CF’s work in education focuses on promoting opportunity and improving children’s lives though incentive-based reforms.  Instead of repeating the failed attempts to reform education through new rules or additional funding, such reforms use competition to improve education.   Incentive-based reforms include providing choice within the public school system through charter schools and cyber schools, providing families with private school options through vouchers or tax credit-funded scholarships, and measuring and rewarding success in education for both schools and teachers.   Only when parents have are able to choose the best school for their child, have an abundance of educational choices and ample information, and schools are forced to compete for students will we provide the best education to Pennsylvania’s youth.

Union Abuses Force Pennsylvania Teachers to Speak Out

September 19, 2013 | Commentary by Bob Dick

Did you know teachers’ unions can force many teachers in Pennsylvania to pay dues or a “fair share fee” that’s taken directly out of teachers’ paychecks? What’s more, this withholding of fair share fees, union dues, and even union political contributions is done at taxpayers’ expense, and the teachers have no choice.

The $1 Billion Lie Exposed

MARCH 4, 2014

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) took out full-page, color ads in several major state newspapers last week proclaiming Gov. Corbett "closed neighborhood schools" and laid off teachers in Philadelphia through massive education funding cuts. In the western part of the state the ad warns, "Don’t let Allegheny County be the next Philadelphia."

These ads were grossly misleading. State funding for public schools is at an all-time high. The $1 billion in "cuts" was the expiration of temporary federal stimulus money. 

So we ran our own ad today correcting the record.

AFT claims Gov. Corbett and state lawmakers "cut $1 billion" in education spending in the state budget. But the real facts about education spending are something else entirely.

The 2013-14 budget spends nearly $10 billion and the proposed 2014-15 budget calls for $10.1 billion for PreK-12 schools—an all-time high, even exceeding when the state budget included federal stimulus funds. As you can see in the chart below, the AFT's claims are simply untrue.

$1 billion cut ed graph

But the worst part of the AFT's misleading campaign is how it was funded—by teachers' dues collected using taxpayer resources. It’s time unions are held accountable for dishonest political ads they run at the expense of educators and taxpayers across the state.

We should stop this practice which gives government unions an unfair political privilege to engage in politics.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 09:00 AM | Comments

The Berlin Wall of Philadelphia's Public Schools

FEBRUARY 27, 2014

Students in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had their hopes dashed last week when they lost out on the chance to land one of the few vacant openings in charter schools.

In Pittsburgh, more than 500 applied for openings at Environmental Charter School, but only 28 spots were available. The school, as required by law, held a lottery to determine the lucky winners and the unfortunate families who would be denied the opportunity this year.

The same story—even magnified—took place on the other side of the state. Philadelphia's Math and Science Technology charter schools (MaST) received an incredible 5,000 applications for 98 slots. The school earned a 90 on the new School Performance Profile, which Newsworks reports as the highest score for a non-magnet school in Philadelphia.

As Anastasia heard her daughter's name– Nicole Ratkova– called over the speakers, her heart pounded and tears welled in her eyes.

Nicole had been selected for the top spot on the 9th-grade waiting list – an outcome tied in part to the fact that her younger brother attends kindergarten at the school. Siblings of MaST students get a boost in the lottery.

Waiting list was the best news for which the pair could hope. The only new students MaST admitted in the lottery were those applying for kindergarten. For the 4,219 students hoping to get into grades 1-12, the ride on the wait-list was predetermined. The parents were there to jockey only for order.

According to the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, 44,000 students currently are on waiting lists to get into charter schools. Why are so many students dependent on a lottery to determine their fate?

Currently, charter schools must apply to a local school district to get approval. As many school districts view charters as unwanted competition, this can be a difficult process. Indeed, it is akin to requiring McDonald's to approve any new Wendy's in the same area.

In Philadelphia, the situation has gotten worse. The School District of Philadelphia is demanding that all charter schools agree to caps on enrollment. Effectively, they are trying to set up a wall to keep students trapped in schools they want to leave.

These caps are illegal in every other district, but Philadelphia's School Reform Commission has broad exemptions from the law. Unfortunately, by limiting charter schools, they are simply limiting the opportunities available for student and denying families the choices they are demanding.

Pending legislation would help alleviate this logjam, giving universities the ability to authorize new charter schools. At least 16 states allow multiple authorizers, including 13 states that empower universities to approve charter schools' application.

Pennsylvania should follow their lead and open up new avenues for school choice, rather than continue to write sad stories of doors being closed on bright futures because of how a ping pong ball bounces.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 03:35 PM | Comments

Myth: PA Spends Less on Education

FEBRUARY 25, 2014

There are many myths circulating about how much Pennsylvania spends on public education. One such myth is that the state government used to provide 50 percent of all revenue for public schools, equaling the local share. State records indicate otherwise. 

