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.
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.
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.”
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.
Much has been made of recent comments from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan regarding school funding in Pennsylvania. According to Duncan, Pennsylvania's families are “being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding.”
Several observers pounced on these remarks—particularly the notion that Pennsylvania per-pupil spending in low-income districts is one-third less than in wealthy districts—and used them as justification for higher taxes and greater school spending.
Is it true that Pennsylvania’s low-income students are underfunded? Let’s examine the facts.
Duncan’s comments are based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which organizes school districts into quartiles of family income: low poverty, low-middle poverty, high-middle poverty, and high poverty. (Note that NCES figures exclude costs for construction and debt, as well as federal funds).
In each quartile—even among high poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. Put another way: the vast majority of schools in the commonwealth are overfunded. It just so happens that Pennsylvania’s richest districts are particularly overfunded, while low-income districts are slightly overfunded.
Current Education Expenditures, Per-Pupil, 2011-12
The key takeaway from NCES is that affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their public schools. Hypothetically, the discrepancy in district level spending could be eliminated by capping the local effort in high-income districts. This would make Pennsylvania’s schools appear more “equal,” but it wouldn’t result in better academic performance—nor would it direct more funding to low-income districts.
As Jason Bedrick from the Cato Institute recently explained, the education-industrial complex incessantly lobbies for higher school taxes regardless of student outcomes or fiscal reality. Given that Pennsylvania's schools are better funded than the national average but produce middling achievement, perhaps it’s time to consider other education reforms.
At the state level, reform should include weighted student funding. This revenue neutral approach offers a more rational, transparent school funding mechanism. At the same time, Pennsylvania should protect and reward its most effective teachers, while expanding school choice for families trapped in persistently failing public schools.
Will’s family thought he was one of the chosen few: A Philadelphia student who managed to secure a seat at the high-performing Christopher Columbus Charter School. But something wasn’t right. He struggled with reading and did not enjoy school. With each passing day, it became clear to his mother, Elizabeth, that he needed a different approach to learning.
That’s where Philadelphia Classical School (PCS) fills a void. At PCS students are more than readers and writers. They are musicians and artists, too. The arts aren't merely enrichment; they are incorporated into the curriculum from the earliest grades. That’s not to say traditional learning is de-emphasized: For students in kindergarten through second grade, reading is emphasized above other homework assignments.
The classical approach is precisely what Will needed when he came to PCS as a second grader. The curriculum and support structure at PCS changed everything. After enrolling, Will’s reading level improved and he loves to write stories, according to Elizabeth.
The decision to enroll at PCS was not easy. Will’s father teaches at a public school and his family values the public education system, but Will needed a school suited to his individual needs. Elizabeth is thrilled with the quality at PCS. She explains, “PCS cares about life learning.” Elizabeth’s younger son, a kindergartner named Gavin, also enrolled at the school.
Although the classical approach is steeped in history and tradition, it represents a unique educational choice. PCS is the only classical school in Philadelphia, and it serves as a lifeline for dozens of families unsatisfied with their neighborhood options.
Jessica, mother of current PCS student Arabella, looked into private school because she was concerned about safety in their assigned public school, Alexander Adaire. “I wanted to be 100 percent comfortable with safety. I would be terrified to send Arabella to Adaire. It wasn’t an option.” Philadelphia District schools reported nearly 2,500 violent incidents in 2014.
Before learning about PCS, Arabella languished on the waiting list at eight different charter schools. Jessica explains, “Without PCS, we would have to move to the suburbs. Every year many of my friends move out and we did not want to be like that.”
Without the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, schools like PCS would be out of reach for Will, Gavin and Arabella. Each student benefits from the EITC, a linchpin of school choice in Pennsylvania which allows businesses to contribute private scholarships in exchange for tax credits.
Another unique characteristic of PCS? It leases space in a shared building with the Chinese Christian Church and Center. This means that on Friday afternoon, many classrooms are disassembled to make room for the church’s weekend activities. PCS intends to expand to its own space with the help of generous philanthropists. For the time being, though, the shared space suits PCS just fine—it stands as a testament to school’s entrepreneurial spirit, community focus, and the appetite for expanded choice in the city.
When you purchase a good or service—be it a cheeseburger, a pair of shoes, or a car wash—how do you evaluate its quality? Do you consider the outputs—whether the service lived up to its billing and satisfied your demand—or do you focus solely on inputs—how much money was spent to create the good?
In the realm of public education, inputs are king while outputs are largely ignored. Education advocates typically focus solely on dollars spent instead of academic progress. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that education spending continues to steadily increase while achievement stagnates.
Can you think of any other industry or enterprise that is judged on inputs, instead of results?
This singular emphasis on inputs is exemplified in a proposal from the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, which seeks an additional $3.6 billion in state education spending over the next eight years. Given the Commonwealth’s financial outlook, this proposal should be a non-starter.
A massive spending increase is not a means to improve educational quality; it is a means to boost educational inputs. Higher-quality schools require a different approach—one that expands choice, protects and rewards the best teachers, and empowers local school leaders.
The Campaign for Fair Education Funding—comprising a few dozen union, business, and issue advocacy groups—seeks to influence Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission, a body of lawmakers and state officials that will offer recommendations to the General Assembly in the next few months.
The purpose of the Funding Commission is to develop a more rational, equitable method to distribute current funding levels. It is not tasked with recommending higher funding levels—let alone a 63 percent increase in the Basic Education subsidy.
