Audio: Real Solutions for Struggling Schools


What are some solutions to fixing the environment in failing school districts? Providing families with the flexibility in choosing where their children go to school, rewarding the best—not just the most senior—teachers, and allocating funding based on student need would be a great start.

But with his recent budget proposal, Gov. Wolf has shown that he favors spending more, not spending more wisely, on struggling schools.

James Paul, a CF senior policy analyst, compares this strategy to buying a new car and taking it home, only to realize it needs numerous repairs. After demanding answers from the car dealer, would you agree to buy the same exact car—but for even more money?

Listen to James’ interview with WSBA’s Gary Sutton to hear more about the benefits of school choice.

The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.

Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps.

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More Evidence: Charter Schools Thrive in Philadelphia


There’s a reason why Philadelphia families endure charter school lotteries in which less than two percent of 5,000 applicants win seats. These schools are producing terrific results in the classroom—and a new study from Stanford confirms it.

Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) compared the performance of urban charter schools to traditional public schools (TPS) in the same neighborhood. After analyzing 41 urban areas in 22 states over a five-year period, CREDO found that charter students receive 40 additional learning days per year in math and 28 additional learning days per year in reading. The results are just as impressive in Philadelphia, where charter students receive the equivalent of an additional 40 days of reading and math compared to TPS students.

What is the CREDO methodology for comparing performance between sectors? The authors match charter students with a “virtual twin” in TPS and track academic achievement over time. Each set of twins have the same (or similar) grade, race, gender, socio-economic status, special education status, and English language learner status.

Strong charter school performance is mainly attributable to high achievement among low-income students, Black and Hispanic students, and English language learners. Across the country—and particularly in Philadelphia—charter schools are excelling at educating students who typically lag behind their peers.

CREDO's authors have found that learning gains increase for charter students as they remain in the charter sector for multiple years. And the benefits of charter schools span from the elementary to middle to high school level. Most importantly, the CREDO findings reject the tired narrative that certain groups of students are incapable of achieving in the classroom.

There is no charter school “secret sauce.” Successful operators in Philadelphia prove that with a few important changes—and a new set of incentives—all students can learn, grow, and achieve. The only thing holding back more students from recognizing their maximum potential is an under-provision of charter schools. 

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Changing the Culture at H.R. Edmunds

MARCH 25, 2015  | by JAMES PAUL

The first Winter Concert was the turning point. That’s when students at The Philadelphia Charter School for Arts & Sciences—formerly known as H.R. Edmunds—began believing in themselves.  

“Our kids learned they had something to be proud of. They started to take classes more seriously. It was amazing to see,” said Judith Taggart, Dean of Students for grades K-2.   

By all accounts, the concert was a resounding success. But things weren’t always so rosy at the Northeast Philadelphia school.

Prior to 2012, H.R. Edmunds was a traditional public school known for violence and dismal academic performance. The situation became so dire that the district brought in an independent operator to run the school and assume management. Edmunds was awarded to String Theory Charter Schools as part of Philadelphia’s renaissance schools initiative.

The new leadership team decided to kick off the year with a musical performance from an established performing arts school in downtown Philadelphia. The administration intended to show their new charter students what they should aspire to achieve.

As the performance began, the Edmunds students laughed. They booed, hissed, and jeered. The children never before witnessed a live concert, and they never learned how to conduct themselves in an audience.

Fast-forward a brief four months later to the 2012 Winter Concert: The same students laughing and jeering in September were now up on stage themselves, playing instruments and performing. This was a 180-degree turnaround. The culture changed.

Michael Rocco, principal at Arts & Sciences and a three-decade veteran of Philadelphia public schools, is proud of the new culture emanating from his classrooms. He attributes much of the school’s success to its longer school day and unique curriculum. In addition to the core subjects, K-5 students try their hands at various musical instruments, ballet, creative writing, and foreign language. By 6th grade, each student declares a concentration and focuses exclusively on this subject for 90 minutes each morning.

Edmunds ballet

Jaime Mong, Dean of Students for Grades 6-8, explains that when new management took over, “students were surprised their tests were actually being graded.” Prior to the charter school transition, Edmunds children had routinely submitted assignments and failed to receive a grade—let alone substantive feedback.

The structure and incentives at Arts & Sciences are unique from Philadelphia’s traditional public schools. Teachers are hired at will. “It’s essentially a one year contract for everyone,” Rocco explains.

It’s impossible to argue with the results in the classroom. Arts & Sciences’ School Performance Profile (SPP) score has dramatically improved every year. In 2013-14, the SPP score exceeded the district average by ten points.

