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.



Understanding Your School District’s Labor Contract

AUGUST 17, 2016

CF reviewed labor contracts in each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and uncovered several interesting findings. These contracts, known as collective bargaining agreements, are negotiated behind closed doors between local teachers’ unions and school boards. They include routine information about salaries and benefits, but the contracts also outline maintenance of membership clauses, fair share fees, and ghost teacher arrangements.

Click here for a searchable database of labor contract provisions for each district.

Most notably:

  • Teachers in 62 percent of districts are trapped in their unions by maintenance of membership clauses, which stipulate teachers may only exit a union during a specific time period—often just days—near the expiration of a contract.
  • Nearly 4 in 5 school districts require non-union members to pay fair share fees to the union. These teachers are forced to pay more than 80 percent of traditional dues to the union, even though they have chosen not to be members.
  • More than 9 in 10 labor contracts include release time language, allowing school employees to attend union conventions, serve as union delegates, or conduct union business. Release time also establishes the basis for ghost teachers, whereby school employees accrue seniority, receive taxpayer-funded salary, and amass pension benefits, all while conducting full-time work for the union, a private organization. Read more about ghost teachers.

These provisions tilt the playing field toward teachers’ unions at the expense of students, teachers, and taxpayers alike.

Read our policy brief for an overview of surprising provisions in collective bargaining agreements, and check out this searchable database to learn about your school district’s labor contract.

posted by JAMES PAUL, JESSICA BARNETT | 09:00 AM | Comments

The Power of Educational Choice

AUGUST 16, 2016

The story of Malachi Kuhn is a moving example of how lives are changed by educational choice. Malachi’s education savings account (ESA) helped him to literally stand on his own.

Patrick Gibbons chronicles Malachi’s experience on RedefinED Online:

For nearly three years, starting before his third birthday, Malachi lived in an orphanage in Adama, in central Ethiopia. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes leg weakness and limits mobility, he had to crawl across the orphanage’s concrete floors.

The orphans shared clothes from a communal closet and he rarely wore shoes causing his feet to become covered with callouses. At night he slept in a crib in a shared room with five other orphans. They ate communal meals prepared by their caretakers over a wood-burning fireplace. With his doctor more than an hour away in Addis Ababa, the capital, he rarely had access to much-needed medical attention.

His caregivers did their best with what little resources they had, but Malachi was only surviving. It seemed impossible that he would one day stand on his own — much less walk, or go to school.

All of that changed last year, when Malachi arrived in Florida where he now lives with two adoptive parents, and, with the help of a revolutionary scholarship program, has begun pursuing an education.

After speaking to other parents with special needs children, Kamden and Mitchell Kuhn learned about Florida’s education savings account program, which helps parents customize a unique schooling experience for their child.

They applied for the Gardiner Scholarship and enrolled him in Ruskin Christian School. Kamden Kuhn said the nearby public school was good, but she didn’t want her son pulled out of class time for therapy. She wanted Malachi to have the same amount of class time as the other students. The Kuhns used funds left over after paying his tuition to purchase after-school physical, occupational and behavioral therapy.

His mother said the therapists provided instruction and therapy through play.

“I’m not the best educator for my son,” Kuhn said. “But this allows me to shop around for the best educators and best therapists. I can decide what is best, because I know him best.”

Malachi is thriving in an educational environment that is perfectly suited to his needs:

“He made so much progress in the first nine months,” Kuhn recalled. He quickly started to learn to speak English and to stand upright with the aid of a walker. Now stronger than ever, he uses a forearm cane to walk.

“Ms. Stacy helped me learn to walk, and Ms. Colleen helped me get in control,” Malachi said of his physical and occupational therapists. In a telephone interview, he said phonics is his favorite subject because he loves learning letters and how to put them together to make words.

