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.



Audio: Smarter Spending, not More Spending, Key for State Budget

MARCH 4, 2015

Education proved to be the centerpiece of Gov. Wolf’s budget address, but his facts on school funding get a failing grade.

This morning, Nate Benefield, CF’s Vice President of Policy Analysis, gave radio host Gary Sutton, the real facts about Pennsylvania’s school spending, saying that Gov. Wolf’s plan to simply throw more money at schools will not mend a broken system.

Nate adds that overwhelming Pennsylvania families with more taxes, when they already pay one of the highest tax rates in the country, is not a sensible solution. Gov. Wolf’s budget would afflict an additional $1,419 on the average family of four per year—not exactly the “fresh start” he promised.

Gov. Wolf’s plan to increase the sales tax rate and expand what is taxable (including diapers, daycare service, funerals, doctor visits, etc.) would ensure Pennsylvanians are taxed from “the cradle to the grave.”

Listen below for more of Nate’s analysis of Governor Wolf’s budget address:

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 JONATHAN REGINELLA | 00:10 PM | Comments

Spending More, or Spending More Wisely?

MARCH 2, 2015

When you purchase a good or service—be it a cheeseburger, a pair of shoes, or a car wash—how do you evaluate its quality? Do you consider the outputs—whether the service lived up to its billing and satisfied your demand—or do you focus solely on inputs—how much money was spent to create the good?

In the realm of public education, inputs are king while outputs are largely ignored. Education advocates typically focus solely on dollars spent instead of academic progress. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that education spending continues to steadily increase while achievement stagnates.

Can you think of any other industry or enterprise that is judged on inputs, instead of results?

This singular emphasis on inputs is exemplified in a proposal from the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, which seeks an additional $3.6 billion in state education spending over the next eight years. Given the Commonwealth’s financial outlook, this proposal should be a non-starter.

A massive spending increase is not a means to improve educational quality; it is a means to boost educational inputs. Higher-quality schools require a different approach—one that expands choice, protects and rewards the best teachers, and empowers local school leaders.

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding—comprising a few dozen union, business, and issue advocacy groups—seeks to influence Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission, a body of lawmakers and state officials that will offer recommendations to the General Assembly in the next few months.

The purpose of the Funding Commission is to develop a more rational, equitable method to distribute current funding levels. It is not tasked with recommending higher funding levels—let alone a 63 percent increase in the Basic Education subsidy.

Commission member Rep. Donna Oberlander said as much last August:

This Commission’s charge is not to study so called adequate levels of basic education funding. The responsibility of determining a funding level belongs to the General Assembly and is based each year on overall state revenues. This Commission cannot tie the General Assembly to funding targets.

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding did embrace elements of weighted student funding (WSF), which, in a vaccuum, is a good thing. The Commonwealth Foundation has long advocated for WSF as a solution to Pennsylvania’s outdated education funding system—but WSF should be implemented in a revenue-neutral fashion. Instead of a $3.6 billion tax increase, pure WSF distributes current funding levels more equitably and transparently.

Above all else, WSF ensures that state dollars truly follow each student. Currently, if a Pennsylvania student moves from one district to another, state funding does not follow the child to her new school. This must change, if Pennsylvania is to begin to funding students instead of systems. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:00 PM | Comments

A School for the City, Not a Fortress from the City

How School Choice is Building Communities

FEBRUARY 26, 2015

The plan was for Hudson to attend public school in Philadelphia—at least for one year. But after Andy, Hudson’s father, visited their neighborhood school, Horatio Hackett, he wanted something different for his soon-to-be kindergartner. Could classical school be a better fit for Hudson? 

At first, a private classical education didn’t seem like the most practical option for a 5 year-old. As far as Andy knew, classical education entailed speaking Latin. Sure, he was intrigued by Philadelphia Classical School (PCS)—a small, private school on the corner of 11th and Vine Street in Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood. Andy heard good things about PCS, but would his family be able afford private school tuition?

Andy considered charter schools but found the enrollment process intimidating. Plus, he was concerned that Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission might crack down on charters in the coming years.

Thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), Andy and his wife learned they could enroll Hudson in PCS.

Reserved for students in Pennsylvania's lowest-performing public schools, the OSTC provides hope in largely hopeless situations. The program has helped thousands of students escape failing schools. Both the OSTC and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) allow businesses to contribute to private scholarships in exchange for tax credits, so students like Hudson can receive high quality education.

