Academic Achievement

Cyber Schools: Serving an Important Need

NOVEMBER 12, 2015

In light of stagnating achievement among K-12 students, the last thing Pennsylvania should do is crack down on alternative educational options. Yet a growing chorus says 35,000 students enrolled in Pennsylvania's innovative cyber charter schools should be denied the educational experience that best suits their needs.

I recently submitted a letter to the editor to the Easton Express-Times on this subject:

Stanford University study is the most recent catalyst for cyber school criticism, but the online education frontier is perpetually under fire in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, proposed massive cuts to online schools in his March budget address.

Remembering a few key points is critical when analyzing cyber school performance. First, there is no typical cyber charter student. Many children enroll in cyber schools after enduring bullying or unsafe conditions in a traditional school. Online education is often the only feasible alternative for students in a persistently failing district. What's more, cyber students typically enroll with substantial learning gaps that cannot be rectified in a single school year.

Just as traditional public schools vary, the online education network is diverse in course offerings and academic achievement. It would be a mistake to paint the entire sector with a broad brush.

A charter reform bill, HB 530, currently awaits action in the state Senate. Notably, many cyber charter leaders are supportive of the legislation. Increased accountability for public schools—all public schools, not merely cyber—is a reasonable policy goal with bipartisan support.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the crucial void filled by Pennsylvania’s cyber schools. Singling out cyber schools with Wolf's punitive cuts—and treating these students as second-class citizens—does not serve the best interests of Pennsylvania families desperate for choice and opportunity.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 09:33 AM | Comments

Sobering Results on The Nation’s Report Card

NOVEMBER 2, 2015

Over the last quarter century, national education scores in both reading and math have modestly trended upward—until this year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released its biannual report on 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math scores. The results are sobering.  

The report, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” draws comparisons among states and reveals overall trends in education across the country. Specifically, it measures student proficiency at the national and state levels as well as at 21 district levels (Philadelphia included).

The national level showed virtually no “proficiency” increase in any grade level or subject category. The only increase in reading scores was among 4th-grade students with disabilities or those eligible for the National School Lunch Program. Meanwhile, 8th-grade scores decreased across the board among males, females, whites, blacks, and Hispanics, as well as in suburbs, towns, and rural areas.

In Pennsylvania, 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 4th-grade math scores remained stagnant, while 8th-grade math scores dropped to a low not seen since before 2007. The commonwealth performs favorably, compared with other states, in overall NAEP performance—but much of this is driven by demographics. After adjusting by race and income, Pennsylvania ranks 16th in NAEP performance, illustrating a sizable achievement gap.

Philadelphia specifically, where scores are typically well below the national average, saw drops in 4th-grade math and no significant growth anywhere else. Student achievement in Philadelphia is far below the major urban cities average, exceeding only Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Fresno. In fact, students in Philadelphia did not achieve proficiency rates above 20 percent in either subject matter or grade level. In other words, fewer than 1 in 5 Philadelphia students are on grade level in math or reading.

Students and families cannot afford to wait another two years to learn whether scores improve or continue declining. A solution to this disturbing reality is the expansion of educational options through the EITC and OSTC programs, which empower students to attend high-performing private schools and deliver cost-savings to taxpayers. Unfortunately, the EITC and OSTC programs are currently in limbo—held hostage by the Wolf administration as leverage for massive tax hikes.

The Nation’s Report Card results underscore the urgent need for expanded school choice in Pennsylvania. Our state's children deserve no less. 

posted by MARC PUGLIESE, JAMES PAUL | 01:51 PM | Comments

Putting Students First in Chester Upland

AUGUST 28, 2015

Although Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent actions have thrown Chester Upland School District into a state of turmoil, local unions in the district are rising above politics and putting students first. Teachers and support staff in Chester Upland School District agreed to work without pay so their students can return to school on time.

They should be commended for doing so.

The Delaware County Daily Times has the full story:

More than 300 Chester Upland School District faculty members and support staff voted Thursday to work without pay if necessary after learning from Superintendent Gregory Shannon during their first day back at school that there are insufficient funds to meet the district’s first payroll of the school year.

Chester Upland Education Association President Michele Paulick said that at a morning convocation Shannon read a letter from Francis Barnes, the state-appointed receiver for the school district which has been in financial flux for 25 years, that the district currently does not have the funds to make payroll for Sept. 9. Classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 2. 

“We knew that the district was in financial straits but we didn’t know it was so immediate so, yes, we were very shocked,” said Paulick Thursday evening.