Malachi’s story is inspiring. It also provides a call to action for Pennsylvania to move forward with ESA legislation. Every child in the commonwealth deserves educational opportunity, especially those with learning disabilities or special needs. Read more about ESAs here.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:15 PM | Comments

Making the Most of Education Dollars

AUGUST 11, 2016

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently uncovered $2.5 million improperly paid to nine public charter schools. At issue is whether buildings owned by charter schools are eligible for the state's lease reimbursement program. 

But in the scrutiny rightly given to these payments, are we missing an even bigger issue?

According to DePasquale:

The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s [PDE] own guidelines for the lease reimbursement are clear that buildings owned by the charter school are not eligible. The problem is that PDE makes no effort to verify ownership of the buildings or look for conflicts of interest between the school and related parties. They simply write a check for whatever amount the charter school submits. That is a disservice to Pennsylvania students and taxpayers.

Jan Murphy of PennLive adds:

Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said he believes this dispute comes down to a difference of interpretation of the state's lease reimbursement guidelines.

"The auditor general takes the position if the building is owned by a charter school then it's not reimbursable and PDE says ownership is irrelevant to reimbursement," he said. "I'm sure charters are working based on the recommendation from their legal counsel plus direction from PDE."

DePasquale acknowledged that charter schools were not at fault for applying for reimbursement but he said the education department was wrong in making those payments.

To correct the mistake, the Department of Education could claw-back improper payments. State lawmakers could also pass legislation clarifying the state’s reimbursement guidelines.

But DePasquale’s audit should raise a more important question: Is state government doing everything it can to maximize the value of each dollar spent on public education?

After all, this is not the first time the Auditor General has uncovered examples of wasteful education spending. In May, for example, DePasquale estimated districts could save nearly $55 million if they made use of competitive bidding for transportation services.

There are numerous other ways for districts to save money. CF has long championed prevailing wage reform (and other mandate relief), pension reform, and collective bargaining transparency to ensure taxpayer funds are directed to the classroom, where they belong.

These, too, must be top priorities for lawmakers and public officials who seek to maximize the value of each education dollar.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 09:31 AM | Comments

Education Choice Benefits All

AUGUST 3, 2016

Private school choice programs benefit students, public schools, and taxpayers, according to new report from EdChoice.

The report, the fourth edition of A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, summarizes the findings of 100 studies of education choice programs providing scholarships to students attending private schools. The analysis finds that school choice improves education outcomes for participants, improves outcomes in public schools, saves money, and reduces segregation.

  • Of the 18 “gold standard” studies (that is, random assignment) of participating students, 14 found school choice programs improved academic performance.
  • There were 33 studies of the impact of programs on public schools; 31 found that public schools improved as a result.
  • Of 28 studies on the fiscal impact of school choice programs, 25 found they save taxpayers—costs to both local districts and state government—because school choice programs educate students for significantly less per student.
  • Ten studies look at the impact of school choice on racial segregation, with 9 finding choice reduces segregation.
  • Finally, 8 out of 11 studies on civic values find that school choice programs improve civic values.

School choice truly is a win-win for students, parents, and taxpayers.

Pennsylvania should learn from this evidence and embrace school choice. The commonwealth’s two school choice programs—the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC)—have proven immensely popular with families and lawmakers alike. 

Thankfully, the legislature increased funding for the EITC this year. Yet even with this increase, the $125 million available for K-12 scholarships represents less than 0.4 percent of the funding for school districts.

Pennsylvania's students, parents, and taxpayers would all benefit from continuing to expand our school choice offerings. 

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 01:52 PM | Comments

Saving for a Rainy Day – But Whose Money?

JULY 25, 2016

Let’s talk for a moment about rainy days—specifically, the need to save funds to spend on one. Several school board administrators and lobbyists have taken issue with CF’s searchable, sortable database of school district fund balances, showing public schools are sitting on over $4 billion in "rainy day funds." Meanwhile, 85 percent of school districts plan to raise property taxes.