School leaders anticipate even better results in the coming years. It all starts with the new culture of high expectations. “This is our family here at Arts & Sciences. We know these kids,” said Dean Taggart. “We care for them.” 

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Wolf's Unfair Tax Shift


School districts that receive the most in state funding today would also be the biggest winners under Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal for property tax rebates. Gov. Wolf’s proposed tax shift fails to deliver universal property tax relief, creates winners and losers (mostly losers) among school districts, offers no guarantee of lower property taxes, and creates an unfair system of doling out state money unrelated to tax burdens.   

Our most recent policy brief takes a look at Gov. Wolf's proposed property tax shift, part of his 2015-16 budget proposal. As we've noted, Wolf's plan would not provide property tax relief for at least one year after state taxes go up, and only 30 cents out of every dollar in new state taxes would go towards property tax relief in the first two years.

Moreover, Wolf's plan results in a net tax increase of around $1,400 per family of four, both next year and again in 2016-17 after the plan is fully implemented.

A separate analysis from the House Republican Appropriations Committee finds that 80 percent of school districts would be "losers" under this shift. That is, residents would pay more in sales and income tax increases than the district would get for property tax rebates. This analysis doesn't even consider that tax rebates would occur one year after tax increase, or the other state taxes Gov. Wolf is proposing to raise.

Our new analysis finds:

  • Across the state, the disparity in property tax relief under Gov. Wolf’s proposal varies widely. Based on current homestead exemptions, school districts would receive between $301 and $5,209 per homeowner.
  • The top 20 districts would get an average allocation of $2,860 per homeowner. The bottom 20 would get an average of $477 per homeowner.
  • The redistribution favors districts that currently receive most of their funding from state taxes, while districts getting the least relief currently raise more than 60 percent of their funding from local taxes.
  • Philadelphia would receive some property tax relief, along with reductions in the city's wage tax, sales tax and elimination of the local cigarette tax—essentially exempting Philadelphia residents from the statewide tax increase.

You can get the full analysis here.

For an interactive, sortable list of the proposed tax rebates, and current state and local revenue shares, click here.

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Taxpayers Deserve Transparent Government

MARCH 24, 2015  | by BOB DICK

Government Transparency

Did you know the Wolf administration is in the process of negotiating contracts with some of the governor’s biggest campaign contributors? It’s true.

Government unions gave more than $2.6 million to Tom Wolf's gubernatorial campaign. Those same government unions will be sitting across the bargaining table from Gov. Wolf's representatives to hammer out new state contracts worth billions of dollars. In essence, Pennsylvania’s government unions helped elect their own boss. This political privilege is the product of the collective bargaining process

Given the unique nature of the collective bargaining process—a process that involves public officials negotiating over taxpayer funds with their political allies—transparency is a must. That is why Senator Aument’s legislation to open up the collective bargaining process to the public should be a reform supported by Pennsylvanians of all ideological stripes.

If taxpayers are required to pay for state contracts that necessitate raising taxes, why shouldn’t they have the ability to attend negotiations that will directly affect their bank accounts?  This is a commonsense proposal that would finally end the puzzling practice of holding contract negotiations in secret—negotiations that have vast implications for millions of people.

In the spirit of transparency, Representative Fred Keller has also introduced legislation that would require the posting of school district collective bargaining agreements online before a ratification vote takes place. This would give taxpayers—the major stakeholders in contract negotiations—the ability to weigh in on negotiations if they feel a deal is unfair.

Both of these reforms are worthwhile and would be in line with Gov. Wolf’s promise to make government more transparent. In fact, during the campaign, Gov. Wolf’s “Fresh Start” plan included this line: “...smarter management and more transparency and information on how state tax dollars are spent will ensure this revenue is stretched further.”

Gov. Wolf couldn't have made a better case for finally ending the secrecy surrounding the collective bargaining process. 

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Video: Debating Gov. Wolf’s Costly Budget


Last week, CF President & CEO Matthew Brouillette appeared on PCN’s Call-In Program with Steve Herzenberg, the Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center, to discuss Gov. Wolf’s costly budget proposal. While Herzenberg defends Wolf’s budget proposal, Matt points to some of the hard realities it will bring to every family in Pennsylvania

Even though Gov. Wolf campaigned on a promise to not raise taxes on middle class families, his budget proposal would hit them with the largest tax increase in the state’s history

In attempt to soften the blow of this broken promise, Gov. Wolf wants to implement property tax rebates. Matt explains that even this will fail to help Pennsylvanians since, over the next two years, less than $0.30 of every dollar in new state taxes will be used for property tax rebates.

