A School for the City, Not a Fortress from the City

FEBRUARY 26, 2015  | by ELIZABETH STELLE, JAMES PAUL

The plan was for Hudson to attend public school in Philadelphia—at least for one year. But after Andy, Hudson’s father, visited their neighborhood school, Horatio Hackett, he wanted something different for his soon-to-be kindergartner. Could classical school be a better fit for Hudson? 

At first, a private classical education didn’t seem like the most practical option for a 5 year-old. As far as Andy knew, classical education entailed speaking Latin. Sure, he was intrigued by Philadelphia Classical School (PCS)—a small, private school on the corner of 11th and Vine Street in Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood. Andy heard good things about PCS, but would his family be able afford private school tuition?

Andy considered charter schools but found the enrollment process intimidating. Plus, he was concerned that Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission might crack down on charters in the coming years.

Thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), Andy and his wife learned they could enroll Hudson in PCS.

Reserved for students in Pennsylvania's lowest-performing public schools, the OSTC provides hope in largely hopeless situations. The program has helped thousands of students escape failing schools. Both the OSTC and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) allow businesses to contribute to private scholarships in exchange for tax credits, so students like Hudson can receive high quality education.

More than halfway through his first year at PCS, Hudson excels in the classroom. His favorite subject is “handwriting,” he’s becoming proficient at reading, and he regularly impresses his father with knowledge of history.

“How does a kindergartner know about Mesopotamia?” Andy asks incredulously. He’s also blown away that Hudson can recite all 44 U.S. presidents in chronological order.

Hudson blogPCS opened in the fall of 2013. It’s a small school—serving 38 students from 29 families—but plans to expand, according to Ross Hatton, Head of School, and Katharine Savage, founder, at PCS. While the school’s mission is Christ-centered, not all families share the same religious background. Some are non-religious, others are Mormon or follow orthodox traditions. Many students are second-generation immigrants, and the PCS student body speaks six different languages at home.

The full cost of PCS tuition is $12,145, though most students pay significantly less. In fact, 40 percent of seats are reserved for low-income students, and the average cost for each family is $4,500. PCS provided over $250,000 in financial aid during the current school year, including nearly $30,000 through Pennsylvania’s EITC and OSTC programs.

PCS worked with Hudson’s family to find a suitable tuition arrangement. Hudson received an Opportunity Scholarship to cover 75 percent of the cost—and a private donor pitched in to pay the remaining balance.

Just as no parent is turned away for inability to pay, no prospective student is turned away for lack of academic ability. The current kindergarten class has a wide range of skills—some students could read before the first day of school, while others came to PCS without basic understanding of the alphabet. 

PCS is not “skimming” from public schools; its mission is to be part of a revitalization of education in Philadelphia. Indeed the school is breaking down economic and social barriers to build a stronger community.

PCS regularly organizes family events, such as pot-luck dinners and ice skating. Parents even launched a Google Hangout Group where families can ask questions and discuss issues unrelated to school. Where’s the best place to buy children’s pants that won’t rip at the knees? Can anyone recommend a babysitter? These are all questions that families discuss online.

For Andy, “it was very important that PCS be a school for the city, not a fortress from the city.” He urges other parents to “be part of the solution” to public education and community involvement, “but don’t sacrifice your own kids to that solution.”

Jess Scott, mother of PCS second grader Maggie, shared Andy’s concerns about walling herself off from traditional public schools but wouldn't "sacrifice her kids to an ideology." According to Jess, “PCS saved our family” and is a “gift to our kids.” The Scotts live in University Place, but cannot afford typical private school tuition. Jess had to go back to work just to afford PCS’s discounted rate.

Maggie PCS

It’s obvious that families truly care for one another at PCS. There is no better example than one family who anonymously paid for another student’s school uniform. “I wanted to make Saniyah feel supported and encouraged,” the mom explained. The family purchased Saniyah’s uniforms for the current year and then made a pledge to continue this practice for the rest of Saniyah's career at PCS. Recently the family moved to New York, but they intend to keep their promise to Saniyah. “We’re always looking for ways to serve and this was something we could do. We made a commitment.”

Thanks to Hatton and Savage's vision, as well as the EITC and OSTC programs, PCS occupies a unique space in Philadelphia: A classical school that strengthens communities, brings families together, and offers hope for a brighter future.


