Academic Achievement




Senate Protects Excellent Teachers, Sends Bill to Wolf

MAY 9, 2016

In a crucial victory for both students and teachers, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act passed the Senate this afternoon with a vote of 26 to 22.

HB 805, championed by Rep. Stephen Bloom, provides that public school teachers are retained based on effectiveness in the classroom—not merely seniority—in the unfortunate event of furloughs. Today’s passage ensures Pennsylvania’s best teachers remain in the classroom, helping every child reach their maximum potential.

Reform to rigid seniority mandates is long overdue in the commonwealth. A strict, seniority-based system punishes young, effective teachers who excel in the classroom but have not racked up sufficient service time. This is plainly unfair. Every teacher should be evaluated based on their talents as educators, not just their years of service. 

That’s why HB 805 is so important. The legislation now moves to Gov. Tom Wolf, whose options are clear: Side with the teachers’ unions which oppose the bill, or side with public school students and excellent teachers—both of whom stand to gain tremendously from the governor’s signature.

Sounds like a no-brainer.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 01:56 PM | Comments

Tom Wolf vs. Barack Obama on Charters

MAY 3, 2016

It’s safe to assume Governor Tom Wolf and President Barack Obama agree on many policy issues. But when it comes to public charter schools, Wolf and Obama are worlds apart.

The president recently issued a proclamation honoring May 1 through May 7 as National Charter Schools Week. In his statement, Obama explained the important role charters play in America’s education system:

Supporting some of our Nation's underserved communities, [charters] can ignite imagination and nourish the minds of America's young people while finding new ways of educating them and equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed. With the flexibility to develop new methods for educating our youth, and to develop remedies that could help underperforming schools, these innovative and autonomous public schools often offer lessons that can be applied in other institutions of learning across our country, including in traditional public schools.

Although charter schools are lifelines for tens of thousands of Pennsylvania families, Gov. Wolf’s policies are decidedly hostile to charter students. Consider his actions since assuming office:

  • Last 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—and it prompted a lawsuit from Green seeking to regain his position as chair. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer—not exactly a bastion of school choice ideology—Green has a strong case.
  • Wolf’s budget proposals in 2015 and 2016 each includes massive cuts to cyber charter schools—reducing their revenue by one-third—and deny all charters the right to save new funds in their “rainy day” reserves.
  • 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.  
  • Last summer, 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.”

A recent poll from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools finds nearly 8 in 10 surveyed support parents being able to choose their child’s public school. Over half of parents surveyed who are supportive of charter schools cited lack of access as the main reason they don’t send their child to a charter.

Perhaps Gov. Wolf should pay heed to the thousands of families benefiting from charter schools—not to mention President Obama—and rethink his opposition to these effective educational options.   

posted by JAMES PAUL | 01:49 PM | Comments

Changing Lives with Education Savings Accounts

APRIL 20, 2016

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) empower parents to personalize the academic experience for their children, as CF explains in a recent policy brief. But ESAs are about more than school choice.

They are changing lives for families in need.

ESAs have only existed for a short time—enacted in 2011 in Arizona and 2014 in Florida. But the stories of children served—and saved—by these flexible spending accounts are growing by the dozens.

Jordan Visser, a nine-year-old in Arizona diagnosed with cerebral palsy and dyslexia, was one of the first children to benefit from an ESA. Thanks to his ESA, Jordan receives more individual time with a reading teacher for the visually impaired, as well as his physical therapist:

When Katie Swingle’s son, Gregory, was eighteen months old, doctors worried that Gregory’s autism would prevent him from being able to speak. But thanks to Florida’s ESA program, seven-year-old Gregory is not only speaking, he’s writing in cursive. Watch Gregory’s mother describe the impact of ESAs on her family:

Consider Max Ashton, an eighteen-year-old in Arizona born legally blind, who used the ESA funding for specialized education and college tuition:

Eighteen-year-old Max Ashton is an ESA recipient in Arizona. Max is an exceedingly bright and ambitious young man. He was also born legally blind and has additional needs in school. This is why, when given the option to use an ESA in 2011, Max’s parents jumped at the chance. Marc Ashton, Max’s father, said of the decision:

A blind student in Arizona gets about $21,000 dollars per year to educate that student. We took 90 percent of that, paid for Max to get the best education in Arizona—the best education in Arizona—plus all his Braille, all his technology, and then there was still money left over—still money left over—to put toward his college [tuition]. And so he is going to be able to go on to Loyola Marymount University…and do extremely well, because we were able to save money even sending him to the best school in Arizona over what the state would normally pay for.

