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 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 Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Low Expectations

DECEMBER 19, 2014

Is it true that schools with high concentrations of low-income students face unique challenges? Yes. Should poverty, along with several other social problems, be understood as a factor that influences academic achievement? Of course. Should we thus expect students from low-income families to persistently underperform on state tests and be forever relegated to a second-rate education? Absolutely not.

A fine line exists between recognizing poverty as a factor in academic performance and using it as crutch to excuse dismally performing schools. Nowhere is this more apparent than the York City school district.

A recent article on York’s potential conversion to charter schools explains that none of the district’s eight schools are meeting state testing goals. The piece quotes Wythe Keever, assistant communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), who is undeterred by the test scores:

Wythe said York performs just as well as schools that have similar populations of disadvantaged and special needs children. “The school district is right about where you’d expect it to be when you have an urban school district serving an impoverished population that’s already been decimated by Corbett’s budget cuts," Wythe said.

The comment (emphasis mine) is noteworthy for several reasons. Not only is Keever factually inaccurate about the district’s performance and finances—more on that in a moment—but he also seems to subscribe to the view that urban, low-income students are condemned to bad test scores and substandard learning gains.

A recent CF Policy Points explains that even when compared to other economically disadvantaged students in Pennsylvania, York City students lag behind state averages.

York City PSSA Results 2012 (Percentage)
York City SD Statewide Economically Disadvantaged, State
Advanced or Proficient, Math 53.1 75.6 61.6
Advanced or Proficient, Reading 41.5 72.0 55.4
Below Basic, Math 25.7 11.1 19.0
Below Basic, Reading 35.8 13.7 24.3

Keever is also off base when he claims the district was decimated by state level budget cuts. State revenue per student was steady throughout the previous five years, including a substantial increase in 2012-13. Overall revenue levels did modestly fall in the 2011-12 budget, but the chart below clearly demonstrates that this was due to a sharp decline in federal revenue (read: stimulus dollars).

YorkCitySpending

Additionally, out of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, York is consistently within the top quintile of state revenue per student:

York City Revenue Rank, by Source

State Local

Federal

2008-2009 74 398 8
2009-2010 59 422 7
2010-2011 49 401 6
2011-2012 105 416 49
2012-2013 62 405 49

Factual errors aside, the most disheartening component of Keever’s remarks is that low-income students should be expected to lag behind their peers in academic performance. Setting such low standards does not serve the best interests of students and parents in York City.

It is not entirely surprising, however, that a spokesman from the largest teachers' union in the state has succumbed to the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. After all, the PSEA is a consistent opponent to many reforms—expanded school choice, seniority reform, merit pay—that would improve the quality of education in the commonwealth.

Each student has unique circumstances, needs and abilities—but no student should be resigned to failure.

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 09:00 AM | Comments

Harmed by “Hold Harmless”

DECEMBER 15, 2014

There are few more egregious examples of political doublespeak than Pennsylvania’s “hold harmless” provision for state education funding.

Hold harmless guarantees each school district receives no fewer state education dollars than it received the previous year—regardless of changes in district enrollment. This may sound appealing in theory, but it is actually quite problematic in practice. While the policy ostensibly exists to prevent school districts from being harmed by reduced funding, it has, in fact, brought real harm and inequity to hundreds of districts across the commonwealth.

Consider that during the 2012-13 school year, state revenue per student in Pennsylvania's 20 fastest-growing districts was slightly more than $3,000. In contrast, state revenue per student among those districts with the largest decreases in enrollment was nearly $10,000. Put another way, school districts with declining enrollment received more than three times the state funding per student than growing districts.

