Education

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 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.



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

Making the Most of New Funding Formula

APRIL 27, 2016

A recent report from ABC 27 asks: “Will lawmakers stick with new education funding formula next year?” At issue is whether Pennsylvania’s student-based formula will be retained in future state budgets. The ABC story raises an important concern—but it slightly misses the mark.

Here’s the question we should be asking: Will lawmakers stick with the new formula and ensure the formula is applied to all funding above 2014-15 levels?

The 2015-16 budget includes $150 million in new Basic Education spending. This funding will be dispersed to school districts based on a formula that accounts for enrollment—which is undeniably a positive step forward.  

But the formula only applies to 3 percent of Basic Education funding, the largest line item in the education budget. The other 97 percent is restricted by Pennsylvania’s “hold harmless” provision, which guarantees each district receive no fewer education dollars than it received the previous year—regardless of changes in enrollment

It is crucial that lawmakers do not apply hold harmless to the $150 million appropriated in 2015-16. Should the legislature increase Basic Education funding in 2016-17, the new formula should apply to all funding above 2014-15 levels, not merely the increase appropriated in 2016-17. 

Thanks to hold harmless, districts with declining enrollment received more than three times the state funding per student than growing districts since 1996. Until the student-based formula is applied to a larger portion of the Basic Education line item, hundreds of school districts will continue to be treated unfairly.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 08:18 AM | Comments

Budget Complete as Fiscal Code Becomes Law

APRIL 25, 2016

Late on Friday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf quietly announced the fiscal code will become law without his signature. This significant development closes the door on a tumultuous year of state budget politics—and represents an important victory for public and private school children.  

Just last month Wolf opted to veto the fiscal code, which included a fair funding formula for education spending, language authorizing businesses to receive tax credits for their donations to private school scholarship organizations, and state funding reimbursing school districts for construction and renovation costs.

Lawmakers responded to the governor's veto by passing a stripped-down version of the fiscal code—this time with strong bipartisan support and veto-proof majorities. Apparently Wolf saw the writing on the wall and decided to refrain from yet another veto.

Thanks to passage of the fiscal code, education spending above 2014-15 levels will be distributed through a rational formula that accounts for student enrollment. This formula includes recommendations presented by CF in testimony to the Basic Education Funding Commission.

Ideally, the formula would apply to the entire Basic Education line item—not only the new education spending—but the fiscal code remains a step in the right direction. Certainly, the formula is an improvement over Wolf’s preferred funding scheme which funneled millions to Philadelphia, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg at the expense of 423 other districts.

Further, the finalized fiscal code allows businesses that made donations to the state’s popular scholarship tax credit programs to utilize their tax credits in either 2015 or 2016. Recall that last year the Wolf administration put a freeze on the scholarship programs—claiming student hostages and causing confusion for participating businesses. The technical amendment in the code will reduce administrative headaches for businesses and allow more students to receive scholarships.  

A no-tax increase state budget, combined with a fiscal code that protects students, is a crucial victory for families and businesses in the commonwealth.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:49 AM | 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

Give Children the Best: Education Savings Accounts

APRIL 14, 2016

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) empower parents to design the best educational experience for their children.

How do they work? Funding otherwise earmarked for K-12 education is deposited into an account controlled by parents and supervised by the state. These funds may be spent on a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online programs, transportation, textbooks, standardized test fees, and therapy for students with disabilities.

ESAs are changing lives for students in need. Consider the story of 4-year-old Elias from Arizona, the first of five states to enact this innovative program.  

When Elias turned 4 months old, his mom, Holland, knew something was wrong. Holland explained he needed to be held constantly, and while most babies do not sleep through the night, Elias’s discomfort was troubling.

After months of research and doctor visits, Holland discovered that Elias had symptoms on the autism spectrum. He would need 20-40 hours per week of individual therapies to help him function each day.

When he was old enough to attend school in Arizona, Holland said that Elias’s educational needs were diverse. Along with autism, he had hyperlexia, a precocious reading ability.

In 2011, Holland and Elias applied for an education savings account. Arizona was the first state to adopt the accounts, and the state deposits public funds in a bank account that Holland used to pay for Elias’s education needs. The accounts allowed Holland to pay for education therapies, school textbooks, and private school tuition.

The accounts’ flexibility has helped Holland find a host of quality services for Elias. Holland said that Elias had an adapted schedule that allowed him to attend school half-time to work on academics, social interaction, and classroom etiquette. The other half of his school week was spent attending speech, occupational, physical, and music therapies that his doctor prescribed.

