Academic Achievement




House Votes to Protect Excellent Teachers

JUNE 24, 2015

Seniority-based teacher furloughs may soon become a relic of the past for Pennsylvania public schools.

On Tuesday evening, the state House approved Rep. Stephen Bloom’s HB 805—the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. The legislation ensures teachers are retained based on their effectiveness, not merely their seniority, in the unfortunate event of furloughs. Teacher quality is measured based on a statewide evaluation system—one endorsed by the teachers’ unions—that currently rates 98.2 percent of teachers as satisfactory.

HB 805 protects Pennsylvania’s “proficient” and “distinguished” teachers from being furloughed in favor of a teacher with more seniority who is rated “needs improvement” or “failing.” In the event two teachers have the same rating, seniority will still serve as the tiebreaker.

Rep. Bloom's legislation passed despite intense lobbying from government unions who placed the interests of 1.8 percent of non-proficient teachers over the needs of every other high-performing teacher in the state—and over the needs of students. 

Attention now turns to the state Senate to approve HB 805. If the legislation passes the Senate, it will be up to Gov. Wolf to prioritize teachers over his biggest campaign contributors and sign the law.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 09:37 AM | Comments

A Solution for Persistently Failing Schools

JUNE 12, 2015

Amidst a flurry of hearings on severance taxes, incomes taxes, and pension reform, a piece of legislation with less fanfare advanced with bipartisan support out of the Senate Education Committee. Senate Bill 6 has the potential to rescue thousands of students from persistently underperforming public schools.

Senator Smucker's SB 6 has two major components. First, it would enable school districts to utilize new powers to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent of statewide performance. These schools would be identified as "intervention schools," and local school boards would have enhanced staffing flexibility, as well as the ability to convert the school into a charter.

Most importantly, the legislation creates an Achievement School District (ASD), which could absorb schools in the bottom 1 percent of performance. This is the most transformative aspect of the law. Perpetually failing schools would transfer to the ASD, which has similar powers outlined above. However, the ASD is overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the governor and legislature. This unique management structure provides the right incentives to institute meaningful school reform for students who need it most.  

Achievement school districts are gaining in popularity across the country as a means to turn around chronically underperforming schools. They are perhaps most famous in New Orleans, where a Recovery School District was scaled up after Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, some 93 percent of public school students attend charters. Only 7 percent of schools are currently designated as failing, compared to 62 percent less than a decade ago. And 62 percent of students test at grade level or above, up from 35 percent in 2006.

Similar turnaround school district initiatives exist in Tennessee and Michigan, and they have recently been enacted in Georgia and Nevada.

Education solutions must be more innovative and forward-looking than simply raising taxes—especially given that Pennsylvania education spending is currently at an all-time high. During Tuesday’s hearing on SB 6, Democratic Senator Anthony Williams explained tax hikes over the last fifteen years have not improved the quality of schools in his district.

"Pouring more water into a bucket that has holes in it doesn't put out the fire." Take a look at Sen. Williams' complete remarks:

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:27 PM | Comments

Will Tax Shifting Help Public Schools?

JUNE 10, 2015

As I pointed out yesterday in a chart and blog post, Pennsylvania spends significantly more per student on public schools than the national average. Moreover, increased spending has not resulted in improvement in academic performance.

Calls for increased education spending tend to ignore these basic facts. At the same time, many readers have asked about our position on a dollar-for-dollar tax shift, which would redistribute the school tax burden in Pennsylvania.

To be clear, CF opposes tax shifting schemes that result in net tax hikes, such as those found in Gov. Wolf's budget. Other tax shifting proposals are revenue neutral, or dollar-for-dollar. Typically, these proposals ask the state to contribute more, or all, to public school funding in exchange for property tax reduction or elimination.

