Academic Achievement




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

How School Choice is Building Communities

FEBRUARY 26, 2015

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.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE, JAMES PAUL | 05:18 PM | Comments

Thousands of Philly Students Left on Waiting Lists

FEBRUARY 23, 2015

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.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:30 PM | Comments

$35 Million Worth of New Charter Seats?

FEBRUARY 5, 2015

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.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:00 PM | Comments

The State of School Choice in Pennsylvania

JANUARY 27, 2015

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.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:00 PM | Comments

Are Charter Schools Too Popular?

JANUARY 16, 2015

Charter schools

Of the 40 applications for new charter schools in Philadelphia, surely a few should not be approved by the School Reform Commission (SRC). Each individual applicant has its own strengths, weaknesses, and visions for expanding educational opportunity. It seems reasonable that some schools receive a green-light while others are turned away.

According to a report from Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), however, all 40 charter applicants should be flatly rejected. Why? Because they will be too popular and attract too many students.

The charter slots requested could grow total charter enrollment to 104,642 students or approximately 51 percent of the District’s total enrollment. Nationally, Philadelphia ranks 3rd highest for percentage of students who are enrolled in charter schools, trailing only New Orleans and Detroit.

Clearly there is a reason why so many students are fleeing the traditional schooling model in Philadelphia. Yet defenders of the education status-quo want to force these families to remain trapped in an unsatisfactory system.

PCCY also bemoans that only 40 percent of the schools currently operated by applicants for new charters exceeded a score 70 on the 2013 Department of Education State Performance Profile (SPP). The report fails to mention that the 2013 average district SPP score was 57.5. This means that roughly 70 percent of the schools currently operated by new charter applicants exceed the district’s average SPP score.

The SRC is tasked with selecting the best applicants in a city desperate for more choice and better options. Rather than following PCCY's lead and stubbornly lumping all charter schools into the same group, each applicant should be evaluated on its own merit. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:00 PM | Comments

SAT Scores by State 2014

DECEMBER 22, 2014

Every year, the College Board releases its SAT Report on College & Career Readiness, which includes SAT data for individual states. We've organized this data into one convenient spreadsheet (embedded below), ranking the states by their mean composite SAT scores.

How does Pennsylvania rank?

Pennsylvania ranks 37th in the nation with a composite score of 1481, lagging behind the national average. You can view Pennsylvania's full profile here.

A fifty state comparison is less meaningful, though, than looking at the narrower category of high participation states.

States with high participation rates, including Pennsylvania, tend to have lower average scores because most high school seniors—not just the highest performers—take the SAT. In other states, most students take the ACT. We have also included below a ranking of states with high participation rates in order to better rank Pennsylvania among states with comparable participation.

To improve the performance of Pennsylvania students, Pennsylvania parents need greater school choice to select the best school for their children.

posted by LINDSEY WANNER | 05:16 PM | Comments

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Low Expectations

DECEMBER 19, 2014

Is it true that schools with high concentrations of low-income students face unique challenges? Yes. Should poverty, along with several other social problems, be understood as a factor that influences academic achievement? Of course. Should we thus expect students from low-income families to persistently underperform on state tests and be forever relegated to a second-rate education? Absolutely not.

A fine line exists between recognizing poverty as a factor in academic performance and using it as crutch to excuse dismally performing schools. Nowhere is this more apparent than the York City school district.

A recent article on York’s potential conversion to charter schools explains that none of the district’s eight schools are meeting state testing goals. The piece quotes Wythe Keever, assistant communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), who is undeterred by the test scores:

Wythe said York performs just as well as schools that have similar populations of disadvantaged and special needs children. “The school district is right about where you’d expect it to be when you have an urban school district serving an impoverished population that’s already been decimated by Corbett’s budget cuts," Wythe said.

The comment (emphasis mine) is noteworthy for several reasons. Not only is Keever factually inaccurate about the district’s performance and finances—more on that in a moment—but he also seems to subscribe to the view that urban, low-income students are condemned to bad test scores and substandard learning gains.

A recent CF Policy Points explains that even when compared to other economically disadvantaged students in Pennsylvania, York City students lag behind state averages.

York City PSSA Results 2012 (Percentage)
York City SD Statewide Economically Disadvantaged, State
Advanced or Proficient, Math 53.1 75.6 61.6
Advanced or Proficient, Reading 41.5 72.0 55.4
Below Basic, Math 25.7 11.1 19.0
Below Basic, Reading 35.8 13.7 24.3

Keever is also off base when he claims the district was decimated by state level budget cuts. State revenue per student was steady throughout the previous five years, including a substantial increase in 2012-13. Overall revenue levels did modestly fall in the 2011-12 budget, but the chart below clearly demonstrates that this was due to a sharp decline in federal revenue (read: stimulus dollars).

