Wage theft and lack of accountability in Philadelphia charter schools

My latest article for the Philadelphia City Paper, co-written with news editor Samantha Melamed, has its origins in the research for my cover story about wage theft back in August. A friend put me in touch with Addison Vawters, a young man about my age who had moved to Philadelphia last year, found work with K-12 Staffing (a charter school substitute staffing agency), taught at New Media Technology in Mt. Airy…and wasn’t paid what he was owed.

Then a lawyer with Community Legal Services contacted me with the story of another charter school substitute, who also worked for K-12 Staffing at New Media Technology. She hadn’t been paid either. This sounded like a story unto itself. But the teachers couldn’t find the woman who ran the agency, Wakeeta Rowe, and neither could the lawyers at CLS. I tried all her numbers and email addresses that I could find online, but they were all dead. The charter schools didn’t return my phone calls either.

The initial story I turned in focused on the lack of accountability in the charter school system that allowed an operation like Rowe’s to flourish. The below are excerpts from the previous version of the current article:

“[A New Media VP ] said, ‘there nothing we can do about it, we paid [K-12 Staffing]” DeFrancesco says. “He didn’t seem concerned. He just said: ‘There’s nothing I can do, you have to take it up with [Rowe]. I said, ‘well aren’t you concerned? Are you still going to hire the subs?’ And he just looked at me. He didn’t really care.”

It is unclear why the New Media Technology administration continued hiring from an agency they knew was having trouble paying substitutes, as Vawters had informed them as early as October. (The school did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.)

It is unsettling that shady hiring and employment practices of this magnitude are so easily executed, particularly as 40 percent of the Philadelphia public school system is set to be run by charter schools by 2017. But there is no oversight agency to regulate charter employment practices, no standardized norm for hiring substitute teachers, and no one to ensure that DeFrancesco, Vawters, and others like them get paid.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education claims that school districts are responsible for charter schools. But “Every charter school is like its own school district,” says Fernando Gallard, spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia. “People not getting paid for work they have done, that’s inappropriate and should be looked at immediately. But there isn’t anything we can do.” (The Philadelphia School District hires its own substitute teachers directly and does not outsource to private staffing agencies.)

“We don’t comment on staffing issues, we leave that up to the individual charter schools because every school is different and there is no overreaching policy in that regard,” says Lynn Juinski, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

In addition to this lack of outside accountability for its employment practices, charter schools are not liable for practices of an agency, like K-12 Staffing, that they choose to do business with. Under Joint Employer laws both the employer and the subcontractor are liable for non-payment, but the state’s Wage Payment and Collection Law exempts municipal corporations, including school districts, from its protections and Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law holds charter schools to the same standards.

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