We believe that tax shifting—even of the dollar-for-dollar variety—will not solve structural problems with school financing. Here are our primary concerns: 

  1. Tax shifting does not address overspending in public schools, which is driven by pensions, mandates, union contracts and lobbying, and a government monopoly over the school system.
  2. Tax shifting creates winners and losers. This is true among individuals who would be forced to pay higher sales or income tax rates (and in the case of expansion, some families would face exorbitant increases on nursing care, day care, or other items). Indeed, while the property tax is highly unpopular, it is less detrimental toward state economic growth than is the income tax, which affects workers and small business owners.
  3. Winners and losers will also emerge at the school district level. Tax shifting effectively forces residents in District A to pay more in state taxes, while District B would get more in “relief.” Districts with high property taxes will get less relief than districts that have responsibly kept taxes low. 
  4. Tax shifting fails to provide a student-based funding formula.
  5. Tax shifting does not necessary prevent property taxes from coming back, and it can become a vehicle for increasing our overall tax burden on families and businesses.

Without other reforms, tax shifting will not resolve the larger problem of overspending and unaffordable taxes. As I pointed out in my testimony on property tax reform, there are other solutions that address the spending problem in education, of which high property taxes are just a symptom. Here are five recommendations:

Weighted Student Funding

While Pennsylvania spends more per student than the rest of the country, and provides about the national average in state funding per student, that support isn’t driven out to schools that need it the most. A broken funding formula, in which school districts have been “held harmless” regardless of changes in enrollment for more than 20 years, fails our students.

Moving to a student-based funding system would ensure state dollars go to the schools that need it most—based on student enrollment and student need. We should fund children, not buildings. This reform would better allocate the $26 billion we already spend.

Collective Bargaining Reform

Employee benefit cost growth has greatly exceeded salary growth in public schools. These costs are driven by unaffordable union contracts.

Reforming the collective bargaining process—providing taxpayers and voters with more information about the terms and costs of contracts—could result in major savings for public schools, money that could go back into the classroom.

Mandate relief, including prevailing wage reform and seniority reform

School districts across the state have complained about unfunded and unaffordable mandates. Among the largest of these is the prevailing wage mandate, which requires school districts to pay more for construction projects than the private sector pays for the same work. Prevailing wage mandates increase the cost of construction by 10 to 30 percent, which for Pennsylvania school districts results in $160 to $480 million in additional annual costs.

Likewise, state law that limits when school districts furlough employees, and requires furloughs be done solely on the basis of seniority, deny schools the flexibility to manage costs. Reform that values teacher performance above seniority would improve the quality of education across Pennsylvania, while giving schools the tools they need.

Pension reform

Over the past six years, pension payments from school districts have increased by $2 billion. This amounts to a $600 tax increase per Pennsylvania homeowner, or the salary of 20,000 teachers. Rising pension costs were the justification for 98% of school districts recently seeking exemptions to raise property taxes above inflation.  

We need pension reform that moves the state out of the defined benefit business. Establishing a defined contribution retirement plan for new hires provides costs that are predictable and affordable. Responsible pension reform removes politics from pension management and prevent future crises from threatening our public schools.

School Choice

Lawmakers should expand school choice programs, such as the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). These programs allow low and middle income families to attend better, safer schools. 

Moreover, the EITC and OSTC save Pennsylvania taxpayers money. The average EITC scholarship is less than $2,000, while the average OSTC scholarship is approximately $4,000. These scholarships are significantly less than the average per-pupil spending in traditional public schools.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 04:30 PM | Comments

Charters Drowning in Red Tape

JUNE 3, 2015

What could your family, business, or place of work do with an extra 700 hours? This is a question Pennsylvania charter schools are likely asking after a new report from the American Enterprise Institute.

According to AEI, charter applicants face onerous authorization processes that mandate 700 hours of needless work. After coding the requirements from dozens of charter authorizers across the country, AEI authors found that more than half of the mandates are either “unnecessary” or “clearly inappropriate.”

Streamlining the application process would allow authorizers to focus on what they do well and free up hundreds of hours for charter administrators. This would also balance the playing field for charter schools that are not managed by a larger operating entity. The deck is currently stacked against small groups of parents, teachers, and civic leaders who want to open up their own school.

