The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many examples of workers and labor unions across Pennsylvania fighting for the working class and safety of all of us. In contrast, The Commonwealth Foundation is using the pandemic to do what they’ve always done – rip off public schools and fight against raising the minimum wage.
Most notably, the billionaire-funded front group has been on a big push promoting cyber charters. Pennsylvania’s lax laws on charter and cyber schools have been described as the “worst” in the nation. In an article widely shared, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss stated: “The charter sector in Pennsylvania has long been beset by fraud and a lack of transparency and accountability.”
Staffers from the Commonwealth Foundation like Nathan Benefield and Jennifer Stefano have spent the weeks following the pandemic promoting the expansion of the predatory cyber charter school industry through social media, blogs, and editorials in newspapers – including encouraging parents to enroll their children in Commonwealth Charter Academy and Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools. These examples are true lowlights of the Commonwealth Foundation’s efforts to prop up Pennsylvania’s failing cyber charter industry.
In 2017 and 2018, Commonwealth Charter Academy paid nearly $7.9 million of taxpayer money to The Bravo Group, a high powered Harrisburg lobbying firm. In return for these lucrative contracts, Bravo Group produces content from Charter School hearings and rallies to promote their industry. In addition, Former State Senator Jeffrey Piccola sits on the Board as the Vice-Chair. The former Senate Education Chair was the subject of a years-long ethics investigation and public admonishment when the Senator was found guilty by the Supreme Court Disciplinary Board for conflicts of interest while holding public office. It’s not surprising that the former Senate Education Chair now sits on the board of this charter.
In 2018, Nick Trombetta, the founder and former CEO of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools, was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison for tax fraud. Mr. Trombetta pleaded guilty “to conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service from collecting income, siphoning $8 million” from the cyber school to spend on luxury items like houses or airplanes. A 2016 Pennsylvania Auditor General’s report also revealed Pennsylvania Cyber Charters Schools spent over $153 million dollars on education management companies founded by Mr. Trombetta while his family members were given nepotism jobs in the charter industry.
The Commonwealth Foundation’s efforts to promote this industry, and particularly these schools, during a time of crisis, make clear what we’ve known all along. They exist to enrich their donors and profit on the backs of public school children.