The state's share of education funding has never been as high as 50 percent. Records from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show that the state's percentage of education revenue reached an all-time high of 45 percent in 1974-75.

While the state share declined from 45 percent to 36 percent of total school district revenue, this was not due to a reduction in state subsidies for education. State aid—adjusted for inflation—increased by 41 percent since 1974. The state share only declined because local tax revenue—also adjusted for inflation—increased 98 percent over that frame.

Pennsylvania Education Revenue by Source

Moreover, claims about the percentage of education revenue coming from the state is often used to advocate for more state spending.

However, according to NCES data, Pennsylvania’s state aid per student is about the national average, and we rank middle-of-the-pack in state revenue per student. The "state share" is lower because Pennsylvania’s local education revenue is nearly $3,000 per student more than the national average, ranking Pennsylvania 7th in the nation.

Indeed, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend significantly more per student—about $3,000 above the U.S. average—and more than most other states.

Per Pupil Revenue Total Federal State Local
United States  $12,217 $1,527 $5,394 $5,296
Pennsylvania  $15,153 $1,851 $5,230 $8,073
PA Rank 10 11 27 7
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 235.20. Revenues for public elementary and secondary schools, by source of funds and state or jurisdiction: 2010-11, 

Here are some more facts about Pennsylvania education spending.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 04:13 PM | Comments

7 Little-Known Facts on Pennsylvania Public School Spending

FEBRUARY 11, 2014

For years, teachers unions in Pennsylvania have claimed the governor cut $1 billion from schools. But the real story is more complicated. A huge influx of federal stimulus funding expired, a loss school districts and others were aware would happen. At the same time, state funding for public education has increased. See the real facts on school spending below.

1) State spending on public education is at the highest level ever.

Last year, the state legislature approved nearly $10 billion in state funding for PreK-12 public education, an all-time high. In addition, total funding (which includes local funds from property taxes, state and federal funding) continues to exceed $14,000 per student.

2) The “cuts” in the 2011-12 budget for education came entirely from temporary federal stimulus funds that expired.

The money came from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included both direct funding to school districts and money to preserve jobs. When the federal funds expired, Gov Corbett and state lawmakers increased public education funding from state funds to replace some of that amount. Gov. Ed Rendell, in contrast, did the opposite, using federal dollars to increase funding for schools while cutting the funding from state tax dollars.

3) Teachers’ unions and others are using selective numbers to show a cut in school funding.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) cites only the parts of state aid to public schools that have gone down—not the line items that have increased.

For example, when the PSEA says “Basic Education” funding has gone down, it’s counting the little over half of regular education funding that is distributed via a formula to school districts. But the figure excludes items such as special education, early childhood education and nutrition programs.

4) That also means the PSEA isn’t counting pension payments for teachers in education funding.

The PSEA claims pension funding doesn’t go to the classroom, even though it benefits teachers, classroom aides and other school employees who make public education work.  The pension line item in the state budget—the state pays districts a bit more than one-half of the required contribution for school employees’ retirements—is among the fastest growing items in the budget and a big reason why state aid has increased.  Not counting that increase implies that funding teachers’ pensions doesn’t benefit students.

5) Stimulus funds began affecting education funding a year earlier than the PSEA and some lawmakers claim.

The PSEA and some lawmakers designate Fiscal Year 2008-09 as the “pre-stimulus” starting point, to show how previous levels of education funding were higher than they are today. But federal stimulus funds were part of state spending in that year, even if they weren’t earmarked for education.

While the extra money mostly went towards welfare programs, it allowed Gov. Ed Rendell to cut Medicaid spending from state tax dollars and use those funds to public education instead. He was thus able to increase education spending despite a budget deficit—and it looked like education funding had increased without temporary federal help.

6) School districts have been able to increase their reserve funds, despite claims of major shortfalls.

Yes, that’s right: Across Pennsylvania, public schools managed to grow their “fund balances”—funds to support future spending and rainy day savings—by $300 million last year. The latest figures available show public schools have accumulated $3.5 billion in total reserves. In fact, these reserves have been growing for about a decade, jumping 25 percent in just the last two years.

7) Everyone knew the stimulus funds were temporary.