Unlike vouchers or tax credit scholarships, which can be used only for private school tuition, ESA funds can be spent on multiple educational services. With an ESA, parents are no longer limited by the selection of nearby brick-and-mortar schools. Instead, parents have the freedom to customize the best learning environment for their child.

School choice is popular in the commonwealth, with upwards of 120,000 charter students and 45,000 tax credit scholarship recipients. But demand exceeds supply for affordable, high-quality educational options. Thousands of Pennsylvania students are stranded on waitlists for charter schools. Tax credit scholarships are limited by the caps on business donations. ESAs are the next step Pennsylvania students and families deserve.

Read more about ESAs in CF’s most recent policy brief.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 07:44 PM | Comments

Wolf's Cockamamie Concoction

APRIL 6, 2016

Matt Brouillette pointed out in his latest commentary that Gov. Wolf  is taking a "lone-wolf" approach to governing. The latest example is his unilateral action to distribute school funding according to his own whims.

As James Paul noted, Wolf created his own scheme for doling out school funds, ignoring the bipartisan basic education funding commission's recommendations from December.

To stop Wolf from acting alone, the legislature included language in its latest budget that prohibits the distribution of new funds until a new funding formula is adopted.

That budget—which Gov. Wolf let become law without his signature—says the increase in funding “may not be expended until enabling legislation to distribute funding for payment of basic education funding for the 2015-2016 fiscal year is enacted.”

Wolf is completely ignoring the law, and the legislature, to do his own thing.

Sen. Jake Corman put it best, in talking to Capitolwire (paywall):

"The General Appropriations bill was very clear that he could not drive out the new money without a formula, and he vetoed that formula," Corman said. "For him to come up with some cockamamie concoction that the money he blue-lined in December was the old money and he kept the new money - that doesn't stand on the face of it."

Wolf's “cockamamie concoction” rewards just a handful of school districts. Four districts—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg—get 50 percent of the new funding. 

A whopping 428 school districts—or 85 percent of all school districts—get less funding under Wolf’s concoction than under the bipartisan funding formula. 

This formula looks at students to offer a "weighted student funding" model, rather than letting politics and past enrollment dictate current funding decisions. 

For the full impact of Wolf's education funding concoction, check out our sortable, searchable database comparing school districts' funding increases under Wolf's plan and under the bipartisan funding formula. 

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 04:34 PM | Comments

The Final Piece of Budget Business in Limbo

MARCH 24, 2016

After nine months of gridlock, Gov. Tom Wolf finally surrendered his 2015 quest for higher taxes on families and small businesses. On Monday morning, Pennsylvania will enjoy a completed state budget. Finally.

But the governor isn't putting down his veto pen.

Lost in yesterday’s headlines was Wolf's promise to veto the fiscal code, HB 1327, which provides instructions for spending state funds. In January, CF identified dozens of earmarks tucked away in the fiscal code, but the legislation was, on balance, a winner for jobs and students alike.

Lawmakers used the fiscal code to implement a fair education funding formula, protect private school scholarships, and authorize reimbursement for school construction costs. The fiscal code also pushed back against President Obama's energy tax on coal and expansive regulations on natural gas.

Chris Comisac at Capitolwire (paywall) explains Wolf's opposition:

The Fiscal Code bill also contained a new funding formula that would have been used to drive out the $150 million in added basic education funding and a $2.5 billion school construction borrowing plan. That borrowing plan would have delivered construction reimbursements, through the state’s PlanCon program, to school districts throughout the state that have been on a waiting list to receive that money.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the PlanCon borrowing also prompted Wolf’s veto, with Sheridan describing the plan being “prohibitively costly to issue due to inflated debt costs resulting from the lack of any concrete steps in the current budget to address the structural deficit.”

Sheridan’s response is strange, considering Wolf agreed to PlanCon borrowing as part of last year’s budget framework. In November, the administration was on-board with the school construction plan—and now, in March, they argue it will be “prohibitively costly.”

Setting aside the administration’s shoddy logic, districts awaiting PlanCon dollars will be on hold until a fiscal code is approved—yet another instance of Wolf refusing to release education funding.

In addition to construction costs, Wolf’s impending veto has implications for how much state funding each school district will receive. Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks has the details:

Because the fiscal code acts as a roadmap for how education money is divided, Republicans say that if Wolf follows through on that veto, he will effectively keep new spending in limbo.

"You can't spend that $150 million without a fiscal code," said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

The Wolf administration disputes that, saying that it will unilaterally distribute funding "in the most appropriate manner possible."