Take a look at the table from AEI below. Requirements in the red lower-right quadrant have little bearing on whether a school will be able to successfully serve its student body, while items in the green upper-left quadrant include a reasonable standard by which charter applicants should be held.

Charter Matrix

An overly burdensome application process has three primary consequences. First, it wastes times for school administrators that could be engaged in more productive, education-related tasks. Second, it discourages other qualified charter applicants from taking the plunge and submitting an application to the authorizing body. Third, it hampers charter schools in their pursuit of innovation and experimenting with new educational models.  

Of course, a thorough application and authorization process is important to ensure quality for Pennsylvania’s growing network of charter schools. But authorizers—namely, local school boards—must consider whether they are mistaking length for rigor. School boards should heed the advice from AEI and eliminate needless tasks that do not provide a window into the quality of a prospective applicant.

posted by JAMES PAUL, CATHERINE FITZHUGH | 11:30 AM | Comments

Audio: House Expands State Scholarship Programs

MAY 20, 2015

Last week, Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives approved a significant expansion of two state scholarship programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC).

Since 2001, EITC and OSTC have awarded over 430,000 scholarships to students across Pennsylvania, providing lifeboats to children looking to escape dangerous and failing schools.

Matt Brouillette recently spoke with Gary Sutton on WSBA about House Bill 752 and the benefits that its $100 million expansion will bring to children hoping to pursue school choice programs.

Matt explains that EITC and OSTC build connections between corporations and their communities. These programs allow businesses to “see a direct benefit from their tax dollars going to help educate children”–rather than sending that money to strangers in Harrisburg.

Listen below or click here to hear Matt’s interview.

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.

posted by JONATHAN REGINELLA | 10:00 AM | Comments

House Expands Indispensable Scholarship Programs

MAY 12, 2015

In a sweeping, bipartisan vote, members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a substantial increase to the state's cherished scholarship programs—the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). Rep. Jim Christiana’s House Bill 752 increases the EITC cap by $70 million and the OSTC cap by $30 million.

It’s hard to overstate what an additional $100 million would mean for low- and middle-income families in Pennsylvania. Should this legislation be signed into law, tens of thousands of new students will be afforded the opportunity to receive a high-quality education.

HB 752 opens the door for more children like Hudson, whose OSTC scholarship allows him to attend and excel at Philadelphia Classical School, and Kaiden Myers, who attended the Westwood School in Philadelphia with the help of the EITC.

All eyes now turn to the Senate—and ultimately the governor—to follow the House’s lead and ensure that more families reap the benefits of these valuable school choice programs.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:00 AM | Comments

Important Education Bills Advance in House

MAY 4, 2015

In a promising move for Pennsylvania students, the House Education Committee passed two important bills today that will keep effective teachers in the classroom and expand educational options. 

HB 805, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Bloom, passed with a 14-10 vote. This legislation would end seniority-based layoffs in Pennsylvania public schools. Rep. Bloom’s Protecting Excellent Teachers Act ensures that in the unfortunate event of furloughs, teachers are evaluated based on their effectiveness in the classroom—not simply the date they were hired.

HB 752, sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana, also passed committee by a vote of 18-8. This legislation would increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit cap by $70 million ($100 million to $170 million) and the the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit cap by $30 million ($50 million to $80 million). Increasing these caps will create more scholarships for students in need.

Pennsylvania’s scholarship tax credit programs allow tens of thousands of low and middle income families to attend schools that are more rigorous, safer, and better-tailored to each student’s unique circumstances. The programs result in great savings to taxpayers, too, since the average scholarship amounts to a fraction of the cost of educating a student in a traditional public school. And these programs allow businesses to ensure that their tax dollars are efficiently spent on a quality private education instead of being funneled into the state government General Fund.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:20 PM | Comments

More Evidence: Charter Schools Thrive in Philadelphia

MARCH 26, 2015

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. 

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 03:00 PM | Comments

Changing the Culture at H.R. Edmunds

MARCH 25, 2015

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.” 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 07:00 AM | Comments

Pennsylvania's Charter Law: Room to Improve

MARCH 18, 2015

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. 

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 02:00 PM | Comments

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