In Pennsylvania, a War on Charter Schools

Charles Mitchell, who leads the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania, is worried about children’s access to charter schools in the Keystone State. “Our governor has declared war on opportunity for Pennsylvania families,” Mitchell says, referring to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. “He’s issued 11 executive orders, the plain intent of which is to put the kibosh on charter schools.”

Read a lightly edited transcript of the interview, posted below, or listen to the podcast:

We also cover the following stories:

  • Supreme Court plaintiff Mark Janus discusses workers’ rights.
  • Two impeachment hearings will occur today.
  • Chick-fil-A makes a notable change in its charitable giving.

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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Charles Mitchell. He is the CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Charles, thanks for your time today.

Charles Mitchell: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Davis: So, in Pennsylvania, and in many states across the country, charter schools have become, I believe, the main school of choice for a lot of parents. They see it as better quality. These are better-performing schools for their kids. But your governor, Tom Wolf, who is a Democrat, is trying to stamp out these schools in Pennsylvania. Fill us in on what the charter school fight looks like right now in Pennsylvania.

Mitchell: Very simply, it’s a fight for opportunity. And unfortunately, our governor has declared war on opportunity for Pennsylvania families. He’s issued 11 executive orders, the plain intent of which is to put the kibosh on charter schools, just as you said. And the other fact of the matter is, there’s more to opportunity for families than charter schools.

We believe in all kinds of school choice at the Commonwealth Foundation. I happen to have put my money where my mouth is, and my wife and I started a school earlier this year. But there’s lots of different options that work for individual kids, for individual families.

We have to grow all of those options for all kids, obviously, across Pennsylvania, but all across America. And not just with our governor, but with other governors, presidential candidates, all that kind of stuff, there is a war on. And it’s not against charter schools. It’s not against school choice. It’s not against conservative organizations. It’s against the opportunity for kids.

Davis: So, specifically in Pennsylvania, what’s the governor doing to try to stop charter schools from growing?

Mitchell: Well, nothing much, he’s just breaking the law and trying to prevent people from making the choice that they want to make to benefit their children. That’s it, there’s nothing real big. I don’t really get why you’re doing a news story on it.

No, the core of what our governor is trying to do, and this is all totally illegal … You remember the Obama approach, “I don’t need Congress, I got a pen and a phone”? That’s what this is.

Responsible people like the Commonwealth Foundation have been working with our Legislature for years to update our charter law in commonsense ways. It was passed in the ’90s. What the governor has done with these executive orders, they’re very complicated but the short of it is this, he wants to put a ceiling on how many kids can go to these schools.

And how do kids go to these schools? Their parents choose. That’s immoral, it’s illegal, but it’s immoral to come between these parents and their kids, and what’s going to help them. And let’s be real here, I went to public schools. I went to good public schools, I grew up in the suburbs. My family was very fortunate to be able to do that for me. My parents moved to a district for me and my brother. The kids that are trying to go to these charter schools, they do not have that option.

Their schools [are ones] you would never send your kids to, Gov. Wolf would never send his kids to, [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren would never send her kids to. You’re talking about environments where children are not learning. You’re talking about deeply, deeply, deeply problematic situations. These kids have an escape route and the governor is trying to shut off the door to that escape route.

Davis: I understand that charter schools in Pennsylvania actually have to pay money to get funding from the government. What is that about?

Mitchell: Look, here’s how it works. Imagine you want to start a Wendy’s. You would have to call all the McDonald’s and the Burger Kings in the neighborhood and ask them for permission to start your Wendy’s. That’s how it works in Pennsylvania. Charter schools have to get permission from the local school board in order to open up.

And not only that, some of the money does follow the child when the child chooses, when the parents choose to send the child. It’s about 70 cents on the dollar.

So bottom line, big picture, what are we dealing with is, charter schools are doing more with less. They’re getting better results for less money. And for some reason that I can’t understand—I’ll give you my theories if you want—our governor has decided that’s a bad thing, we have to stop that.

Davis: Is this really just about control? That the governor wants to control what’s happening in the school? Control how schools operate? I have trouble understanding why he would be against good, quality schools.

Mitchell: He’s made it very clear. I don’t have to speak for him. I don’t have to have ESP. He has said he thinks that everybody should go to, not just government schools, not just public schools—because charter schools are public schools—but to standard public schools.

He’s said when our organization and others have come forward with various types of school choice, “I don’t think that’s the solution. I think the solution is traditional public schools.” That is a one-size-fits all, totally counterproductive mindset. That’s not what we do in any other aspect of our economy.

And look, again, I’m not going to try and read the governor’s mind, but I can read his campaign finance disclosures. It happens to be the case that far and away, his biggest donors are the public-sector unions who have a vested interest in making sure that their dues revenue is maximized from traditional public schools. It seems to me that the governor’s plain language, his own words, and his campaign finance disclosures probably tell us something.