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Talk of Severance Tax Reduces Drilling

FEBRUARY 26, 2015  | by GORDON TOMB

Pitfalls of Natural Gas Tax

What a shock! A gas exploration company says it is reevaluating plans to drill for natural gas in Southwestern Pennsylvania because of Gov. Wolf’s proposed severance tax, reports TribLive.

Paul Burke, vice president and general counsel of Huntley & Huntley Energy Exploration, is quoted by the website: “We have to invest serious capital in our business. We want to see what’s going on in this commonwealth before we invest.”

Indeed.

The company made its concerns known in a letter to Harmar Township, saying it was withdrawing a subsurface lease offer for approximately 90 acres of township-owned land. The company had proposed a payment of $3,500 an acre, plus a 15 percent royalty.

Harmar township's supervisor, Bob Exler, expressed his disappointment: “It’s big money for a small township. It was something I thought would be a windfall for us, and I’m sad they canceled.”

We can only guess at the loss of jobs, taxes and associated business, not to mention the other drillers who may be reversing plans without publicly saying so.

Meanwhile, numerous companies across the state have announced reductions in investment and employment because of excess supply and resulting decreases in energy prices. Among them are Chevron Corp., Range Resources, Antero Resources, Rex Energy, PennEnergy Resources, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. and Universal Well Services. Tax uncertainty could even jeapodize the building of a Shell petrochemical plant in Beaver County.

While the cutbacks are considered by many to be temporary, they belie statements of proponents for additional taxes on the industry that insist companies won't leave Pennsylvania's rich natural gas desposits.

The current business climate for the industry underscores that energy companies have risks as well as rewards to consider. Just as other businesses, they should not be treated as money trees to be picked by politicians with budget gaps to fill.


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Culture, Not Government, Drives Alcohol Use

FEBRUARY 25, 2015  | by BOB DICK

Practically three-quarters of Pennsylvania’s twelfth graders tried alcohol at least once in their lifetimes, according to a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) report. This eye-opening statistic confirms the obvious: government control of liquor does not minimize underage drinking.

As a matter of fact, alcohol use among Pennsylvania students in the eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades ranks above the national average. These facts run counter to the narrative of liquor privatization opponents who tout government control as the solution to mitigate social problems, such as underage drinking and binge drinking.

According to the report, the rate of twelfth graders who admitted to binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row in the last two weeks) was slightly below the national average, but the percentage of Pennsylvania college students who admitted to binge drinking was above the national average.

If we're to believe that government control can prevent these social problems, shouldn’t the rate of binge drinking be well below the national average for both twelfth graders and college students? After all, Pennsylvania has one of the most tightly regulated liquor systems in the country, with government operating both the retail and wholesale side of liquor sales.

The answer, of course, is no. As Dr. Raymond Scalettar, the former chair of the American Medical Association pointed out, “Alcohol consumption habits tend to be culturally driven and macro-level control policies have little to do with drinking patterns." Dr. Scalettar’s claim is consistent with the findings in the PLCB report:

Youth who drink underage report they are most likely to get their alcohol for free (93.4 percent), with 44.8 percent reporting they got alcohol from family members or their home. And when they drink, they are consuming “more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking."

Government's inability to prevent social problems is just one more reason to privatize Pennsylvania’s dysfunctional liquor system.


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PA Union Campaign Contributions Exceed $10 Million

FEBRUARY 25, 2015  | by NATHAN BENEFIELD

Pennsylvania government unions gave more than $10.5 million to candidates last election cycle. We updated our analysis of union political spending using the latest reports filed with the PA Department of State.

Total Pennsylvania Government Union PAC Spending for 2014 Election Cycle
Union 2013 2014 Total
Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA-PACE) $469,654 $2,711,333 $3,180,987
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) $115,309 $288,676 $403,985
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13 $541,093 $686,040 $1,227,133
AFSCME People $401,736 $1,123,506 $1,525,242
PA Service Employees International Union (SEIU)* $267,264 $2,144,011 $2,411,275
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 1776 $187,986 $206,944 $394,930
PA American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) $60,347 $93,715 $154,062
American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania (AFT-PA) $8,500 $33,300 $41,800
American Federation of Teachers (Washington, DC - National) $0 $1,057,315 $1,057,315
Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT Pol Action Fund) $15,187 $56,438 $71,625
Total $2,067,075 $8,401,278 $10,468,353
*Includes political expenditures from PSSU Local SEIU 668 COPE Fund
Source: https://www.campaignfinanceonline.state.pa.us

Most of these campaign contributions were collected not by unions but with the help of you the taxpayer. State and local governments, along with school districts, deduct campaign contributions from the paychecks of employees, bundle it, and send the money onto union leaders.