The question is whether school districts should have budgeted for the lapse, or whether Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers should have dramatically increased taxes on Pennsylvanians to replace the stimulus.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania already has the 10th-highest local and state tax burden in the country. And with rising pension payments for teachers and other government workers coming due, and the state already facing a more than $1 billion shortfall in 2014-15, we’re already in a severe financial crunch.


posted by PRIYA ABRAHAM | 01:29 PM | Comments

Pennsylvania Still Not Making the Grade

FEBRUARY 3, 2014

The bipartisan education reform group, StudentsFirst, released its annual State Policy Report Card grading each state's education policies and demonstrating the need for more student-centered reforms.

How did Pennsylvania fare? Well, we got a D+.

However, other states didn't fare much better as “D+” was the national average. StudentsFirst assessed each state’s education policies on three criteria: elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents, and whether or not a state spends wisely and governs well. Pennsylvania did not score above a “C” in any of these categories.

Why did Pennsylvania score so low, and how can it improve?

Elevate the Teaching Profession (C-): Pennsylvania made progress in this pillar by instituting a new teacher evaluation system, called the Teacher Effectiveness System. The profile is designed to effectively identify teachers who are excelling, while providing support to those teachers who need improvement. To improve, StudentsFirst suggests ending the practice of making employment decisions based only on seniority, which harms both teachers and students.

Empower Parents (D-): Pennsylvania has not done enough to empower parents to make informed educational choices for their children. The state should implement an A-F grading system, building on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, to provide parents with an easy-to-understand way to assess each school, and hold schools more accountable. Supporting the growth of high-performing public charter schools would also go a long way in empowering parents.

If policymakers are looking for the most effective way to empower parents, they should consider expanding educational tax credits and scholarships, which would rescue children from violent and failing schools. Not only would an expansion empower parents, but it would save taxpayers money and improve educational outcomes.

Spend Wisely and Govern Well (C): While Pennsylvania spends more than $14,000 per student, we have not seen the kind of positive results expected from such a large investment. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), more than half of 4th and 8th grade students are not proficient in reading and math. In order to make more effective use of taxpayer resources, StudentsFirst suggests linking spending to student outcomes, creating a statewide recovery district for low-performing schools and providing teachers with a portable retirement plan.

Despite the nation's "D+" grade, progress is being made, as StudentFirst notes:

The second takeaway is that change is still happening much too slowly. Instead of passing a comprehensive set of education policies, far too many states are taking a piecemeal approach. Other states appear to employ an on-again, off-again approach to education, focusing heavily on education reform one year, then taking a pass on putting any complementary policies into place the next year.

Any progress is welcome, but states need to pick up the pace on reform. The longer reform is put off, the more children will suffer from sub-par education in failing schools. Their future depends on education reform.

posted by BOB DICK | 00:45 PM | Comments

Win for Transparency in Public School Spending

JANUARY 22, 2014

Government Transparency

How would you like to know what's in a teachers' contract before your school district passes it—and locks in spending—for four years? And how would you like to track how all public schools spend money once they receive it?

Thanks to two new bills that passed the Pennsylvania State House last week, state taxpayers may soon be able to do both.

HB 1741, sponsored by Rep. Fred Keller (R-Snyder, Union), requires school districts to post a new contract 48 hours before a school board votes on it, and publicize it in a local newspaper. The contract has to remain public for 30 days after the voting meeting.

HB 1411 creates SchoolWATCH, an online database of the Pennsylvania Department of Education to record all flows of revenue and spending to school districts, vo-techs, charter and cyber charter schools. This includes grants, loans, debt servicing and construction, though it does not includes individual employee salaries (except for administrators) in the initially phase. The database will also post all current union contracts.

SchoolWATCH, sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver) requires all school districts to post their budgets within a year of the bill's passage.

The bills are a win for taxpayers, who have seen both public education spending and property taxes climb steadily in the last 15 years. Better transparency will also ultimately help Pennsylvania students, who deserve schools that prioritize learning.

posted by PRIYA ABRAHAM | 04:00 PM | Comments

Philly Experiment Shows Charter School Promise

JANUARY 17, 2014

School Choice 101

Philadelphia schools have long battled declining student achievement, sky-rocketing violence, and unsustainable spending levels. Yet, several turn-around schools have managed to overcome this bleak educational trajectory and should serve as a model for further reforms.

Pennsylvania Independent’s Maura Pennington examines the striking consequences of Philadelphia School District’s 2010 experiment in reforming its lowest performing schools. The district employed two models: district-managed Promise Academies and privately-operated Renaissance Charter Schools.

The outcome? In short, things worsened for district-run schools, but the Renaissance Charter alternatives are showing improvement.

The latest report shows that the district’s Promise Academies lacked proper oversight and clarity as they sought to hire new staff and enforce a uniform dress code. One major hurdle they could not overcome was seniority requirements, which led to major staffing problems. And the district’s fiscal mismanagement led to funding decreases that severed the cornerstone of the reform—greater student instruction time.