Rather than put a heavier burden on Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, Matt explains that the government’s focus should be on “creating opportunities for everyone and reduc[ing] the burden of entry into the workplace and the middle class that are trying to grow businesses.”

Watch the full discussion on PCN’s Call-In Program.

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Five Years After Obamacare, Charity Care Demand Soars


Five years later, the promises of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) ring hollow for too many Pennsylvanians. The law’s numerous mandates and regulations continue to drive up the cost of health insurance, pricing needy Pennsylvanians out of the market for insurance. The Community Volunteers in Medicine (CVIM) clinic in West Chester recounts one story.

Last week, we had a 60 year old man that said his ACA premium went from $2 a month to $252 a month, explains a volunteer clinician at CVIM. Due to financial hardship he and his wife are filing bankruptcy and had to drop their ACA plan. As they work to regain their financial independence, they find comfort in knowing they can receive free healthcare at CVIM.

CVIM is one of dozens of free clinics stepping up to provide free medical and dental services to Pennsylvanians in need.

Free clinics are an essential and effective part of the safety net. The ACA attempts to serve low-income Pennsylvanians through Medicaid expansion, but that system is disjointed and difficult to navigate. On the other hand, charity clinics have the freedom and flexibility to provide coordinated high quality care in a welcoming and encouraging environment.

Chris, a patient of the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center in Pittsburgh notes,

The volunteers have always made us feel welcomed and as if we mattered. That means a lot. When you’ve been down on your luck, your self-esteem and confidence gets buried, and you feel as if you’re not worthy. The volunteers at Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center have made us feel worthy.

Free clinics are especially well equipped to serve people with chronic conditions that often prevent individuals from working and keep them trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Consider Violet’s experience. For a long time, Violet (pictured above) woke up each morning feeling dizzy, achy, and fatigued. She began to believe that her symptoms were normal for a woman of her age.

Violet explained her symptoms to her dentist. Already aware that she did not have medical insurance, her dentist suggested that Violet look into visiting Community Volunteers in Medicine. Upon visiting CVIM, the attending physician quickly learned that her blood sugar level was in the 700s, normal is 80 to 100. Violent was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with diabetes.

Violet and the CVIM staff created an individualized plan to control her diabetes. Violet says,

Betty encouraged me to attend the nutrition and diabetes education classes, which I did. I knew that I could not do this on my own, and that CVIM could give me the tools I needed. I still use the amazing recipes that Betty so kindly gave to me to this day.

With her diabetes under control, Violet returned to work fulltime and received medical insurance. Recently, Violet visited CVIM and shared that she has lost a total of 53 pounds. Violet says, “I am so blessed that I was able to come into the helping hands of CVIM.”

Violet’s success story is hardly unique for free clinics. Augustus was unemployed, uninsured, and suffering from high blood pressure when he came to the Pittsburgh Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center. During his exam, the volunteer physician also noticed a severe infection in Augustus’ mouth that was potentially life-threatening. That same day, Augustus was seen by a volunteer dentist who recommended that Augustus have all of his teeth extracted. Volunteer oral surgery residents from Allegheny General Hospital removed Augustus’ teeth successfully and eliminated the infection. But the clinic did more than restore Augustus’s health.

Once his gums healed, Augustus received a brand new smile—full-mouth dentures. Thanks to his improved health and the help of Catholic Charities’ Team HOPE staff, Augustus found a new job and health insurance.

While the debate over the fate of the ACA rages on in Washington, the demand for free clinics continues to rise. The National Association for Free and Charitable Clinics claims a 40 percent bump in patient demand since 2012. That’s a strong case for Pennsylvania lawmakers to protect this vibrant private safety net that delivers quality care to our most vulnerable residents.

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A Broken Promise Could Break the Bank

MARCH 20, 2015  | by BOB DICK

During the gubernatorial campaign, Tom Wolf promised not to raise taxes on middle class Pennsylvanians. Despite this promise, the governor proposed a budget including the largest tax increase in the commonwealth’s history—a tax increase sure to hit Pennsylvanians of all income levels.

Under Gov. Wolf’s plan, taxes on income, sales, energy, tobacco, banks, and lottery winners would soar. Additionally, Gov. Wolf plans not only to increase the sales tax, but expand the list of items taxed under the higher rate.