Wolf certainly has experience unilaterally doling out education dollars—this is exactly what he did in January when he approved a partial-year state budget. At the time, Wolf thumbed his nose at a fair funding formula, instead funneling money disproportionately to school districts in Philadelphia, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg.

This is precisely why a fiscal code is crucial—it restrains the governor from political gamesmanship and ensures fairness for all students in the commonwealth.

 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:59 PM | Comments

Wolf’s "Plague" on Public Education

MARCH 11, 2016

Schools across Pennsylvania are feeling the squeeze from Gov. Tom Wolf’s $3 billion education funding cut. In Red Lion, Carbondale, Plum, and Erie—to name just a few—districts are struggling to remain open.

The governor claims he’s fighting to restore funding lawmakers “cut” and blames the legislature for supposedly underfunding education.

But last week, the administration’s education secretary, Pedro Rivera, dropped two bombshells that undercut the governor’s rhetoric.

First, Rivera confirmed Pennsylvania’s public schools are among the highest funded in the nation:

Second, Rivera conceded that the legislature has never voted to cut education spending:

Why, then, does Gov. Wolf continue withholding funds from cash-strapped schools? Wolf’s Budget Secretary Randy Albright admitted the real reason on Thursday. PennLive reports:

Wolf's $6.9 billion in December line-item vetoes—including more than $3 billion earmarked for schools—to close a budget hole estimated at $500 million to $600 million was ultimately about leverage.

Actually, we already knew that.

But rarely is it stated as openly or directly as this:

The vetoes were "to make the clear statement that it (the overall amount of funding earmarked for state aid to public schools in the GOP-crafted budget) is not enough," Albright said under questioning about the governor's strategy.

Apparently, funding Secretary Rivera says is among the highest in the nation is “not enough” for the governor. So, Wolf's strategy is to punish schools.

Not surprisingly, this approach has become increasingly unpopular.

From a recent editorial in The Intelligencer, emphasis added:

Locally, some districts — among them Central Bucks and Hatboro-Horsham — have so far been able to weather the storm. But Mark Miller, president-elect of the PSBA, says it’s only a matter of time before the stalemate in Harrisburg consumes every district. “No school district is immune,” Miller said. “This is a plague that the governor has released on public education, and it’s not necessary. We’re all going to catch the disease."

These are harsh words from an organization typically friendly to Wolf’s high-tax agenda. But Miller is right—Pennsylvania’s funding crisis is not an accident. It is an intentional element of the governor’s political strategy.

Each passing day without $3 billion in education funding is another day public schools are manipulated as leverage for higher taxes. Fortunately, Rep. James Santora introduced legislation (HB 1821) to appropriate the funding that Wolf has blocked. It is time to release those funds and cure the schools from Wolf’s plague on public education.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:40 PM | 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

Ghost Teacher Costs Allentown Millions

FEBRUARY 25, 2016

Allentown School District is no stranger to financial troubles. The third largest public school system in the commonwealth has been in financial distress for years. In 2011, the district laid off 112 teachers, in 2013, 100 teachers, and in 2014, 60 teachers lost their jobs. So it's understandable that former school board member Scott Armstrong and taxpayer Steven Ramos were upset to learn that the district paid more than $1.3 million since 2000 in salary and benefits to the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president, a teacher who doesn’t teach.

“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” said Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”

The current AEA president is Deb Tretter. When Tretter left the classroom in 2009, her salary jumped from $63,245 to $73,373. In addition to the pay pump, Tretter receives a taxpayer-funded salary, insurance, benefits, pension credits and accrues seniority as if she were still employed as a teacher.

The Morning Call reports:

"Now, Armstrong, along with fellow Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos, is taking his fight to court and asking a judge to end the long-held practice of releasing the union president from classroom duties.

Armstrong and Ramos . . . filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Commonwealth Court with the help of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm with offices in King of Prussia and Harrisburg.

They are requesting that the union reimburse the district — with interest — for salary, benefits and pension credits, which they say exceed $1.3 million since the practice began more than 25 years ago."

The lawsuit isn’t questioning the need for a full-time union president, but it is questioning why taxpayers should pay for another organization's employee.

A poll posted at Lehighvalleylive shows overwhelming support for the lawsuit’s argument that taxpayers should not be paying a union employee. Here are the poll results as of this morning: 

Allentown schools are struggling to meet basic needs like elementary music and art classes and updated textbooks. In this environment, it seems reprehensible that district leaders choose to spend tens of thousands each year on a ghost employee.

Watch a full report from WFMZ:

 

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 09:23 AM | Comments

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