Academic Achievement

Education Savings Accounts Across the Country

The movement to provide children with better education is building momentum in 2017 as education savings accounts (ESA) advance in nearly a dozen states. Legislation has been filed in Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Texas to empower families by providing them with access to this groundbreaking school choice policy.  

ESAs take various forms, yet share the same solid principle – parents should have more freedom to choose the best education for their children.

ESA programs operate by placing most or all of the state’s per-pupil cost into a fund or on a debit card. Parents can use these ESA dollars on the school they choose (private, home, cyber, etc.), educational materials, tutoring, and transportation. Any remaining ESA funds are carried over to the next school year, incentivizing responsible use. These programs, often specifically designed for students with special needs, can prove life-changing and enjoy significant support among Americans.

In 2011, Arizona became the first state with an ESA program when it started its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Students can receive up to 90% of their state education funds, but eligibility has remained restricted and primarily serves students with special needs, those from military families, and those attending the worst-performing schools. However, this year Arizona’s state legislature has introduced a bill that would make eligibility universal, creating new opportunities for every student.

In Arkansas, called “school choice country” by lieutenant governor Tim Griffin, lawmakers are considering a bill which would create an ESA program funded entirely by tax-exempt private donations. Though governor Asa Hutchinson has not yet signaled support for the pro-student legislation, reports show that it would be an affordable way to provide school choice to thousands of Arkansas students.

Finally, Iowa’s new legislative majority and governor are optimistic about achieving greater educational opportunity and freedom, including through ESAs, which are strongly supported by pro-school choice Iowans. New ESA legislation is in the works to benefit Iowa students, including those from low-income families.

Across America, the movement for better education continues to gain ground, build support, and improve lives. Pennsylvania has long been a leader in providing school choice options to families, but initiatives across the country should inspire the commonwealth to do more to provide ESAs to students in need.

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posted by Kris Malysz, James Paul | 01:00 PM

Will Lower Standards Help School Performance?

Pennsylvania’s primary tool for grading schools—the School Performance Profile (SPP)—is being overhauled. The current SPP is not particularly straightforward, but it’s based mainly on test scores and academic growth. At the direction of Gov. Tom Wolf, the revised SPP will become more complicated, less reliant on tests, and more reliant on “holistic” measures of school success.

According to the Department of Education, here’s what we can expect from a more holistic SPP:

  • Increasing the weighting of value-added measures
  • Measuring English language acquisition among non-native speakers, not simply performance on a test of grade level standards
  • Incentivizing career awareness instruction beginning at the elementary level
  • Increasing the weighting of rigorous course offerings such as AP, IB, and “dual enrollment”
  • Allowing districts to include locally-selected reading assessments and math as additional snapshots of student progress
  • Awarding extra credit to schools graduating students with at least one industry recognized credential

It’s too early to know exactly how this will change the SPP’s 0-100 scale used to compare performance in buildings across the state. While some of these items may be worthwhile, the overall trend is to de-emphasize test scores, lower standards, and award credit for course offerings and credentials (to say nothing of their impact on achievement).

Wolf’s administration is following through on an earlier promise to weaken the SPP. While this may result in higher scores for Pennsylvania schools, it will do little to boost performance in the classroom.

Standardized testing is a contentious topic among parents and educators. Are tests useful? Which test should we use? How often should we test? These questions are fair game for debate and deserve thoughtful consideration. But it’s hard to imagine eliminating testing as the solution to Pennsylvania’s educational problems.

Tests provide a valuable benchmark to measure student proficiency. They provide parents with important information, and they underscore gaps in achievement between different groups of children. [Of course, to the maximum extent possible: the form, frequency, and style of testing should be determined by schools and localities—not Harrisburg or Washington.]

A better approach than Wolf’s would move Pennsylvania to an A-F school grading system. This would be easier to understand than a convoluted SPP. Already employed by over a dozen states, A-F ratings would deliver transparency and accountability—inspiring all public schools in the commonwealth to make the grade.  

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posted by James Paul | 03:01 PM

2015 SAT Scores

The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is an important indicator of public education quality in Pennsylvania. Currently, the commonwealth ranks 36th out of the 50 states and 3 US territories (Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands). That's one place higher than last year.

A large percentage of Pennsylvania students take the SAT, which does contribute to low overall performance. Average SAT scores are higher in states with lower test participation, typically because only the highest performing students sit for the test. Among states with a participation rate of at least 70 percent, Pennsylvania ranks 6th.

Historical data shows SAT scores are largely unchanged since 1970. Meanwhile, state education spending per student has increased 63 percent. This long-term trend undermines constant calls for more education spending to improve public schools.

To increase student achievement, we must change focus from more spending to reforms that change how tax dollars are spent. One such reform is the creation of education savings accounts, which will give parents stronger control over how, and where, their son or daughter will best succeed.

Below is a table of all states scores and participation rates. Details on Pennsylvania’s statewide performance report can be found here.

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posted by Hunter Ahrens, Elizabeth Stelle | 11:45 AM

Wolf Admin. Thanks Excellent Teachers, But Won’t Protect Them

The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently released a video featuring Secretary Pedro Rivera congratulating students for completing a school year. He praises children for “show[ing] up each and every morning ready to learn,” and encourages them to “above all, have fun with learning.”

Most interesting, however, is Rivera’s remark 50 seconds into the clip. Speaking directly to public school teachers, Rivera says, “Studies have shown that effective teachers have the greatest impact on the success of students…know that the governor and the Department of Education appreciate your efforts.”

While it is true effective teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement, this is a galling statement from an administration that recently vetoed HB 805, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. This legislation would have retained teachers based on performance, rather than simple seniority, in the unfortunate event of school district furloughs. The bill passed both chambers of the state Legislature, only to be promptly rejected by Gov. Wolf, who sacrificed high-performing teachers in return for union approval.

It’s nice the Wolf administration took time to acknowledge Pennsylvania’s excellent teachers. But it would have been more meaningful to protect their jobs and ensure a high-performing teacher in every classroom.

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posted by James Paul | 05:04 PM

Senate Protects Excellent Teachers, Sends Bill to Wolf

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.

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posted by James Paul | 01:56 PM

Tom Wolf vs. Barack Obama on Charters

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.   

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posted by James Paul | 01:49 PM

Changing Lives with Education Savings Accounts

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.

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posted by James Paul | 07:52 AM

No, We're Not Underfunding Public Schools

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.

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posted by James Paul | 01:37 PM

State Supremes Strike Down Charter Caps

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.

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posted by James Paul | 02:03 PM

Do Record-High Graduation Rates Matter?

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.

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posted by James Paul, Marc Pugliese | 11:58 AM

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