20 Fastest Growing PA Districts 1996-2013

District

County

Growth

2013 State
Revenue Per Student

Garnet Valley

Delaware

119%

$2,877.47

Perkiomen Valley

Montgomery

89%

$2,826.65

South Fayette Township

Allegheny

86%

$2,698.31

Spring-Ford Area

Montgomery

83%

$2,764.82

Pine-Richland

Allegheny

74%

$2,686.28

New Hope-Solebury

Bucks

61%

$2,777.26

Central York

York

60%

$2,555.85

Oxford Area

Chester

56%

$4,538.11

Avon Grove

Chester

53%

$4,340.74

Daniel Boone Area

Berks

53%

$4,282.96

Mars Area

Butler

52%

$3,217.76

Lower Moreland Twn

Montgomery

48%

$2,888.73

Kennett Consolidated

Chester

47%

$2,842.80

Jim Thorpe Area

Carbon

45%

$2,885.29

Central Bucks

Bucks

45%

$2,401.97

Tredyffrin-Easttown

Chester

44%

$2,211.83

Owen J Roberts

Chester

41%

$3,120.39

Peters Township

Washington

40%

$2,608.30

Wilson

Berks

39%

$2,784.51

Northeastern York

York

38%

$4,602.52

Average Top 20

59%

$3,095.63

20 Fastest Shrinking PA Districts 1996-2013

District

County

Growth

2013 State
Revenue Per Student

McGuffey

Washington

-30%

$7,979.42

Sullivan County

Sullivan

-30%

$6,208.08

Southeastern Greene

Greene

-31%

$11,399.85

Warren County

Warren

-31%

$7,881.19

Jeannette City

Westmoreland

-32%

$9,242.87

Ligonier Valley

Westmoreland

-32%

$5,611.11

Susquehanna Community

Susquehanna

-32%

$10,778.41

Union

Clarion

-32%

$11,529.47

Punxsutawney Area

Jefferson

-32%

$9,524.06

Austin Area

Potter

-32%

$11,885.68

Galeton Area

Potter

-33%

$7,903.20

Cranberry Area

Venango

-33%

$8,525.50

Farrell Area

Mercer

-33%

$12,197.76

Marion Center Area

Indiana

-34%

$10,288.15

Northern Potter

Potter

-35%

$10,904.21

Allegheny-Clarion Valley

Clarion

-35%

$11,479.26

Purchase Line

Indiana

-35%

$12,383.83

Johnsonburg Area

Elk

-36%

$11,175.29

Salisbury-Elk Lick

Somerset

-39%

$9,555.59

Cameron County

Cameron

-39%

$10,600.96

Average Bottom 20

-33%

$9,852.69

A new policy brief from Temple University's Center on Regional Politics finds that Pennsylvania’s education funding system is out of sync with the rest of the nation.

While 11 other states provide a hold harmless guarantee to school districts, no other state in the nation also guarantees districts with declining enrollment a share of new education revenues.

Not only do Pennsylvania school districts retain baseline funding levels—regardless of student enrollment and student need—but declining enrollment districts are guaranteed a portion of new education revenues. The authors describe this practice as “hold harmless plus.”

Hold Harmless

My colleague Nate Benefield and I recently offered testimony to the Basic Education Funding Commission, where a large portion of our remarks focused on transitioning away from hold harmless in favor a weighted student funding (WSF) model.

Currently, if a Pennsylvania student moves from one district to another, state funding does not follow the child to her new school.

Above all else, a weighted model would distribute funds that truly follow each child. WSF also accounts for individual student need by providing additional dollars for low-income and English language learners.

The Funding Commission presents an important opportunity to establish a funding formula that is equitable, rational, and transparent. The first step for lawmakers should be to phase out hold harmless, once and for all.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:30 AM | Comments

Audio: Could Charter Conversion be in York City's Future?

DECEMBER 10, 2014

York City School District—financially distressed and second-to-last in the state in student achievement—may be in for some much-needed change in the coming weeks. After two years of obstruction from the local school board and teachers’ union on more modest measures, the state has finally petitioned for receivership of the troubled district.

Tomorrow, there will be a hearing in York to help inform a judge’s decision to grant the state’s receivership petition. If granted, all of York's district schools will be converted into to charters—one of only a few districts in the country to take such a step.

