Academic Achievement




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

How the PFT Fails Philadelphia

OCTOBER 16, 2014

By standing in the way of tens of millions of new dollars for Philadelphia classrooms, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has revealed its true identity—a self-interested, self-serving interest group that fails teachers, fails students, and fails the poor.

Today, the Commonwealth Foundation launched PFTfails.com to inform the city of Philadelphia—as well as all Pennsylvanians across the state—about the failed track record of PFT leadership. Instead of working to improve the broken status quo, PFT executives use children and teachers as pawns to protect their political influence.

And make no mistake: the status quo has demonstrably failed in Philadelphia public schools. More than 80 percent of students did not achieve proficiency in both reading and math in 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card. Violence remains a major problem in city schools, with 2,485 violent incidents reported during 2013-14. Despite the abysmal performance and violent conditions, PFT leaders oppose charter schools and tax credit scholarship programs for low-income families seeking better, safer education opportunities.

Construct a broken system, defend a broken system, and trap low-income families in the broken system. That’s the PFT playbook. 

But it’s not just students and low-income families who are failed by union executives. PFT fails hard-working, high-performing Philadelphia teachers by clinging to rigid seniority mandates that can result in the best teachers being fired. What’s more, PFT refuses to embrace merit pay.

Why does PFT leadership stand in the way of higher salaries for excellent educators? Instead of encouraging and developing their best talent, PFT leaders oppose common sense reforms that would reward the most effective teachers and keep them in the classroom.

To make matters worse, the same teachers hurt by the PFT are forced to subsidize the PFT’s political agenda—whether the teachers agree with it or not. Philadelphia teachers are required to pay union dues or fair share fees—with an average annual cost exceeding $800—to various union affiliates just to keep their jobs.

Union executives take full advantage of their unique political privilege by spending dues at the astounding rate of $70,000 per minute on political television advertisements. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the Washington D.C. based mothership of PFT—is primed to spend more on elections than ever before. This includes a recent gift of $500,000  financed by teachers' dues, and used for political attack ads via a ‘SuperPAC.’

All told, the PFT fails the entire city of Philadelphia by refusing to agree to health care concessions that would distribute an additional $54 million for classroom instruction in the current school year. Former Governor Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board all agree that this money belongs in the classrooms.

But the PFT refuses to compromise. Add it to the list of PFT failures. They fail us all when they put personal political scores ahead of what’s best for teachers, students, and the poor. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:45 AM | Comments

York Schools Can Send a Lifeline to Kids

OCTOBER 15, 2014

School Choice Pennsylvania

The York City school board is considering an intriguing proposal to turn over some of its schools to a charter operator to compete with the remaining city schools (if the district can come to a new collective bargaining agreement). Why is this transformation needed?

York City schools are among the worst performing schools in Pennsylvania. On the state's "School Performance Profile," the district ranked 499th out of 500 districts.  And preliminary results show that most schools in the district declined in 2013-14.

Interstingly, commenters on a Fox 43 story about our analysis claim the district can't be expected to do better—that its performance is driven by bad parents and poor students. Certainly, poverty does play a role in academic performance, but high performing schools across Pennsylvania and the nation succeed even with low-income students.

We can, and must, do a better job to help our poorest students. And it is clear that despite the challenges, York can do better.

Not only do York schools score worse than the state average, but they perform worse than the average among all low-income students in Pennsylvania. That is, the dreadful test scores aren't driven by poverty alone. Nor is the problem in underfunding. York City schools saw a 33 percent increase—adjusted for inflation—in spending per student over the past decade. The $15,256 the district spends per student exceeds the statewide average.

Consider this: New Hope Academy Charter School was shut down after 2013 for a poor performance record—yet it performed better than most of the schools in the district.

The status quo simply isn't good enough. To send a lifeline to York children, major change is needed. Choice and competition, along with accountability measures via a performance contract, would better serve students and families.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 11:30 AM | Comments

Unions Leaders Put Politics Before Health Care

OCTOBER 7, 2014

The recent decision by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) to cancel the school district's contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—and require teachers to pay up to 13 percent of their health care premium—has been met with stunning hyperbole from both state and national union leaders.

According to the SRC, this will save $54 million this school year alone—money that can go back into the schools—and upwards of $70 million each year thereafter. Yet PFT President Jerry Jordan compared the SRC action to treating teachers like "indentured servants."

With an average teacher salary of nearly $71,000, though, it would be hard to mistake a Philadelphia teacher for a forced laborer—especially when the average household income is $37,000 in the city. Indeed, average Philly teacher salaries are higher than their counterparts in Chester ($63,600) and Delaware ($68,600) counties, and are not far behind those in Montgomery ($76,600) and Bucks ($80,900).

Keep in mind that the only change the SRC is making is asking teachers to pay part of their health care costs. The decision to impose modest premium sharing comes after years of deadlocked negotiations with the PFT leaders, who refused to budge one inch when it comes to health care payments.

Philadelphia teachers currently do not pay for their health benefits, and even under the new plan would pay far less than the average working Pennsylvanian, who pays 20 percent for individual or 23 percent for family coverage.

Is the PFT really concerned with protecting teachers, or maintaining its slush fund (the PFT "Health and Welfare Fund") which currently administers the health care plans?

Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the Washington, DC-based mother-ship of the PFT— had an equally alarmist response to the SRC, calling their decision "the most egregiously political action I’ve seen in a school district."

Weingarten would know. Given her union's heavy involvement in Pennsylvania politics, she is an experienced political activist.

Both the AFT and PFT have taken full advantage of their unique political privileges to spend massive sums of money canvassing and cheerleading for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. In early September, the PFT spent $70,000 for one minute of television advertising attacking Gov. Tom Corbett during an Eagles football game.

Surely $70,000 per minute could go a long way toward health care premiums—if the PFT were more interested in promoting the interests of its members than using forced dues to influence elections.

Furthermore, the AFT gave $500,000—directly from union dues—to the PA Families First 'Super PAC,' which has been on the air further promoting the lie that Gov. Corbett cut state education funding. All told, AFT is poised to spend more in 2014 than in any other election cycle.

Years of mismanagement, lagging academic performance, and declining enrollment have left Philadelphia in the unenviable position of making difficult choices to keep its schools financially viable. Union leaders are pretending to defend teachers with their rhetoric, but their actions demonstrate how they are exploiting teachers for political gain.

High-performing educators—and the children they teach—deserve better from union leadership. Given the PFT's refusal to negotiate in good faith for nearly two years, the SRC's action is a reasonable, necessary step for the School District of Philadelphia—despite the loaded rhetoric from hyper-political union bosses.

posted by MATTHEW BROUILLETTE | 02:19 PM | Comments

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