Following the announcement from the superintendent, the approximately 200 teachers represented by the Chester Upland Education Association and more than 120 secretaries, teaching assistants, licensed practical nurses and other staff represented by the Chester Upland Education Support Personnel Association passed a joint resolution stating their members “will work as long as they are individually able, even with delayed compensation, and even with the failure of the school district to meet its payroll obligations, in order to continue to serve the students who learn in the Chester Upland School District.”

Interestingly, Democrats in the Pennsylvania State Housewho are also facing the possibility of foregoing monthly paychecksare taking a different approach. PennLive reports

Rep. Frank Dermody asked the Pennsylvania Treasury for "a loan, from whatever source you deem appropriate and in such amount as may be necessary, to be used during the balance of the current budget impasse to help us fulfill our obligation to pay timely salaries and related costs."

Perhaps House Democrats should take note of what is happening in Chester Upland—and follow suit. 


posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:24 PM | Comments

Wolf’s Ugly Record on Education

AUGUST 27, 2015

Families in Chester Upland breathed a sigh of relief this week after a Delaware County Judge rejected Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to arbitrarily slash payments for the district’s cyber and special needs charter students.

From The Inquirer:

After a hearing that stretched over two days, Judge Chad Kenney said the commonwealth's plan was "wholly inadequate" to restore the district to financial stability. He also faulted the state's and district's lawyers as failing to provide "meaningful specifics or details" as to how they arrived at the plan.

The ruling is a victory for Chester families pursuing high quality education—and an embarrassing setback for an administration fixated on limiting school choice in Pennsylvania.

In less than a year, Gov. Wolf has established an ugly record on education policy. Here's a recap: 

  • In March, Wolf removed Bill Green as chairman of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) after the SRC approved merely 5 of 39 applicants from new charter schools. This was a clear message that even tepid support for charters will not be tolerated.
  • Wolf’s proposed state budget includes massive cuts to cyber schools—reducing their revenue by one-third—and denies all charters the right to maintain rainy day reserve funds. Recent events in Salisbury and Bethlehem underscore why charters deserve to hold reasonable fund balances.
  • Wolf undermined the recovery plan in York City School District, effectively forcing out the district’s chief recovery officer as retribution for his support of charter schools.  
  • Wolf personally lobbied three Democratic state representatives who bucked party leadership in support of legislation that would protect excellent public school teachers from furloughs. After the governor met personally with Reps. Davidson, Harris, and Wheatley, the trio of Democrats were no-shows for a vote on a key amendment to the bill.
  • Wolf attempted to balance Chester Upland’s budget on the backs of special education charter students. Chester students are otherwise relegated to a school system Wolf admits “failed its students” and has been “mismanaged for over 25 years.”
  • Wolf’s Department of Education issued a “kill order” to Education Plus Academy, a cyber charter school that primarily serves special needs students, one week before the start of the school year. Why is the administration threatening to shut down Ed Plus? For spending too much time educating students in person, and not enough time engaging in strictly online instruction.

Given that educational choice continues to deliver positive results for students and families, one can only wonder why Gov. Wolf is so vehemently opposed to it. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

Wolf to Chester Families: ‘There is No Escape’

AUGUST 19, 2015

Tom Wolf’s record on public education is well documented. The governor is hostile to schools of choice, cozy to union interests, and wedded to the educational status quo.

Chester Upland School District is ground zero for the most recent example of this hyper-partisan, antiquated philosophy.

Yesterday, the Wolf administration went to court in Delaware County, filing an amended recovery plan for Chester Upland that would slash district payments to charter schools. Officials project $25 million in savings entirely through reduced payments for special education charter students and flat-funding cyber charter students at $5,950 per pupil.

Although Wolf admits that district finances have been “mismanaged for over 25 years,” his solution is to effectively block families from a escaping a school system that has, in the words of Wolf, “failed its students.”

What does failure look in Chester Upland? Two percent of students are proficient in math at Chester High School. Sixteen percent are proficient in reading. The average SAT score for Chester High students is 725 (out of 1600), and the School Performance Profile (SPP) score is 33.5.

In contrast, the three brick and mortar charter schools that receive Chester Upland students have SPP scores of 71.7, 61.5, and 51.3. Parents and students have been fleeing to better-performing schools.

Persistently low academic performance spurred almost 54 percent of Chester students to enroll in charters. Naturally, charter payments assume a significant chunk of the district budget—46 percent in 2014-15.

Although charter students account for more than half of the district’s enrollment, they comprise less than half of the district’s cost. 

Chester Upland certainly faces financial challenges, but charters are not the culprit. Amazingly, the revised recovery plan includes no other cost saving measures aside from the punitive action taken against charters.  