YorkCitySpending

Additionally, out of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, York is consistently within the top quintile of state revenue per student:

York City Revenue Rank, by Source

State Local

Federal

2008-2009 74 398 8
2009-2010 59 422 7
2010-2011 49 401 6
2011-2012 105 416 49
2012-2013 62 405 49

Factual errors aside, the most disheartening component of Keever’s remarks is that low-income students should be expected to lag behind their peers in academic performance. Setting such low standards does not serve the best interests of students and parents in York City.

It is not entirely surprising, however, that a spokesman from the largest teachers' union in the state has succumbed to the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. After all, the PSEA is a consistent opponent to many reforms—expanded school choice, seniority reform, merit pay—that would improve the quality of education in the commonwealth.

Each student has unique circumstances, needs and abilities—but no student should be resigned to failure.

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 09:00 AM | Comments

Audio: Could Charter Conversion be in York City's Future?

DECEMBER 10, 2014

York City School District—financially distressed and second-to-last in the state in student achievement—may be in for some much-needed change in the coming weeks. After two years of obstruction from the local school board and teachers’ union on more modest measures, the state has finally petitioned for receivership of the troubled district.

Tomorrow, there will be a hearing in York to help inform a judge’s decision to grant the state’s receivership petition. If granted, all of York's district schools will be converted into to charters—one of only a few districts in the country to take such a step.

Today, CF's James Paul joined The Gary Sutton Show on WSBA 910 to provide background on how we got here, who has been blocking other attempts at reform, and what this all could mean for York city students and families.

Listen to a portion of the show below and read James’ recent op-ed “Is Second Worst Good Enough for York Students?” for more.

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 JOHN BOUDER | 03:30 PM | Comments

More Choice on the way to Philadelphia?

DECEMBER 9, 2014

Tens of thousands of Philadelphia students languishing on charter waiting lists have reason to hope. For the first time in seven years, the School District of Philadelphia will consider applications from new charter schools.

This week the district is receiving presentations from 40 applicants who will make the case for additional educational options. A second set of hearings are scheduled in January where applicants will be reviewed and questioned by district officials. Ten of the 40 proposed schools have an explicit focus on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

What prompted Philadelphia to break its seven-year charter lock-out? Tucked away in the recent cigarette tax legislation was a provision requiring the district to accept annual applications from new charter schools.

Seemingly endless wait lists—combined with the 62,500 students currently enrolled in brick and mortar charter schools—are evidence of the sector’s popularity in Philadelphia. Enrollment in district-run schools has sharply declined over the last decade as more families opt for schools of choice.

On the whole, Philadelphia charter schools are performing well. The average city charter school outperformed the average city district school in 2012-13. What’s more, an analysis by Philadelphia School Partnership reveals that the charter sector is succeeding in serving low-income students: Of the 17 city schools with passing State Performance Profile scores and enrollment of least 80 percent economically disadvantaged students, 12 are run by charter operators.

Given their immense popularity, long waitlists, and encouraging performance, it’s a shame that new charter schools have been locked out of the application process for so long—but it's no surprise. Granting school districts the power to authorize a new charter school is like asking McDonalds to green-light the construction of a new Wendy’s next door. Establishing a high quality statewide authorizer in the commonwealth would be a marked improvement over the current policy. 

It remains to be seen whether any new charters will be approved, but at least there's a chance for more children to find better, safer schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

A Shoddy Attack on Charters

NOVEMBER 11, 2014

Charter Schools

My letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News takes issue with the paper's recent characterization of charter schools as "fiscal monsters." 

The Daily News editorial on charter schools ("Frankencharters") includes scary Halloween analogies but does a disservice to genuine efforts to improve education in Philadelphia. Referring to charter schools as "fiscal monsters" flatly ignores that charters spend and receive fewer dollars per student than district schools.

Despite significantly less funding, Philadelphia charters outperformed district schools on the 2012-13 State Performance Profile. Charters actually operate with maximum accountability, since poor academic performance or financial mismanagement will result in closure - a fate that rarely, if ever, befalls district schools. Will the Daily News similarly refer to failing district-run schools as "monsters" that need to be "reined in" when the next cheating scandal occurs?

It should come as no surprise that charters receive their funding from school districts, since charters are public schools, too. That so many families have opted for charters reflect their success - it illustrates the overwhelming demand for expanding school choice.

Continued oversight and transparency is an appropriate policy goal for charter and district-run schools alike - especially in light of the closure of Walter Palmer, which is indeed devastating to the students and families involved. But the unique circumstances surrounding Walter Palmer do not justify demonizing largely successful charters citywide.

The 34,000 students currently languishing on charter waiting lists illustrate the urgent nature of school reform. Denying them more educational options - just to prop up the failing status quo - does not serve the best interests of Philadelphia.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 06:24 PM | Comments

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