ESAs were also life-changing for Kasey Locke, a six-year-old diagnosed with autism who was not best-served by the local public school:

Rebecca Locke was frustrated with her daughter Kasey’s academic progress. Six-year-old Kasey is autistic, and when she started kindergarten at the local public school, her parents worked with school officials to incorporate a new learning method, applied behavioral analysis (ABA), into Kasey’s school work. “We were looking for different modes of treatment for her and came upon applied behavioral analysis, and that’s the only treatment that’s been empirically shown to cause improvement.”

But her parents were frustrated because Kasey’s school couldn’t incorporate ABA methods into her full school day. It really wasn’t the school’s focus to use this type of treatment.  “We did look into private schooling, but there was no way we could financially reach that.”

Then, when Arizona passed educational savings accounts into law, “it was almost too good to be true” for the Lockes. With an education savings account, Kasey’s portion of state education funding would be deposited into an account her parents could use for any educational services.

The education savings account has been life-changing for Kasey, who now attends Chrysalis Academy, a private school that incorporates ABA tools.  Recently, Kasey visited her speech therapist, who was “amazed” with Kasey’s progress. Her parents say the education savings account has been “a huge success for us.”

The experiences of Jordan, Gregory, Max, and Kasey must be replicated for all Pennsylvania families seeking the same type of educational opportunity. Everyone deserves access to this life-changing program.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 07:52 AM | Comments

No, We're Not Underfunding Public Schools

FEBRUARY 29, 2016

My latest op-ed at PennLive debunks several school funding myths that continue to haunt Pennsylvania:

While local school revenue is notably high (6th in the nation), state revenue per student also exceeds the national average—ranking 24th-highest in the country, according to NCES.

Why, then, does Gov. Wolf repeatedly claim Pennsylvania ranks 45th in state support of public schools? This rhetorical sleight-of-hand refers to education spending in percentages, not dollars.

Would you rather have 50 percent of a dime or 36 percent of a dollar? Right now, state taxpayers provide the latter, paying more than a third of a total figure that significantly exceeds the national average.

I also address the funding gap between high- and low-income districts in the commonwealth:

You've probably heard about Pennsylvania's largest-in-the-nation funding gap between wealthy and poor districts. Isn't that reason enough to boost funding? While the discrepancies in district spending are higher in Pennsylvania than in other states, there is more to the story.

The NCES recently organized each state's school districts into four quartiles of family income. In each quartile—even among high-poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. The discrepancy arises only because some affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their schools.

Read the whole piece here. Relatedly, Gov. Wolf continues to hold schools hostage for the sake of his political agenda. His administration recently sent a memo to districts with instructions for shutting down:

A how-to manual on closing a school district for lack of funds is not provided in Pennsylvania's Public School Code but the state Department of Education did its best to compile one in response to districts' inquiries.

The department this week shared a memo with districts that outlines 11 actions that school boards would have to consider before taking the drastic step of shuttering their schools until funding becomes available.

Of course, nowhere in Wolf’s memo does he explain the only reason so many districts lack funds is because he vetoed more than $3 billion in state support of public schools. The governor could release those dollars in a matter of days, if he so desired, but he would rather spread the pain than solve the problem.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 01:37 PM | Comments

State Supremes Strike Down Charter Caps

FEBRUARY 17, 2016

Pennsylvania’s legislature granted extraordinary powers to Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) when they created the body in 2001. Tasked with shoring up the district’s finances, the SRC was authorized to suspend provisions of the state’s public school code and charter school law.

Over the years, the SRC used these powers to cap charter enrollment growth, which is otherwise forbidden by law. The SRC also used this authority to expedite school closings, bypass irrational seniority provisions, and alter employee labor contracts.

On Tuesday, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a significant ruling that will curtail the SRC from taking such drastic measures. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:  

The court ruled that the SRC had no legal power to suspend portions of the state charter law and school code. The ruling strips the commission of extraordinary powers it believed it had - and used.

By declaring unconstitutional a portion of the takeover law that the SRC has relied on heavily, many of the major actions the commission has taken in recent years - up to and including bypassing seniority in teacher assignments - could be subject to reversal.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook has more:

In essence, the court said that the General Assembly overstepped its bounds and was too open-ended in granting the SRC these powers in 2001.