Today, CF's James Paul joined The Gary Sutton Show on WSBA 910 to provide background on how we got here, who has been blocking other attempts at reform, and what this all could mean for York city students and families.

Listen to a portion of the show below and read James’ recent op-ed “Is Second Worst Good Enough for York Students?” for more.

The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.

Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 03:30 PM | Comments

More Choice on the way to Philadelphia?

DECEMBER 9, 2014

Tens of thousands of Philadelphia students languishing on charter waiting lists have reason to hope. For the first time in seven years, the School District of Philadelphia will consider applications from new charter schools.

This week the district is receiving presentations from 40 applicants who will make the case for additional educational options. A second set of hearings are scheduled in January where applicants will be reviewed and questioned by district officials. Ten of the 40 proposed schools have an explicit focus on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

What prompted Philadelphia to break its seven-year charter lock-out? Tucked away in the recent cigarette tax legislation was a provision requiring the district to accept annual applications from new charter schools.

Seemingly endless wait lists—combined with the 62,500 students currently enrolled in brick and mortar charter schools—are evidence of the sector’s popularity in Philadelphia. Enrollment in district-run schools has sharply declined over the last decade as more families opt for schools of choice.

On the whole, Philadelphia charter schools are performing well. The average city charter school outperformed the average city district school in 2012-13. What’s more, an analysis by Philadelphia School Partnership reveals that the charter sector is succeeding in serving low-income students: Of the 17 city schools with passing State Performance Profile scores and enrollment of least 80 percent economically disadvantaged students, 12 are run by charter operators.

Given their immense popularity, long waitlists, and encouraging performance, it’s a shame that new charter schools have been locked out of the application process for so long—but it's no surprise. Granting school districts the power to authorize a new charter school is like asking McDonalds to green-light the construction of a new Wendy’s next door. Establishing a high quality statewide authorizer in the commonwealth would be a marked improvement over the current policy. 

It remains to be seen whether any new charters will be approved, but at least there's a chance for more children to find better, safer schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

A Shoddy Attack on Charters

NOVEMBER 11, 2014

Charter Schools

My letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News takes issue with the paper's recent characterization of charter schools as "fiscal monsters." 

The Daily News editorial on charter schools ("Frankencharters") includes scary Halloween analogies but does a disservice to genuine efforts to improve education in Philadelphia. Referring to charter schools as "fiscal monsters" flatly ignores that charters spend and receive fewer dollars per student than district schools.

Despite significantly less funding, Philadelphia charters outperformed district schools on the 2012-13 State Performance Profile. Charters actually operate with maximum accountability, since poor academic performance or financial mismanagement will result in closure - a fate that rarely, if ever, befalls district schools. Will the Daily News similarly refer to failing district-run schools as "monsters" that need to be "reined in" when the next cheating scandal occurs?

It should come as no surprise that charters receive their funding from school districts, since charters are public schools, too. That so many families have opted for charters reflect their success - it illustrates the overwhelming demand for expanding school choice.

Continued oversight and transparency is an appropriate policy goal for charter and district-run schools alike - especially in light of the closure of Walter Palmer, which is indeed devastating to the students and families involved. But the unique circumstances surrounding Walter Palmer do not justify demonizing largely successful charters citywide.

The 34,000 students currently languishing on charter waiting lists illustrate the urgent nature of school reform. Denying them more educational options - just to prop up the failing status quo - does not serve the best interests of Philadelphia.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 06:24 PM | Comments

Step Forward for School Choice

NOVEMBER 4, 2014

Geronda Montalvo did not want to send her daughter Zayda to the low-achieving schools in her neighborhood. Thanks to an Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) scholarship, Zayda is thriving at Holy Child Academy. And thanks to the passage of HB 91, more mothers like Geronda will have educational options.

HB 91 consolidates the EITC and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) into one statute, which will simplify and streamline the application process. Businesses are now able to apply for an alternate credit if its preferred credit is unavailable, and the Department of Community and Economic Development now has the authority to transfer unused credits between programs.