Of course, this $10.5 million in direct campaign contributions is only the tip of the iceberg. Unions spend millions more each year on political activity from workers' dues—including contributions to SuperPACs, which run "independent" campaign ads supporting or attacking candidates.

Legislation ending the taxpayer collection of union political monies—known as paycheck protection or "Mary's Law"—is currently advancing through the state Senate.


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Setting the Record Straight on Liquor Privatization

FEBRUARY 24, 2015  | by BOB DICK

Liquor Privatization Bootleggers

It’s back! Liquor privatization is once again up for debate and has already cleared its first hurdle, as lawmakers voted yesterday to advance the bill out of a House committee. But not everyone is pleased.

Liquor privatization detractors have reemerged, and they are pushing the same stale arguments against liquor liberty that have been debunked many times over.

Because more misleading attacks are inevitable, we thought it would be helpful to provide some links to our research as a refresher in the fight to free our booze:

Will privatizing liquor sales diminish revenue to state government?

Do government liquor systems provide more safety?

Has the PLCB served Pennsylvanians well?

Is privatizing the PLCB ideological?

Where else has privatization worked?


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Paycheck Protection Advances in the Senate

FEBRUARY 24, 2015  | by ELIZABETH STELLE

Teachers and government workers are one step closer to getting their voices back. Yesterday, members of the Senate State Government Committee passed a constitutional amendment version of paycheck protection. SB 500, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wagner, would end the use of taxpayer-funded resources to collect government union political money.

As a constitutional amendment, SB 500 requires passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and approval by voters. The bill is scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The committee tabled discussion of SB 501, a statutory version of paycheck protection sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger.

These are critical first steps for reform in 2015, and we commend the bold champions in the House and Senate for making taxpayers their priority.

To learn more about paycheck protection and the need to give teachers like Mary a voice, check out our paycheck protection toolkit.

You can also send a message to your legislators in support of paycheck protection.


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Thousands of Philly Students Left on Waiting Lists

FEBRUARY 23, 2015  | by JAMES PAUL

The long, frustrating wait continues for Philadelphia families desperate for educational opportunity.

Last Wednesday, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) rejected 34 of 39 charter school applicants. Five charters were approved, albeit with substantial restrictions and conditions. Each approved school must enroll significantly fewer students than it requested, and each school received a three year charter instead of the customary five year agreement.

All of the approved applicants currently operate high performing charters in Philadelphia: Independence Charter School West, KIPP Dubois, MaST Community Roosevelt Campus, Mastery Gillespie Campus and TECH-Freire. Each operator runs a school with a School Performance Profile score exceeding 70 (the district average is 56.8) and substantial enrollment of low-income students. In other words, their students outperform Philadelphia's traditional public schools, even though they spend fewer dollars per-pupil.

These are exactly the type of innovative, successful models that district leaders should promote and encourage. Independence, KIPP, MaST and Mastery sought to open a combined nine new schools—yet only four were accepted, and each with strings attached. For example, MaST's Roosevelt application intended to enroll 1,575 students in the first year, but the SRC is limiting them to 400 seats. 

These approved schools will provide life-changing opportunity for approximately 2,600 students over the next four years. Sadly, though, tens of thousands of other Philadelphia students remain trapped in schools they’re seeking to leave.

Opponents of expanded choice in Philadelphia decry “fixed costs” as the main reason to block new charters, but the district is already revising down the projected charter school price tag—despite continuing to use the disputed $7,000 per-pupil stranded costs estimate.

Jerry Jordan, president of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, criticized the SRC for approving any charters whatsoever. Jordan also thanked SRC member Marjorie Neff for voting against all 39 applicants.