More than halfway through his first year at PCS, Hudson excels in the classroom. His favorite subject is “handwriting,” he’s becoming proficient at reading, and he regularly impresses his father with knowledge of history.

“How does a kindergartner know about Mesopotamia?” Andy asks incredulously. He’s also blown away that Hudson can recite all 44 U.S. presidents in chronological order.

Hudson blogPCS opened in the fall of 2013. It’s a small school—serving 38 students from 29 families—but plans to expand, according to Ross Hatton, Head of School, and Katharine Savage, founder, at PCS. While the school’s mission is Christ-centered, not all families share the same religious background. Some are non-religious, others are Mormon or follow orthodox traditions. Many students are second-generation immigrants, and the PCS student body speaks six different languages at home.

The full cost of PCS tuition is $12,145, though most students pay significantly less. In fact, 40 percent of seats are reserved for low-income students, and the average cost for each family is $4,500. PCS provided over $250,000 in financial aid during the current school year, including nearly $30,000 through Pennsylvania’s EITC and OSTC programs.

PCS worked with Hudson’s family to find a suitable tuition arrangement. Hudson received an Opportunity Scholarship to cover 75 percent of the cost—and a private donor pitched in to pay the remaining balance.

Just as no parent is turned away for inability to pay, no prospective student is turned away for lack of academic ability. The current kindergarten class has a wide range of skills—some students could read before the first day of school, while others came to PCS without basic understanding of the alphabet. 

PCS is not “skimming” from public schools; its mission is to be part of a revitalization of education in Philadelphia. Indeed the school is breaking down economic and social barriers to build a stronger community.

PCS regularly organizes family events, such as pot-luck dinners and ice skating. Parents even launched a Google Hangout Group where families can ask questions and discuss issues unrelated to school. Where’s the best place to buy children’s pants that won’t rip at the knees? Can anyone recommend a babysitter? These are all questions that families discuss online.

For Andy, “it was very important that PCS be a school for the city, not a fortress from the city.” He urges other parents to “be part of the solution” to public education and community involvement, “but don’t sacrifice your own kids to that solution.”

Jess Scott, mother of PCS second grader Maggie, shared Andy’s concerns about walling herself off from traditional public schools but wouldn't "sacrifice her kids to an ideology." According to Jess, “PCS saved our family” and is a “gift to our kids.” The Scotts live in University Place, but cannot afford typical private school tuition. Jess had to go back to work just to afford PCS’s discounted rate.

Maggie PCS

It’s obvious that families truly care for one another at PCS. There is no better example than one family who anonymously paid for another student’s school uniform. “I wanted to make Saniyah feel supported and encouraged,” the mom explained. The family purchased Saniyah’s uniforms for the current year and then made a pledge to continue this practice for the rest of Saniyah's career at PCS. Recently the family moved to New York, but they intend to keep their promise to Saniyah. “We’re always looking for ways to serve and this was something we could do. We made a commitment.”

Thanks to Hatton and Savage's vision, as well as the EITC and OSTC programs, PCS occupies a unique space in Philadelphia: A classical school that strengthens communities, brings families together, and offers hope for a brighter future.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE, JAMES PAUL | 05:18 PM | Comments

Thousands of Philly Students Left on Waiting Lists

FEBRUARY 23, 2015

The long, frustrating wait continues for Philadelphia families desperate for educational opportunity.

Last Wednesday, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) rejected 34 of 39 charter school applicants. Five charters were approved, albeit with substantial restrictions and conditions. Each approved school must enroll significantly fewer students than it requested, and each school received a three year charter instead of the customary five year agreement.

All of the approved applicants currently operate high performing charters in Philadelphia: Independence Charter School West, KIPP Dubois, MaST Community Roosevelt Campus, Mastery Gillespie Campus and TECH-Freire. Each operator runs a school with a School Performance Profile score exceeding 70 (the district average is 56.8) and substantial enrollment of low-income students. In other words, their students outperform Philadelphia's traditional public schools, even though they spend fewer dollars per-pupil.

These are exactly the type of innovative, successful models that district leaders should promote and encourage. Independence, KIPP, MaST and Mastery sought to open a combined nine new schools—yet only four were accepted, and each with strings attached. For example, MaST's Roosevelt application intended to enroll 1,575 students in the first year, but the SRC is limiting them to 400 seats. 