Davis: Pennsylvania actually has a Republican House and Senate. Are they taking any action to try to stand up to the governor, try to block what he’s doing?

Mitchell: Well, first thing I’ll say about that is this isn’t a partisan issue. You are correct, we do have divided government in Pennsylvania. We’ve gotten some great things done through divided government, by the way, the same way [The Heritage Foundation] did in the ’90s, for example, with welfare reform. And there are legislators in both parties who are standing up to the governor.

I personally don’t think that he’s going to get very far with these attacks because they’re going to be legally, I think, challenged. They’re not legally sound. They’re also immoral, as we talked about. There is opposition to them in the Legislature.

But we have to take this seriously. This is part of a national trend, you look at what Elizabeth Warren’s saying. You look at what Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer’s doing in Michigan. There’s been a temperature change that’s very evident in the last few years around this issue.

Also, when you look at the behavior of the public-sector unions in Washington and in our state capitals, they are cracking down. They have declared war, not just on charter schools but on all types of school choice. The temperature of their language has gone up, and they’re cracking down on the people that they think they helped get elected, to try and deny these opportunities to kids.

We have to stop it. We are stopping it in Pennsylvania, by the way. We got a massive increase in school choice this year, in spite of what our governor’s trying to do.

But part of why I’m so happy to talk to you today is, we have to sound the alarm about this across this country. We cannot just let this attack happen. And by the way, we don’t have to. We can beat these people. We’re beating them in Pennsylvania, we can beat them across the country. And we have to because we owe it to these kids.

Davis: You mentioned that you and your wife actually started a private school. I want to ask you about that. What led you to start a school?

Mitchell: Well, you could argue I need my head examined because my day job—fighting for these kids all across Pennsylvania and working on all sorts of other public policy issues—it’s a little busy. But we came to believe that there wasn’t the kind of educational environment in our community that we wanted for our kids.

I do know a thing or two about starting and running and scaling nonprofits. That’s what I do. And my wife and I decided we wanted to really put our money where our mouth was, and make an opportunity, make a school in our community that would work for other children who want to learn at their own pace, who want to be entrepreneurial.

My kids are working right now, they’re starting their own businesses. It’s Halloween season, so I understand one of my kids is going to try and monetize her candy. Which I support, I’d much rather have her do that than eat it. But we just felt we needed this option for our kids, but also for our community. And it’s a natural extension of what we believe and what we fight for every day.

Davis: You mentioned the power of the unions in Pennsylvania. And I want to pivot to that issue because Pennsylvania historically, and up to the present day, is a huge union state, both in the public and private sectors. And until fairly recently, public-sector employees found themselves having to pay fees to their union even if they weren’t a member.

Of course these were the fair share fees that were struck down in the landmark Janus ruling from the Supreme Court in 2017, putting an end to it, at least in theory. So just refresh, for our audience, what did the Janus ruling actually do, and what effect is it having in Pennsylvania right now?

Mitchell: The Janus case, in plain English said, “You can’t be forced to pay money to a public-sector union in order to keep your job.” That’s what it said. That’s a huge paradigm shift in this country.

However, public-sector unions did not make themselves the kingmakers of politics in this country overnight, and they’re not stupid. And we knew, at the Commonwealth Foundation, they were not going to roll over. They were not just going to let people do what they want with their money. They have a pretty clear track record of not doing that for 50 years.

And in Pennsylvania what they’ve done in particular is really two things. One, they either don’t tell people about their rights or they lie to them. They certainly are not going out of their way to tell them about the Janus case. And when they do go out of their way, they say things—and we have them in writing saying this, like, “You will be fired if you don’t pay money to the union,” or “You’ll lose your benefits,” or, “You’ll lose your pension,” or all sorts of nightmare scenarios like that.

That is all false. That is complete baloney. But, they have credibility. They’ve been in these workplaces for decades and they’re saying it. We have them in writing, by the way.

And secondly, they’re relying upon these very restrictive windows we have, that are legal in Pennsylvania, to essentially say, “Yeah, you can leave your union, but you can only leave in a two-week period every three to five years.”

So just imagine, my friend Mark Janus put’s it this way, imagine if somebody said to you about your First Amendment rights, “You can have them two weeks out of 50,” or “two weeks out of every five.” That’s what they’ve been trying to do in Pennsylvania.

Now, the good news is, first of all, we have a bill moving through the Legislature that would require the government to notify people of their First Amendment rights. What a rocket-science idea, right? And many workers in Pennsylvania have stood up and have worked with public-interest law firms.

For example, there’s one that’s great in Pennsylvania called the Fairness Center. There’s an organization called Americans for Fair Treatment that educates workers about their rights. And they are standing up.

In fact, there have been now multiple class action lawsuits filed by these workers, using law firms like the Fairness Center and National Right to Work, against the unions. And as a result, just in the last couple of weeks, five major unions have said, “You know what? These windows that we’ve been telling workers they have to use in order to exercise their First Amendment rights, we were just kidding. We’re not going to do that anymore.”