Commission member Rep. Donna Oberlander said as much last August:
This Commission’s charge is not to study so called adequate levels of basic education funding. The responsibility of determining a funding level belongs to the General Assembly and is based each year on overall state revenues. This Commission cannot tie the General Assembly to funding targets.
The Campaign for Fair Education Funding did embrace elements of weighted student funding (WSF), which, in a vaccuum, is a good thing. The Commonwealth Foundation has long advocated for WSF as a solution to Pennsylvania’s outdated education funding system—but WSF should be implemented in a revenue-neutral fashion. Instead of a $3.6 billion tax increase, pure WSF distributes current funding levels more equitably and transparently.
Above all else, WSF ensures that state dollars truly follow each student. Currently, if a Pennsylvania student moves from one district to another, state funding does not follow the child to her new school. This must change, if Pennsylvania is to begin to funding students instead of systems.
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.
PCS 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.
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.
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.
Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP)—a nonprofit that invests in a variety of schools across the city—is offering $35 million to the School District of Philadelphia to fund over 11,000 seats in new charter schools. PSP’s grant proposal seeks to eliminate any financial concerns and allow the School Reform Commission (SRC) to focus solely on approving the highest quality applicants.
This stunning development raises hope that Philadelphia families will soon enjoy greater opportunities. House Speaker Mike Turzai continues to support the approval of new charter schools in Philadelphia:
It's up to the [SRC] to meet its obligation to save kids and grant the request of these families to let their kids go to quality charter schools.
Defenders of the educational status-quo were less enthused by PSP’s proposal. Lisa Haver, cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, urged the SRC to reject the donation:
PSP is very influential in this school district, but it doesn't look out for the best interests of all the students. Schools are hanging by their fingernails to survive - schools that don't have staff, full-time nurses, and full-time librarians. And now, out of the blue, this nonprofit group says, 'Guess what? We have $35 million.'
Given Haver’s view that schools are “hanging by their fingernails to survive,” it’s odd that she opposes a significant infusion of funding.
The majority of PSP’s grant is intended to finance the “stranded costs” incurred by the district when students flee to charter schools. According to PSP’s calculations, these stranded costs amount to approximately $2,000 per student. District advocates claim these costs are closer to $7,000 and recur for multiple years.
In 2012-13, Philadelphia public schools spent over $14,000 per student. It is quite a stretch to claim that half of the district’s per-pupil costs are fixed over the long term. An estimate from the Friedman Foundation finds that fixed costs amount to one-third of total per-pupil education spending. The remaining two-thirds are variable costs that can be adjusted based on enrollment changes.
Although education dollars flow from the school district to charter schools, funding does not "belong" to one system or the other. The dollars "belong" to students who are educated in Philadelphia public schools—be they charter or not. Education funding should always follow the student—not prop up a system.
Surely this $35 million donation can go a long way toward improving education for thousands of Philadelphia families desperate for better, safer schools.
In many respects, Pennsylvania is a pioneer of school choice. With 173 charter schools—14 of which are cyber charters—and two scholarship tax credit programs, the commonwealth is the envy of choice advocates across the country. But as we recognize and celebrate National School Choice Week, more can be done to ensure that each Pennsylvania child has the opportunity to reach her full potential.
As Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) weighs the application of 40 charter schools—many of which have an impressive track record of serving city students—House speaker Mike Turzai is optimistic that multiple new charters will be granted permission to open in Philadelphia:
We are very hopeful that when the final decisions get made that a significant number of the charter applicants are approved.
During the most recent school year, the average Philadelphia charter school outperformed traditional public schools on the Pennsylvania State Performance Profile. What makes this even more impressive is that charter schools spend and receive fewer dollars per student than their district counterparts. Given the academic success of the charter sector, as well as the sizeable demand for schools of choice, the SRC should approve the highest-performing applicants and allow more Philadelphia families to reap the benefits of choice.
In Pennsylvania, school districts are tasked with authorizing new charter applications. This arrangement makes it difficult for even the highest quality charter schools to open new buildings. School districts are fully aware that by approving a new charter school they are essentially approving a new competitor. In order to realign incentives to promote great schools, lawmakers should pursue statewide or university authorizers for charters.
The commonwealth is the first state in the country to enact an education scholarship tax credit aimed at corporations. Thanks to the passage of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program in 2001, more than 430,000 scholarships have been awarded to students from low- and middle-income families seeking better, safer schools.
Scholarship tax credit programs exist in a dozen states, and Pennsylvania is one of only three states to have multiple programs. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted its second tax credit program—the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). This program is reserved for low-income students residing in the geographic boundaries of the lowest-achieving public schools in Pennsylvania.
In 2013-14, the OSTC provided more than 7,000 scholarships. Legislation passed late last fall streamlined and simplified the application process for both tax credit programs, which should lead to even greater participation in coming years.
The EITC is capped at $100 million—with $60 million reserved specifically for K-12 scholarships—while the OSTC is capped at $50 million. Lawmakers should look to increase these caps and provide more scholarships—at a savings for taxpayers—to students in need.
Education savings accounts (ESA) are another innovative policy for Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider as a complement to the tax credit programs. ESAs, which have been implemented in Arizona and Florida, could allow parents to deposit their tax credit scholarship funds into a savings account that can be spent with more flexibility.
Instead of reserving the funds strictly for scholarships, ESAs allow parents to purchase textbooks, tutoring services, online courses, curriculum materials, standardized tests, educational therapies, and other approved items. Unspent ESA funds roll over from one year to the next and can be eventually used to pay for college tuition. Lawmakers supportive of the EITC and OSTC should look at ESAs as the logical next step for school choice in Pennsylvania.
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