These approved schools will provide life-changing opportunity for approximately 2,600 students over the next four years. Sadly, though, tens of thousands of other Philadelphia students remain trapped in schools they’re seeking to leave.

Opponents of expanded choice in Philadelphia decry “fixed costs” as the main reason to block new charters, but the district is already revising down the projected charter school price tag—despite continuing to use the disputed $7,000 per-pupil stranded costs estimate.

Jerry Jordan, president of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, criticized the SRC for approving any charters whatsoever. Jordan also thanked SRC member Marjorie Neff for voting against all 39 applicants.

What’s the next step for denied charter schools? Appeal. For the first time in 14 years denied applicants can petition the State Charter Appeal Board to reverse the SRC’s decision. According to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, the seven-member Board may not consider the financial impact a proposed charter will have on the district, which should allow each school to be evaluated on the merits of its application alone.

Given the strength of many Philadelphia applicants, perhaps there is reason to be optimistic about a favorable appellate ruling. In the short term, however, school choice remains out of reach for far too many Philadelphia families.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:30 PM | Comments

Audio: School Choice is More than Just a Concept

FEBRUARY 9, 2015

Every child deserves access to the best educational opportunity available to them, especially if quality education is hard to find in their local public school district. School choice is already more than just a concept for tens of thousands of students across the state and it is growing in popularity—Pennsylvania’s impressive 173 charter schools being one example.

James Paul, a CF senior policy analyst, outlines the state of school choice in Pennsylvania by describing Pennsylvania as a “pioneer of school choice.” But lawmakers still have work to do to expand educational opportunity and better allocate tax dollars to fund students’ education—rather than continuing to fund a broken system.

One of the best parts about school choice, as James points out in a recent radio interview, is that it supports accountability in the educational system.  James says that if a charter school, for instance, is “not providing good services or improving results in the classroom” it should not be permitted to continue operating. That level of customer accountability is rarely seen in traditional schools.

Listen to some of James’ interview with Gary Sutton on WSBA 910 AM:

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 JONATHAN REGINELLA | 02:10 PM | Comments

$35 Million Worth of New Charter Seats?

FEBRUARY 5, 2015

Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP)—a nonprofit that invests in a variety of schools across the city—is offering $35 million to the School District of Philadelphia to fund over 11,000 seats in new charter schools. PSP’s grant proposal seeks to eliminate any financial concerns and allow the School Reform Commission (SRC) to focus solely on approving the highest quality applicants.

This stunning development raises hope that Philadelphia families will soon enjoy greater opportunities. House Speaker Mike Turzai continues to support the approval of new charter schools in Philadelphia:

It's up to the [SRC] to meet its obligation to save kids and grant the request of these families to let their kids go to quality charter schools.

Defenders of the educational status-quo were less enthused by PSP’s proposal. Lisa Haver, cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, urged the SRC to reject the donation:

PSP is very influential in this school district, but it doesn't look out for the best interests of all the students. Schools are hanging by their fingernails to survive - schools that don't have staff, full-time nurses, and full-time librarians. And now, out of the blue, this nonprofit group says, 'Guess what? We have $35 million.'

Given Haver’s view that schools are “hanging by their fingernails to survive,” it’s odd that she opposes a significant infusion of funding. 

The majority of PSP’s grant is intended to finance the “stranded costs” incurred by the district when students flee to charter schools. According to PSP’s calculations, these stranded costs amount to approximately $2,000 per student. District advocates claim these costs are closer to $7,000 and recur for multiple years.

In 2012-13, Philadelphia public schools spent over $14,000 per student. It is quite a stretch to claim that half of the district’s per-pupil costs are fixed over the long term. An estimate from the Friedman Foundation finds that fixed costs amount to one-third of total per-pupil education spending. The remaining two-thirds are variable costs that can be adjusted based on enrollment changes.

Although education dollars flow from the school district to charter schools, funding does not "belong" to one system or the other. The dollars "belong" to students who are educated in Philadelphia public schools—be they charter or not. Education funding should always follow the student—not prop up a system.