What’s the next step for denied charter schools? Appeal. For the first time in 14 years denied applicants can petition the State Charter Appeal Board to reverse the SRC’s decision. According to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, the seven-member Board may not consider the financial impact a proposed charter will have on the district, which should allow each school to be evaluated on the merits of its application alone.

Given the strength of many Philadelphia applicants, perhaps there is reason to be optimistic about a favorable appellate ruling. In the short term, however, school choice remains out of reach for far too many Philadelphia families.


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Lawmakers Stand Up for Taxpayers

FEBRUARY 23, 2015  | by JOHN BOUDER, BOB DICK

Taxpayer Protection Act

Earlier today, Senators Camera Bartolotta and Mike Folmer and Rep. Tim Krieger announced their intentions to usher in an era of fiscal responsibility with the Taxpayer Protection Act (TPA) and Taxpayer Protection Amendment. 

The TPA would limit government spending to inflation and population growth. Any revenue above this cap would be used to pay down pension liabilities, replenish the "Rainy Day Fund," and provide tax relief to working Pennsylvanians. These reforms would shield families from out-of-control spending growth that hinders job creation, promotes "brain drain," and stymies personal income growth.

Since 1970, state government spending has risen nearly $14,000 per family, leaving residents with the tenth-highest tax burden in the country to pay for it all.

This gargantuan growth in government has not stimulated Pennsylvania's economy. Pennsylvania ranks a depressing 49th in job growth, a dubious 48th in population growth, and a dismal 45th in personal income growth since 1991.

Had TPA spending controls been in effect since 2003, taxpayers would have saved $28.7 billion over the past decade—or nearly $9,200 per family of four. The TPA is just one of many crucial steps that would move us toward a balanced budget and put Pennsylvania back on the road to prosperity.

CF's Nate Benefield commented

It's time to protect Pennsylvanians' ability to live, work, and prosper within the commonwealth with the Taxpayer Protection Act

If you're interested in reading more about the legislation, you can find the Taxpayer Protection Act here and the Taxpayer Protection Amendment here. 


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Committees Vote on Paycheck Protection, Liquor Privatization

FEBRUARY 23, 2015  | by MATTHEW BROUILLETTE

Lawmakers took action in committees today on both liquor privatization and paycheck protection. Here's what's happened in Harrisburg:

Liquor privatization: This morning, the House Liquor Control Committee advanced HB 466, which would end the government monopoly on wine and liquor sales (wholesale and retail). This bill is sponsored by Speaker of the House Mike Turzai.

Paycheck protection: The Senate State Government Committee met today to discuss and vote on paycheck protection (SB 500, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Sen. Scott Wagner, and SB 501, sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger). Both would end the use of taxpayer resources to collect government union political money. SB 500 advanced from committee.

These are critical first steps for both reforms in 2015 and we praise the bold champions in the House and Senate for making taxpayers their priority.

Government unions are deploying their forces to keep their political privileges, so please join me now in voicing your support for the legislators standing up for taxpayers. Whether liquor privatization, paycheck protection, pension reform or spending limits—the time is now to set the agenda for 2015 and let Gov. Wolf know what taxpayers want the future of Pennsylvania to look like.

Click here to send your message on liquor privatization.

Then click here to send your message on paycheck protection.


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Audio: Stepping Towards a Balanced Budget

FEBRUARY 12, 2015  | by JONATHAN REGINELLA

This year, Pennsylvania lawmakers have the formidable task of eliminating a projected $1.7 billion budget deficit. Bob Dick, a CF policy analyst, spoke with Gary Sutton about what can be done to step towards a balanced budget.

A crucial first step is protecting families and business from unfair tax increases. As Bob points out, the “tax burden on Pennsylvanians in general is the tenth highest in the country—adding more to that burden is just not fair, and it makes it harder for working families to make ends meet.”

Avoiding overspending—by cutting unnecessary burdens like corporate welfare—is another vital step in balancing the budget. Though it has proven to be an ineffective means to stimulate job growth, Pennsylvania tops the charts in corporate welfare.

Bob describes how eliminating this wasteful spending would save taxpayers around $675 million.

Listen to some of Bob’s interview with Gary Sutton on WSBA 910 AM as he describes balancing the budget in more detail:

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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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.