A Temple University report, authored by a former Pennsylvania School Boards Association employee, argues:

Just as an individual or family should maintain a savings account for unforeseen expenses or emergencies, school districts should also have funds in reserve to pay for emergency repairs or cover unexpected interruptions in revenues – such as a layoff at a major factory which suddenly affects tax collections.

If an individual or family could impose real estate taxes on their friends and neighbors, this analogy might pass muster. But an obvious difference exists between families socking away their own hard-earned money in a savings account and a school board severely over-taxing its district. The CF database shows 21 districts with over 50 percent (!) of their total expenditures squirreled away in reserve.

Every dollar held in excess by a school board is money earned by taxpayers that could otherwise be saved, invested, or spent by taxpayers. While some school districts stock up reserve funds, thousands of Pennsylvanians struggle to balance their family budgets.

Typically, the school board lobby defends excessive reserves by drawing an ironclad distinction between unassigned funds and assigned or committed funds. As CF explained in an earlier blog:

A district’s fund balance—what it owns minus it what it owes—is comprised of assigned, committed, and unassigned funds. Assigned and committed reserves are available funds designated for a specific purpose, while unassigned funds are available for any purpose.

School board directors argue the public should only scrutinize unassigned funds, since assigned and committed funds have already been earmarked. [For example, the Temple University report focuses solely on unassigned funds. Other funds are largely ignored.] They fail to mention, however, how easily money can be shifted among the three funds—often with a mere majority vote at the next board meeting.

The CF database anticipates this line of argument—and provides both total and unassigned reserve funds as a percent of expenditures. You’ll notice many districts keep their unassigned funds stocked to the legally mandated maximum amount at which they can still raise taxes, between 8 and 12 percent of total expenses, depending on district size.

Whether school boards should be judged on all reserve funds or simply unassigned funds is ultimately for taxpayers to determine. But the fact remains that dozens of Pennsylvania districts amassed large rainy day funds while also seeking tax increases.

What’s more, the Temple University report makes no mention of school districts’ capital reserve funds—yet another pot of money districts use to plan for construction projects.

Drawing attention to reserve funds is critical in order to increase transparency and raise awareness for taxpayers. While few school districts are sitting on a “pot of gold,” Pennsylvanians have a right to know that almost all districts enjoy alternatives to higher taxes.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:50 AM | Comments

PSERS Revokes Ghost Teachers’ Illegal Pension Credit

JULY 12, 2016

In a victory for taxpayers, the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) has revoked pension credit illegally given to Allentown “ghost teachers” who were hired to teach but instead worked full-time for the local teachers’ union.

Even as the Allentown School District laid off 272 teachers in the past five years, the district used tax dollars to fund the salary and benefits of the full-time president of the Allentown Education Association.  

In response to a lawsuit filed by the Fairness Center, PSERS determined the tenures of the current and previous AEA presidents were “non-retirement-covered compensation and years of service credit were removed for the same number of years that each served as union president…”

With this announcement, reported by the Allentown Morning Call and the Easton Express-Times, PSERS declared more than $1 million in salary earned by these ghost teachers ineligible for pension credit.

But pensions aren’t the end of it. Allentown taxpayers have also funded the salaries and other benefits of the city’s ghost teachers—even while the cash-strapped district laid off hundreds.

Pennsylvanians expect their education tax dollars will actually fund education. The fact remains that taxpayers should not be on the hook for union work, and teachers should be paid to teach.

Members of the General Assembly agree. Last month legislation that would strictly limit ghost teaching (HB 2125) advanced in the House.

PSERS’ decision is an important first step toward protecting taxpayers from funding employees of a private organization and making sure teachers are actually in the classroom.

Click here to find out if there are ghost teachers in your school district, and watch and share this short video describing the problem:

posted by GINA DIORIO, HUNTER L. AHRENS | 11:16 AM | Comments

Will the Education Code Protect School Choice?

JUNE 30, 2016

In addition to general appropriations (SB 1073) and the fiscal code (SB 1320), lawmakers are finalizing language in the education code, HB 530. This legislation promises significant reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law.