Surely this $35 million donation can go a long way toward improving education for thousands of Philadelphia families desperate for better, safer schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:00 PM | Comments

Teachers Denied the Right to Represent Themselves

FEBRUARY 5, 2015

Last week the Bethlehem Area School District approved a new labor contract that will force all teachers—even those who do not want the union's services—to pay the organization hundreds of dollars each year. Shortly after the vote, the Lehigh Valley Times editorial page argued that these so-called "fair share fees" are a good compromise. I responded with a letter arguing that teachers should have the freedom to decide who negotiates their salary.

The Jan. 30 editorial, "Fair share fees allow non-union teacher to have their cake and protest it, too," misses the fact that the Bethlehem Area Education Association's new obligation to represent non-union members such as Richard Coppock was not imposed on the union -- they actively negotiated for it. In other words, the district just allowed the union -- and its related state and national affiliates -- to confiscate Coppock's right to represent himself.

It's absurd that this power-grab is being twisted around to accuse Coppock of "free-riding." Coppock doesn't want something for nothing, he wants the ability to refuse all union benefits. Coppock's rights should not be sacrificed simply because he was in the minority.

The editorial goes on to say Coppock has the option to become a religious objector and, "donate the fee to a non-religious charity of their choosing." But the law actually says the charity must be "agreed upon by the nonmember and the [union]." The difference is more than semantics: Two Pennsylvania teachers are in the midst of lawsuit because the state teachers union has refused to allow their money to go to the non-religious charity of their choice.

Teachers must know their rights. FreetoTeach.org, a project of the Commonwealth Foundation where I work, offers clear and concise resources to let teachers make their own decisions -- a principle that the teachers' unions apparently ignore.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 09:05 AM | Comments

The State of School Choice in Pennsylvania

JANUARY 27, 2015

In many respects, Pennsylvania is a pioneer of school choice. With 173 charter schools—14 of which are cyber charters—and two scholarship tax credit programs, the commonwealth is the envy of choice advocates across the country. But as we recognize and celebrate National School Choice Week, more can be done to ensure that each Pennsylvania child has the opportunity to reach her full potential.

As Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) weighs the application of 40 charter schools—many of which have an impressive track record of serving city students—House speaker Mike Turzai is optimistic that multiple new charters will be granted permission to open in Philadelphia:

We are very hopeful that when the final decisions get made that a significant number of the charter applicants are approved.

During the most recent school year, the average Philadelphia charter school outperformed traditional public schools on the Pennsylvania State Performance Profile. What makes this even more impressive is that charter schools spend and receive fewer dollars per student than their district counterparts. Given the academic success of the charter sector, as well as the sizeable demand for schools of choice, the SRC should approve the highest-performing applicants and allow more Philadelphia families to reap the benefits of choice.

In Pennsylvania, school districts are tasked with authorizing new charter applications. This arrangement makes it difficult for even the highest quality charter schools to open new buildings. School districts are fully aware that by approving a new charter school they are essentially approving a new competitor. In order to realign incentives to promote great schools, lawmakers should pursue statewide or university authorizers for charters.

The commonwealth is the first state in the country to enact an education scholarship tax credit aimed at corporations. Thanks to the passage of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program in 2001, more than 430,000 scholarships have been awarded to students from low- and middle-income families seeking better, safer schools.

Scholarship tax credit programs exist in a dozen states, and Pennsylvania is one of only three states to have multiple programs. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted its second tax credit program—the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). This program is reserved for low-income students residing in the geographic boundaries of the lowest-achieving public schools in Pennsylvania.

In 2013-14, the OSTC provided more than 7,000 scholarships. Legislation passed late last fall streamlined and simplified the application process for both tax credit programs, which should lead to even greater participation in coming years.

The EITC is capped at $100 million—with $60 million reserved specifically for K-12 scholarships—while the OSTC is capped at $50 million. Lawmakers should look to increase these caps and provide more scholarships—at a savings for taxpayers—to students in need.  

Education savings accounts (ESA) are another innovative policy for Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider as a complement to the tax credit programs. ESAs, which have been implemented in Arizona and Florida, could allow parents to deposit their tax credit scholarship funds into a savings account that can be spent with more flexibility.

Instead of reserving the funds strictly for scholarships, ESAs allow parents to purchase textbooks, tutoring services, online courses, curriculum materials, standardized tests, educational therapies, and other approved items. Unspent ESA funds roll over from one year to the next and can be eventually used to pay for college tuition. Lawmakers supportive of the EITC and OSTC should look at ESAs as the logical next step for school choice in Pennsylvania.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:00 PM | Comments

Podcast: A Local-Only Teachers Union?