At this point, three district-run Promise Academy high schools have closed, and in those that remain, academic performance sits below the district average. 

Renaissance Charter Schools—free from seniority requirements and other bureaucratic restrictions—managed to surmount the same obstacles and forge a path to success. When implementing new policies and procedures, they were governed by specific missions and goals and, consequently, achieved, according to one Renaissance Charter parent, “more order, organization, safer learning environment and a mutually agreed upon commitment from the staff at all levels.”

The benefits are tangible:

  • Decreased violence. At Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, serious safety incidents plummeted from 23.86 per 100 students in 2008-09 to .61 in 2010.
  • Increased academic achievement: Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School gained 10 percentage points in reading and math proficiency one year after the change.

With such stark results and parental support, Philadelphia should look to the charter model of reform to take its failing schools to the next level.   

posted by JESSICA BARNETT, JOHN BOUDER | 11:30 AM | Comments

PODCAST: StudentsFirst on Education Reform

JANUARY 8, 2014

Part two of our conversation with Ashley DeMauro, PA state director for StudentsFirst, features an in-depth discussion of seniority reform, teacher evaluations, school transparency, and charter school reform.  Here are some highlights:

How can we measure teacher effectiveness to ensure education quality?

Because of recent reforms pushed for by StudentsFirst and others, Pennsylvania now has a robust, 4-tier rating system for educator performance.

So, once they're identified, how do we reward and protect the best public school teachers in the state?

Doing away with the "last in, first out" seniority-based hiring and firing is an obvious step one.

How can we make school spending and contracting more transparent to protect taxpayers?

A proposed transparency website called SchoolWATCH promises to do just that.

What’s on the General Assembly’s plate regarding long-overdue charter school reform?

SB 1085, while unnecessarily punitive to cyber schools, promises to expand charter authorization while enhancing accountability measures.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Find out more about StudentsFirst in PA and follow them on Twitter @PAStudentsFirst.

In case you missed it, listen to our first conversation with Ashley DeMauro on Pennsylvania's new student performance profiles.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 02:55 PM | Comments

Philly Schools Spending Crisis Set to Grow

JANUARY 7, 2014

$3.1 billion is a lot to spend for violent and failing schools. A Pennsylvania Independent report by Maura Pennington examines the School District of Philadelphia’s new budget and highlights some major factors contributing to its long-standing spending crisis.

One of the primary obstacles to fiscal solvency is legacy personnel costs. The average high school teacher makes a healthy $100,000 in salary and benefits, but the district’s looming pension liability is what promises to cripple its finances. Retiree pension costs are set to jump from $73 million this year to nearly $350 million in the next six years.

According to Pennington, "On a per-pupil basis, that works out to $900 per pupil in the district for 2011, growing to $2,300 per pupil by 2020."

But rising costs don’t stop there. At $264 million per year, debt service accounts for more than transportation, utilities, and food costs combined. In fact, the district has borrowed so much that the city itself had to come to the rescue this October with $50 million in emergency funding.

Ultimately, the district has a more than $300 million budget gap—a gap that will no doubt grow next year. Substantive reforms, including concessions by teachers' unions, have been proposed, but union leaders are having none of it.

What’s worse than flagrant fiscal mismanagement and academic underachievement? District schools are so dangerous that $30 million will be spent on school police officers this school year alone. Why? 2,300 assaults and 15 rapes in 2011-2012 make Philadelphia schools the most violent in the state—even with police protection.

Read the full story here.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 01:45 PM | Comments

VIDEO: Charter Schools Threatened by Punitive Rules

JANUARY 2, 2014

With a waiting list 30,000 students long, you'd think Philadelphia would be working to expand the reach of charter schools. Sadly, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission is seeking just the opposite, despite the city's dismal academic achievement scores.

As reported by Maura Pennington of the Pennsylvania Independent, the School Reform Comission recently issued an ultimatum to several area charter schools. A bevy of new rules and regulations, called SRC-1, were to be signed by December 15, but many charters have refused to comply.

These new rules would restrict charter growth via enrollment caps—even for high-performing charters—and enable the School District of Philadelphia to withhold their funding, according to Sarah Leitner at MediaTrackers PA.

What's behind this power grab by the education establishment and how can charters fight to maintain choice for urban students?

We talked to Maura Pennington and Sarah Leitner in our latest Google Hangout:

Stay up to date on social media:

Twitter: @PAIndependent & @MediaTrackersPA
Facebook: PA Independent & MediaTrackers PA

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 09:00 AM | Comments

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