“The Legislature gave the SRC what amounts to carte blanche powers to suspend virtually any combination of provisions of the School Code – a statute covering a broad range of topics,” the ruling said. It said that prior court decisions “have never deemed such an unconstrained grant of authority to be constitutionally valid.”

The ramifications of this decision could be most prevalent in the Philadelphia charter school community. The case was brought by West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, which challenged the SRC for limiting its enrollment.

If this ruling paves the way for expanded school choice in Philadelphia, it will be welcome news for parents who have been searching for quality educational options. There certainly is no shortage of demand for more seats in high-quality charter schools. For example, just yesterday, MaST Charter School received over 8,000 applicants for 99 open seats.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers described the court’s decision as a “double-edged sword.” Union president Jerry Jordan is pleased to see the SRC’s powers diminished, but is dismayed at the prospect of increased charter school freedom among families desperate for choice:

On the other hand, the ruling also removes enrollment caps from charter schools. This means that the three new charter schools approved by the SRC will place even more of a strain on the District's already overstretched budget. Now more than ever, the PFT is reiterating its call for a moratorium on new charter schools because Philadelphia simply cannot afford any more conversions.

With tonight's vote, the SRC has taken another step toward bankrupting the school district. The irresponsibility of the SRC's actions provides more evidence that body needs to be abolished in favor of local control of our children's schools.

At the same time thousands of families are stranded on waitlists for better schools, the teachers’ union president calls for a moratorium on new charters. So much for putting the children first.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:03 PM | Comments

Do Record-High Graduation Rates Matter?

JANUARY 18, 2016

In America’s high schools, test scores are stagnant while graduation rates are soaring. How can both be true? A December press release from the Department of Education may have the answer [emphasis mine]:

U.S. students are graduating from high school at a higher rate than ever before, according to data released today by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. The nation's high school graduation rate hit 82 percent in 2013-14, the highest level since states adopted a new uniform way of calculating graduation rates five years ago.

Sadly, rising graduation rates do not necessarily indicate improved academic achievement. They simply signal a lower threshold for graduation. This trend is evident in Pennsylvania, where statewide graduation rates are slightly higher than the national average despite poor performance on several measures of academic progress.

Robert Pondisco, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, weighed in on the disconnect between graduation and attainment:

Regarding the recent spike in graduation rates, good luck figuring out what it stands for. Not improved student proficiency, certainly. There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tracking graduation rates, but it would be foolish to ignore classroom outcomes and blindly conclude that public schools are moving in the right direction. Policymakers, school boards, and school administrators must dig deeper—especially in the commonwealth, where lawmakers are poised to delay more challenging graduation requirements.

posted by JAMES PAUL, MARC PUGLIESE | 11:58 AM | Comments

Wolf’s School Funding Cuts

DECEMBER 16, 2015

In a nutshell, Gov. Tom Wolf’s guiding philosophy on education reform is to spend more money on public schools.

Embracing the repeatedly-debunked myth of education cuts under the previous administration—and undeterred by the weak relationship between spending and academic outcomes—Wolf leans heavily on this slogan in speaking engagements and social media:

However, no one is proposing to “make Pennsylvania schools weaker.” Even if you accept the governor’s shaky premise that a school’s strength is solely measured by dollars spent, you’d be hard pressed to find lawmakers—Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal—arguing for less education spending.

Except, of course, when it comes to cyber charter students.

Since the governor’s March budget address, Pennsylvania’s cyber students have been under attack. Wolf initially proposed to slash cyber revenues to $5,950 per student—an arbitrary sum that would reduce per-student spending by one-third. (For the sake of comparison, traditional school districts spend over $15,000 per-student in Pennsylvania).

This radical proposal never gained traction, but late last week Wolf demanded the “budget framework” include a provision cutting cyber funding by an estimated $65 million over the next two years. At a time when the state is increasing aid to school districts by more than $350 million, cyber schools—which enroll a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than do district schools—are threatened with devastating cuts.

In June, many cyber leaders actually agreed to provisions in a House-passed charter reform bill that included, among other things, a significant reduction in per-student revenue. But the Wolf-approved Senate plan cuts cyber funding three times more than the original agreement.

Can Pennsylvania grow stronger if cyber schools are made weaker? Or is Wolf content to treat 36,000 cyber students like second-class citizens?

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:54 PM | Comments

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

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