In 2001, Pennsylvania became the first state in the country to enact an education tax credit program. Since that time, the EITC has provided more than 430,000 scholarships to students and families seeking schooling options.

Here’s how the EITC program works. First, businesses make donations to registered, vetted charities that award scholarships. The business receives a tax credit worth 75 percent of the donation, while the charity organization uses the donated funds to award scholarships for students to attend schools of choice. The OSTC was added in 2012—a program designed specifically for students who reside in the lowest performing school districts in the commonwealth.

Ultimately, HB 91 allows more credits to be utilized, more scholarships to be offered, and more lifelines for students trapped in failing schools. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:45 AM | Comments

Victory for Student Safety

OCTOBER 23, 2014

In an important step for safety in the classroom, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that will put an end to the abhorrent practice of “passing the trash.” Gov. Corbett recently signed HB 1816, which prevents teachers accused of abuse from quietly resigning and relocating to a new school without having to inform that new school of their alleged misconduct. The law strengthens the background check process and prohibits school districts from entering into “confidentiality agreements” that suppress abuse allegations.

Government unions had previously taken a neutral position on this commonsense legislation.

Of course, the vast majority of teachers are committed to the well-being of their students. But state lawmakers should be commended for addressing the rising claims of inappropriate relationships, abuse, and staff misconduct in the commonwealth. A most tragic victim of "passing the trash" was Jeremy Edward Bell, a twelve year old student who did not surivive educator abuse. HB 1816 will help ensure that such an atrocity never happens again. 

Having approved this important safety measure, attention should now turn to improving the quality of education in the commonwealth, both through expanded school choice and commonsense reforms to reward excellent teachers.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:45 PM | Comments

Video: There's No Magic Money Tree

OCTOBER 23, 2014

Growing money on trees

From education to health care to public pensions, it seems like the answer to every problem—for some—is always more spending. But where does that money come from? And why doesn’t it ever seem to solve the problem?

Matt Brouillette debated taxes and spending with Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center Executive Director Sharon Ward earlier this week on PCN TV’s Call-In Program. It would be an understatement to say their views differ.

One of the most frequently discussed sources of new revenue is a new severance tax on natural gas. This tax would be in addition to all the taxes businesses in that industry already pay. Matt says the industry should—and does—pay for the cost of government they use:

Beyond the question of whether it’s fair, would imposing a severance tax even cover the cost of new education funding proposals? If not, where will that extra money come from, since, as Matt says: “There isn’t a magic tree growing along the Susquehanna where this money comes from—it comes from working Pennsylvanians. And it will be the middle class that gets hit the hardest in this.”

Matt points at that we’re fooling ourselves if we think more money is the answer, especially when it comes to education. In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending is already at an all-time high. More dollars won't make more scholars:

Watch the full show at www.PCNTV.com.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 02:53 PM | Comments

Audio: PFT Fails Students, Teachers & the Poor

OCTOBER 17, 2014

Matt Brouillette and other members of Commonwealth Foundation were on the ground at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) protest yesterday, handing out fliers and letting teachers know how PFT leaders are failing them, students, and Philadelphia's poor.

WPHT's Dom Giordano interviewed Matt Friday morning to find out why he waded into the midst of a union protest to advocate for the teachers, students, and the poor left behind by Philadelphia Federations of Teachers' policies.

Matt, a former high school teacher, said:

The Philadelphia Federations of Teachers is failing the kids, the teachers, and the poor in the city and it is their policies that block millions of dollars from going into the classroom . . . [PFT leaders] are harming the very teachers they are there to protect and they are preventing the kinds of reforms that are needed that I believe will make it better for the good teachers in the district.

In response to figures like former Gov. Rendell, Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter, and others coming out against PFT's actions, Matt said, “What you are seeing is a union that is out of touch with the public… even with those who are on their traditional side."

Listen here or below for more of the interview:

The Dom Giordano Show airs daily on WPHT in Philadelphia.

Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 02:07 PM | Comments

How the PFT Fails Philadelphia

OCTOBER 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:45 AM | Comments

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