Here’s the bottom line on HB 530: It is a sweeping bill that includes a number of positive provisions, but also imposes steep funding cuts on cyber charter schools.

Critically, an amendment by Speaker Mike Turzai increases the available tax credits for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program by $25 million. The EITC, which provides tens of thousands of private school scholarships to students in need, is a pillar of school choice in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Turzai amendment, $75 million in tax credits would be available for K-12 scholarships, $37.5 million for educational improvement organizations, and $12.5 million for pre-K scholarships.

A large EITC increase would be welcome news, and it is one of the best aspects of HB 530.

On the other hand, the bill increases payment deductions that districts may claim when sending funds to cyber charters. The exact magnitude of this funding cut is unclear, but some cyber school administrators suggest it could reach as high as $27 million per year. These cuts, while less severe than earlier versions of HB 530, are particularly punitive given that spending for traditional public school continues to grow on autopilot.

Additionally, previous iterations of HB 530 included direct pay language for cyber charters, which would ensure cybers receive funding from the state—rather than being stuck in limbo waiting for overdue funds from districts. The direct pay provision was amended out of the bill. (Update: A reader informs us this was removed at the request of cyber schools, who may have changed their view on the subject after last year's budget impasse.) 

What else is included in HB 530? Here are some of the notable provisions and regulations: 

  • A statewide funding commission, composed of lawmakers and school administrators, tasked with making recommendations about how charter schools are funded.
  • Clarification that cyber schools may utilize in-person instruction for students with special needs.
  • Increased financial disclosure regulations for charter school administrators.
  • Increased regulations on charter school debt payment.
  • A standardized application will be created by the Department of Education for charter applicants and charters requesting renewal.
  • Expanded initial charter terms from three to five years, and renewal terms from five to ten years.
  • School districts, intermediate units, and public universities must provide cyber charters with reasonable access to facilities for the purpose of administering standardized tests.
  • Clarifies that charter schools are not subject to caps on enrollment.
  • Charter schools are granted the right of first refusal to purchase or lease unused public school buildings.
  • Allows two or more charter schools to consolidate into a “multiple charter school organization.”
  • Expands the size of the Charter School Appeal Board.
  • Limits the amount of funding charter schools may hold in unassigned reserve funds, and requires that funds in excess of these limits be refunded to school districts. This provision is notable, given the massive reserve funds that many school districts have accumulated.

Although aspects of the law will be welcome news for charter schools, such sweeping reforms may have been better considered in smaller pieces of legislation, rather than one comprehensive bill. The EITC increase, however, is unquestionably a terrific development.

HB 530 is expected to be voted in the House later today, at which point it will still need to pass the Senate. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:22 AM | Comments

2015 SAT Scores

JUNE 29, 2016

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.

posted by HUNTER AHRENS, ELIZABETH STELLE | 11:45 AM | Comments

The Taxpayers’ False Choice

JUNE 28, 2016

Governor Wolf and legislative leaders present Pennsylvanians with two options. The first requires taxpayers to fork over hundreds of millions in higher taxes. The second calls for steep cuts to essential government programs. In the words of Wolf, “We’re going to have cuts the likes of which this Commonwealth has not seen in a generation, if ever.” Taxpayers, we are told, must choose between lousy outcomes: higher taxes or painful cuts.

Make no mistake—this is a false choice. A responsible appropriations bill can be crafted that controls spending and holds the line on tax hikes. New revenues are not necessary to balance the budget—especially not $1 billion worth.

Recall that just last year, Wolf claimed Pennsylvania’s $2.3 billion “structural deficit” mandated $4.6 billion in higher taxes. When the dust settled after a 9-month impasse, the legislature balanced the budget without taxes while also boosting funding for education ($250 million in non-pension spending) and human services ($83 million).

The 2015-16 General Fund spent roughly $30.0 billion. The final revenue projection from the Independent Fiscal Office projects 2016-17 revenues of $30.4 billion. If, in other words, lawmakers merely limited spending increases, there would be no need for higher revenues. 