The illogical Wolf Doctrine on public education is perfectly encapsulated, here, by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera:

For too long the quality of education a student receives has been dictated by their zip code, and in some cases a child’s education has suffered due to the missteps of adults. Reducing the structural deficit is essential in order to secure financial stability for the district and make the improvements needed to provide Chester Upland students with the opportunities they deserve.”

These remarks are detached from reality, as it is the Wolf administration perpetuating the “education-by-zip code” travesty that has dominated public education for decades. Trapping families in a failed district and arbitrarily punishing students seeking alternative educational options will not produce “Schools that Teach.”  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:27 AM | Comments

Discouraging Signs in York City

AUGUST 5, 2015

The consequences of Gov. Tom Wolf’s lock-step fealty to public sector union interests are being felt across the state and particularly in York City—where one of Wolf’s first major decisions as governor is generating renewed skepticism among those seeking improvement for the failing school district.

In March, the Wolf administration forced out York City recovery officer David Meckley and withdrew the state’s petition to introduce transformative change to a school system known for financial distress, abysmal academic performance, and astounding rates of violence. Meckley, who sought to implement a charter school model, realized Wolf was wedded to the status quo and would not accept a solution that prioritized students and families over government unions.

In April, Wolf replaced Meckley with Carol Saylor, who opposes charter schools and hinted that her recovery plan could take up to ten years.

What has been happening in York City since the new recovery officer assumed her position?

If a recent editorial from the York Daily Record is any indication, not much. Saylor hired an outside firm to study the school district and provide recommendations. Highlights from the report include the following:

  • Teacher attendance dropped to 88 percent in 2014-15 (which is actually lower than student attendance, according to Saylor).
  • Barely half of district personnel believe the quality of education delivered by the district is good or excellent. Four percent of teachers believe that education quality is excellent.
  • 86 percent of school and central office personnel report that the district does not reward or retain excellent staff.
  • 75 percent of school staff do not believe individual schools have sufficient decision making authority over their budgets.

The report also noted that York City’s per pupil funding is on par with the state average. Accordingly, the district may need to “revisit its spending strategy to ensure practices are centered on student learning needs.” However, in June, the teacher’s union voted to accept a new collective bargaining contract that increases pay over the next two years.

And just this week, York City announced it has hired a new “information specialist’’ to create “positive publicity with the outside community.” Editors at the Daily Record describe the hire as unnecessary and an unwise use of limited resources:

Ms. Saylor and other district officials ought to be able to speak for themselves to the media and the community. And they certainly ought to be able to perform effective internal communications—or perhaps they shouldn't be in their current positions.

While he may not be involved the district’s day to day operations, the governor’s fingerprints are all over the situation in York City. The decision to force out Meckley—and, in so doing, jettison meaningful education reform—will have lasting repercussions for families who deserve better than a ten year plan and an information specialist.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:30 PM | Comments

Strange Arguments Against Seniority Reform

JULY 22, 2015

An amusing opinion article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette takes aim at pending legislation that would protect high-performing teachers and change incentives in persistently failing schools. Authors Adam Schott and Kate Shaw have various misleading things to say about both HB 805 and SB 6, but this sentence sums it up: 

An increasing number of state policy proposals…[treat] teachers as an interchangeable commodity, rather than highly skilled professionals.

What a peculiar claim about legislation that clearly respects the art of teaching and treats teachers as individuals.

HB 805 stipulates that, in the unfortunate event of furloughs, teachers be retained by virtue of job performance, not merely their years of service in the classroom (seniority). Under HB 805, teachers are evaluated based on the state’s new evaluation system, which currently rates 98.2 percent of teachers as distinguished or proficient. HB 805 would protect a teacher rated “distinguished” in favor of a teacher rated “failing.”

Only 15 percent of the evaluation system is based on test scores from each teacher’s classroom, so crocodile tears about an overreliance on “high-stakes testing” ring hollow. Reasonable people can debate the components of Pennsylvania’s evaluation system—which was endorsed by the state’s largest teachers' union—but teacher quality is closely connected with student learning, and measures of teacher effectiveness are quite reliable.

Above all else, it takes real chutzpah to claim that retaining teachers based on actual job performance treats them as “interchangeable commodities.”

The argument from Schott and Shaw boils down to: “Teachers are much more than widgets, so let’s treat them as widgets.” It is, ironically, opponents of seniority reform who view teachers as interchangeable commodities that cannot be evaluated like other professionals. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:30 AM | Comments

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

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