforts should be deducted from the amount of money a home school district needs to provide. This would precipitate a direct benefit to all the citizens of the community if a charter school were to receive financial support from a benefactor or through other fundraising efforts, this could be celebrated by the charter school and the home district in an effort to bring the two groups closer together, (4) hold charter schools accountable to all the rules, regulation, requirements, and other aspects of public school governance that home districts are required to follow.
e. What would you change about charter school governance?
As I have said before charter school boards should be directly responsible to all the citizens of the community not just the parents and children attending the school. Exactly how that would happen, I am not sure. On a nine-member board, perhaps a member of the local school board or a designated representative appointed by the school district would be a voting member of the charter school board. Perhaps a representative of each of the four school districts that enroll the largest number of students in the charter school would be appointed, by the home school district, to the charter school board. This representative could be a sitting school board member or an involved member of the community. This would provide feedback and enhance communication between the charter school and the school districts. There are numerous ways to provide a better structure for charter school governance.
f. Do you support or oppose a statewide authorizer, which would take authority away from local communities to approve or reject charters?
I oppose the concept of a statewide authorizer of charter schools. Education is the responsibility of the local community. The local community pays, through property taxes and other means, for the education of the children within its community. To take away the ability of a locally elected board to evaluate and approve/disapprove a charter is to strip the community of its rights and responsibility.
g. What changes would you make to how cyber charter schools are structured and funded in PA?
I would recommend one of two possibilities for funding: (1) if a home district has a cyber charter option then that is the mandated cyber education for the child. If the parent chooses to send the child to a different cyber charter school then the tuition should be the responsibility of the parent. (2) If a public school district has a charter school option the cost to any other public cyber charter school should be the home school district’s cost plus 10%. This would prevent a district from having to pay $10,000 when the district could do it for $5,000. Under my option it would cost the district $5,500 not $10,000. I would recommend that home schools be able to administer the same formative and summative assessments administered to the children in the district to evaluate the progress of the students and the quality of work of the cyber-school.
7. Do you support vouchers (i.e. an allocation of state tax dollars used to pay for private education)? Please elaborate.
I do not support the use of vouchers to pay for private education. Tax dollars are for the collective good of the community. I fear we are becoming a society of “me” rather that “us.” If a parent desires a different environment of education from that of the local public school or public charter school, that is their choice and I respect that choice, but it should not be funded with taxpayer dollars.
8. What measures should be used to evaluate the quality of education and the job that schools are doing to provide it?
There are many assessments both formative as well as summative that could be used in developing a rubric to determine an evaluation protocol for a school and/or school district. A rubric that includes much more than a standardized test given on a particular day would be necessary to accurately evaluate the success of a school. We must take into account student growth as opposed to an artificial standard. Academic development is very similar to physical development. What makes us think they are different? Much in the same manner that all children do not develop physically at the same rate (height and weight), children do not all develop at the same rate academically. Some start out fast and slow down, others start slow and pick up momentum as they become older. Evaluating children through the lens of a “one size fits all” framework is unfair to the child, the parents, the school, the teacher, in essence to everyone. At the same time in a true evaluation we must look at the cost and where and how the taxpayers money is being spent. A rubric to determine the return on investment should also be developed to determine the value the taxpayers are getting for their investment. Evaluation should be based on growth not a predetermined standard. One last comment on this topic is that “success” or the “quality of an education” may not be evident until long after a child graduates from the school district. Judging the quality of an education takes a lifetime to fully evaluate. We must remember we are but a piece of the puzzle not the entire picture.
9. Please tell us what you think about standardizes tests. Do you believe they have a role to play in assessing what is happening in schools? How should they be used?
In general assessments, whether formative or summative in nature, should and must be used to inform instruction. Without the end result of informing instruction any assessment is of little to no value. Formative or summative “standardized tests” i.e. developed and administered within a school district based on district curriculum and district priorities, are of value to gain feedback for the overall view of the curriculum and perhaps, instructional techniques. I believe nationwide and statewide, standardized tests serve little to no value as they are only used as a tool
or punishment against a school or district not meeting the predetermined standard. Individual school districts should be required to develop their own formative and summative assessments that fit the curriculum adopted by the local board of school directors. Standardized tests such as the SAT’s and ACT’s, which are used to gauge potential for success as a college freshman, are slowly fading away as a make or break evaluation tool for some colleges.
Special thanks to Dr. Donaher for his participation
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