Now, they said it had nothing to do with the lawsuits. If you believe that, I got a bridge I can sell you.

Davis: Do you think workers in Pennsylvania are coming to a greater awareness of their rights under the Janus ruling? It seems that a lot of this power that unions have exerted over workers is that people just haven’t known their rights under the ruling. It’s only a 2-year-old ruling. Do you see greater awareness that they can actually stand up for their rights?

Mitchell: Yeah. I don’t think that union members are getting more aware, I know they are. And it’s been, in the scheme of things, a really short amount of time, just over a year since the ruling, and we’ve seen many, many, many workers, first of all, vindicate their rights, just get out, because that’s what they want to do. But we’ve also seen many workers contact the Legislature, ask them to pass, for example, this bill we call the Employee Rights Notification Act. We’ve seen many workers stand up and file lawsuits.

When you think about it, it takes real courage to put your name on a lawsuit against your union. You have to be really sure that they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing. You also have to be really sure you have a good lawyer, right?

Davis: Yeah.

Mitchell: But, it’s a very significant thing and we’re seeing a wave of these lawsuits in Pennsylvania. And we’ve seen from, for example, the work that the unions have done to try and force people through these restrictive windows.

Which, by the way, we also know what they do is, during the window, they’ll change the P.O. box that you’re supposed to send the letter to. So it gets returned and then you’re outside the window. We know what they were going to do. We’ve seen them surrender on that huge advantage that they have under Pennsylvania state law that’s been in there for decades.

… Let’s be honest, all right? When you have major precedent from the United States Supreme Court, I don’t care what the issue is, it takes decades to enforce it.

So it’s only been a year, but we are already seeing tremendous results in Pennsylvania. Not from the Commonwealth Foundation or whatever, ultimately, that’s not what I care about. What I care about is workers having the ability to do what they want to do with their money. After all, my grandfather was a union official in Philadelphia. I believe in the right to join a union if that’s what you want to do.

And everybody in Pennsylvania who wants to join a union, I say, “Go for it,” if that’s what they want to do. But if it’s not what they want to do, then it is just unspeakably wrong for people to take … I mean, whoever balanced this is taking a vacation from somebody’s family, about $1,000 in a lot of parts of Pennsylvania. And that’s a nice vacation for a family. That’s what they’re taking from people who don’t want it, they don’t want any parts of it. Yes, we are seeing those people stand up. And we’re going to continue to see those people stand up as the Janus case is enforced.

Davis: You mentioned the governor’s financial report showed that he’s actually gotten a lot of money from unions. And of course, that’s a long-time trend. A lot of political candidates, especially Democrats, have been funded by unions, and these fair share fees were a windfall for unions.

What kind of financial impact do you think the Janus ruling long term is going to have on not just unions, but the Democratic politicians that they support?

Mitchell: I think this is a key thing that people who believe in freedom and liberty have to understand. I don’t care what issue you care about, the most significant opponents to anything ending in reform—education reform, pension reform, tax reform—anything that we would all believe in, is the public-sector unions.

And let’s be real, if people were giving them … In Pennsylvania it’s approximately $200 million a year. Now, if people really wanted to put up $200 million a year to stop things that polling shows 60%-70% of Americans believe in, then I would say, “Well, fair is fair,” all right? Because we have a First Amendment and that’s cool. But that’s not cool. …

We know that many of those union members, they don’t want their hard-earned money being spent to hurt their neighbors, which is what it boils down to if you’re, for example, turning Pennsylvania [into] a basket case financially so that people have to leave.

That’s really what it’s going down to. People’s money is being taken so that their neighbors’ kids have to move to another state to get a job. That’s unconscionable and that’s something that people who believe in freedom and liberty, I think, have not necessarily understood.

We’ve allowed that to be the case for about the last 40 years in Pennsylvania and many other states like it. Well, I see that changing.

I see that changing because of Mark Janus’ bravery. But I also see it because of a vigorous effort by many, many different organizations, including some of the ones we’ve talked about in our time together, to enforce the Janus ruling. Because the fact is, a Supreme Court ruling isn’t worth anything if it’s not enforced. And the people who have been taking this money to do bad things for decades, they are not going to surrender it.

My point of view is, in Pennsylvania, they’re losing. Sadly, in many other places, they are very formidable. In many other states, they’ve forced through laws leading out to the Janus ruling and afterward to make it more difficult for people to leave their unions. We did a report on that recently, a 50-state labor report.

But there is excellent work being done all across the country to enforce the Janus ruling. And certainly in Pennsylvania, I would say, workers are winning and people who have been hurting workers for decades are losing.

Davis: All right. We’ll leave it there. Charles Mitchell, thanks for your time today.

Mitchell: Thanks so much.

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