JANUARY 27, 2015

Michigan teacher Jim Perialas has an unusual story. In 2012 his school, Roscommon Area School District, became the first in decades to decertify (or leave) the state-wide Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) to form a local-only, independent union.

Jim readily admits he’s not anti-union, “unions do good and bad things . . . but I still think they should play a role in the workplace.” So, why did teachers at Roscommon want to leave the MEA? They were simply frustrated by the undemocratic, expensive, and secretive state union. “We talk about the lack of a voice . . . there is a so-called democratic process, but really it’s not,” explains Jim. 

This same frustration with distant and unaccountable union leaders is felt in Pennsylvania by teachers like Keith Williams from Adams County and John Cress from Ellwood City.

And as Nathan Benefield blogged on this date last year, most teachers’ union members never hear from state and national union officials. It’s no wonder teachers are looking for better options.

Going local wasn’t easy. Jim warns that any district considering the local option needs to be united and prepared to withstand immense pressure from the state union, but the rewards can be worth it.

Today, members of the independent Roscommon Teachers Association have seen their dues decrease from $980 to $600 a year and members still have access to grievance support and other services. Most importantly, members have local control and can clearly see how their money is being spent.

Hear about the challenges Jim and his fellow teachers faced during the decertification process in our latest podcast.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 03:30 PM | Comments

Five Ways Dollars Are Kept Out of Philadelphia Classrooms

JANUARY 22, 2015

The school district of Philadelphia saw a $1 billion increase in revenue over the past decade, even as enrollment declined. Yet many claim there isn't enough funding for basic classrooms supplies. The question is: Where is the money going if not into the classroom?

1. Union Leader Salaries

The PFT forces teachers to pay more than $700 for the average teacher each year in dues (or more than $500 in fair share fees to keep their jobs). Teachers never see that money as it is deducted from their paycheck just like taxes. 

At the same time, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, makes an astounding $550,000 a year off of teachers' dues. In fact, AFT has more than 200 staffers making more than $100,000 in compensation, according to the Center for Union Facts

Without such high dues, teachers could keep more of their salary and higher take home pay would help attract high quality teachers.

2. Political Spending

Philadelphia teacher union dues are being spent on political ads at the rate of $70,000 per minute. PFT ran two 30-second TV ads during an Eagles football game attacking Governor Corbett and select lawmakers. The cost of those two ads alone were $35,000 each, according to records filed with the FCC.

Nationally, the AFT spent more money on elections this year than ever before, including a gift of $500,000 from teachers’ union dues to fund attack ads via a “SuperPAC.” This money could buy countless classroom supplies the union claims Philadelphia schools lack. The teacher’s union’s actions indicate leadership is more concerned with playing politics than providing resources to struggling teachers and students.

3. Administrative Costs

The School District of Philadelphia has among the highest administrative costs in the state. In 2012-13, Philadelphia had a higher administrator to student ratio than the average Pennsylvania school district. In addition, the average administrator salary is $129,573, which ranks in the top 25 most generous school districts in Pennsylvania. These high overhead costs focus resources on adults instead of kids.

4. Health Care Costs

This past fall, for the first time, Philadelphia teachers were asked to contribute a portion of their salary towards health care premiums, a request made of teachers in every other Pennsylvania school district save one. With this change, approximately $54 million could go directly to classrooms if teachers begin to contribute just a percentage of their own health care costs. The School Reform Commission proposed teachers pay between 5 and 13 percent of their health care costs. That is about half of the 23 percent the average Pennsylvanian pays towards employer sponsored family coverage.

Former Governor Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board all agree with the necessity for reasonable concessions—but the PFT refuses to compromise. Without these savings, more teacher layoffs will be necessary.

5. PFT Health and Welfare Fund

Apart from health insurance, the school district contributes to the PFT Health and Welfare Fund. This entity, controlled by the PFT, provides supplemental benefits, such as dental and vision, along with a wide variety of other programs, such as term life insurance and an annual educational conference.

By simply ending the PFT’s monopoly control over these benefits, and selecting a high-quality benefit provider in the marketplace, the school district would save an estimated $22.4 million. Teachers will still receive these benefits with the savings would being directed back into the classroom for the benefit of students.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 00:45 PM | Comments

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