To illustrate how Gov. Wolf’s proposal would leave Pennsylvanians with less, we applied his 6.6 percent sales tax increase to a fraction of the 45 newly taxed items under his plan. A single mother sending her child to daycare, a senior, like Kermit Bell’s mother, who relies on home care for her dementia, and a college student trying to further his or her education will all be hit under this sales tax increase.

Here are just five scenarios whereby Pennsylvanians could pay more to cover the gigantic increases in state spending:

Here is a list of the goods and services that would now be taxed under Gov. Wolf's proposal, as outlined by the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue:

Motion and Video Pictures

Financial Investment Activities

Real Estate Agent and Broker Services

Employment Services

Business Support Services

Travel Arrangement Services

Other Support, Office Administrative,

and Facilities Support

Waste Collection

Higher Education

Home Health Care Services

Other Ambulatory Health Care Services

Nursing and Residential Care Facilities

Social Assistance

Performing Arts


Spectator Sports

Museums, Historical Sites, and

Similar Institutions

Amusement and Recreation Industries

Recreational Vehicle Parks and Camps

Personal Care Services

Death Care Services

Dry-cleaning and Laundry Services

Other Personal Services

Legal Services

Accounting Services

Specialized Design Services

Scientific Research and Development Services

Advertising Services

Professional Services, Architectural, Computer

Candy & Gum

Personal Hygiene Products



Non-prescription drugs

Caskets & Burial Vaults



Catalogs & Direct Mail Advertising

Airline Catering



Construction of Memorials

Uniform Commerical Code Filing Fees

Investment Metal Bullion and Gold

Cable Television

While the governor insists property tax relief would ease the burden of his tax increases, the relief would not arrive until a year after the tax increases kick in, if at all. This sales tax increase and expansion is projected to take $1.6 billion out of the private economy next year and nearly $4 billion per year when fully implemented.

In addition to stunting economic growth, this tax increase would directly affect the standard of living for Pennsylvanians, as a larger percentage of their incomes would be devoted to paying higher taxes, leaving fewer dollars for their own needs.

This isn’t what Gov. Wolf promised during the campaign.

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Pennsylvania's Charter Law: Room to Improve


Pennsylvania’s charter school law received its 2015 report card, and unfortunately it will not earn a place on the refrigerator. The commonwealth earned a “C” grade from the Center for Education Reform (CER), an organization that ranks charter laws across the country.

Each state is evaluated on the following criteria:

  • The existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers
  • The number of charter schools permitted
  • Operational and fiscal autonomy from existing state and district mandates
  • Equitable funding

Pennsylvania received 28.5 out of 55 points, which amounts to 18th place out of the 43 states that allow charter schools. Overall, the commonwealth’s charter law has room to improve.  

According to CER, the lack of independent authorizers is Pennsylvania’s biggest shortcoming. A stronger law would allow universities or a statewide body to approve new brick-and-mortar charter schools. The Commonwealth also loses points for inadequate access to facilities funding. On the other hand, Pennsylvania performed fairly well when it comes to autonomy from regulations and mandates.

Policymakers should consider these findings as they consider reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law. Continuing to strengthen the charter sector will be an enormous benefit to thousands of students and families clamoring for expanded educational opportunity. 

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Protecting Pennsylvania's Excellent Teachers


Shortly after graduation, Dominique took a job at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging turnaround high schools, University City. After one very successful year the district experienced significant layoffs and she saw many of her young colleagues—including one who had won a city distinguished teaching award—laid off. Dominique was so disheartened by the experience that she left University City.

Yesterday, Senator Ryan Aument and Representative Stephen Bloom introduced legislation to ensure that furlough decisions are based on actual job-performance, not simply years in the classroom.

Seniority rules mandate that teachers be placed and furloughed simply according to their years in the system, not how effective they are at instructing students. This results in the best teachers being left out in the cold, while those who are less effective, but longer tenured, are protected.

Rep. Bloom explains how seniority mandates are particularly harmful to low-income students:

Moreover, seniority-based layoffs disproportionately impact low-income and minority students. Schools serving primarily low-income and minority families often have higher concentrations of new teachers than more affluent schools. When seniority-based layoffs occur, these schools experience higher teacher turnover and lose many more faculty compared to other schools.

Favoring seniority over performance punishes the best teachers, not to mention the children in each classroom. Even one child deprived of a first-rate teacher is one child too many. 

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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank.  The Commonwealth Foundation transforms free-market ideas into public policies so all Pennsylvanians can flourish.