Some argue government programs must assume a “cost-to-carry”—baked-in spending increases from one year to the next. Surely, though, this does not apply to Community and Economic Development programs, which see a $10 million bump under the House budget plan. Or the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which would enjoy a $44 million boost. Is there a "cost-to-carry" for House Caucus Operations (R and D), which are set to increase by $16 million? 

The spending plan, as currently written, also assumes another $250 million in non-pension education spending, at a time when school district reserve funds are at all-time highs

Don’t fall victim to the taxpayers’ false choice. By limiting spending increases to $400 million worth of core government functions, lawmakers can protect working families from harmful tax increases. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:00 PM | Comments

School Districts Amass Record Reserve Funds

JUNE 15, 2016

Is your local school board planning to raise property taxes despite holding millions in reserve funds? For many Pennsylvania school districts, the answer may be “yes.”  

Check out CF's sortable, searchable database of fund balances for Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts in the 2014-15 school year. It is important to note these figures predate the 9 month budget impasse, during which Gov. Wolf held school districts hostage in an attempt to extract record-high tax hikes from families and businesses.

Many districts were forced to dip into their reserves last year, as a result of Gov. Wolf's actions. (Next summer's financial reports will reveal how much districts were forced to "spend down"). But the sheer size of reserve funding in certain school districts is staggering—especially given the constant drumbeat that Pennslyvania schools are "underfunded." 

A district’s fund balance—what it owns minus it what it owes—is comprised of assigned, committed, and unassigned funds. Assigned and committed reserves are available funds designated for a specific purpose, while unassigned funds are available for any purpose.

State law requires that districts seeking tax hikes limit their unassigned fund balances to 8 to 12 percent of total spending. Our sortable database includes the total fund balance for each district, as well as each district’s total expenditures in 2014-15. It also includes each district’s fund balance as a percentage of total expenditures.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, speaking to Jan Murphy of Pennlive, says it is excessive to maintain a fund balance greater than 20 percent of total expenditures:

More than 300 of the 747 districts, charter schools and career and technical centers included in the department's data had fund balances topping 20 percent of their total expenditures, which is where state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he believes the line should be drawn.

"It is a judgment call as to what is too high," DePasquale said. "Certainly anything that is above 20 percent, clearly that's where you start to question it."

In fact, there are 21 districts who have socked away over 50 percent (!) of their total expenditures in reserve. When looking only at unassigned fund balances, 36 districts have over 20 percent of total expenditures squirreled away.

These figures should be eye-opening to anyone who believes Pennsylvania schools are unfunded—and they should be a wakeup call for school board officials who instinctively seek higher taxes from state or local taxpayers.

Check out CF's sortable, searchable database.

 

 

 

Largest Fund Balances
As % of Expenditures

District

County

%

Southern Fulton

Fulton

84.93%

Northwestern

Erie

78.07%

Union

Clarion

76.26%

Brockway Area

Jefferson

75.64%

Salisbury-Elk Lick

Somerset

73.26%

West Jefferson Hills

Allegheny

71.67%

Commodore Perry

Mercer

70.94%

Forbes Road

Fulton

65.60%

Iroquois

Erie

63.70%

Central Cambria

Cambria

60.61%

 

Largest Fund Balances

District

County

$

Pittsburgh

Allegheny

 $   198,989,522

Lower Merion

Montgomery

 $      55,974,232

Altoona Area

Blair

 $      53,772,084

East Stroudsburg Area

Monroe

 $      47,573,171

Pocono Mountain

Monroe

 $      45,944,586

Neshaminy

Bucks

 $      41,351,622

Abington

Montgomery

 $      39,627,474

Reading

Berks

 $      36,985,138

Allentown City

Lehigh

 $      36,444,773

North Penn

Montgomery 

 $      36,343,484

 
 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:30 PM | Comments

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