How will more than 35,000 cyber school students be affected by legislation pending in the state Senate this week? There’s both good and bad news on the horizon and your voice is critical.
The good: Senate Bill 1085 fixes the “pension double dip” for cyber schools in an equitable manner—an improvement on the bill passed by the House that cut funding more severely. SB 1085 would also institute necessary accountability and oversight measures, which would give cyber and charter schools more fiscal transparency. The bill would also allow universities to authorize new charter schools, lessening school districts' ability to squelch their own competition.
The bad: SB 1085 threatens an arbitrary 5 percent funding reduction for cyber schools. This “ready, fire, aim” approach cuts funding for cybers before a commissioned study on charter school funding has time to make a reasoned report.
What would school districts “save” from this arbitrary cut? Not much, a 5 percent cut to cybers would fund a mere 57 minutes of school district class time statewide. For cybers, though, it amounts to about one-third of teacher salaries, and could effectively shut the door on many families’ educational choices.
Why should cyber school students have to do with even less, especially when they already account for just one percent of state and local education spending? Cyber and charter schools already receive only about 80 percent of the per-student funding that traditional public schools get.
Tell the state Senate how you feel about keeping educational choice alive for tens of thousands of families across the state!
Pennsylvania earned a "C+" for providing citizens information on how public schools spend money, according to a recent report from the Cato Institute titled "Cracking the Books". While the report ranks Pennsylvania 9th among states, our mediocre grade and comparison to “A” states shows opportunity for improvement.
We should strive to provide the most comprehensive and user-friendly tool for parents, teachers, researchers, and taxpayers to know how public schools are spending money.
Legislation (HB 1411) pending in the General Assembly would do just that. In 2011, state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Corbett signed, legislation which put state spending—including budgets, payments to vendors, and employees' salaries— online. That website, PennWATCH, has already proven to be a useful tool for tracking state spending. HB 1411 would mirror this success, creating SchoolWATCH to put public school spending data (including charter schools) into a searchable website.
There are ways to improve SchoolWATCH from its present form. Because Commonwealth Foundation has run OpenPAGov.org—a transparency database letting users find school district spending, performance, tax, and salary data acquired from the Department of Education—for the past four years, we have some suggestions. Some of these have already been proposed as amendments to HB 1411.
- SchoolWATCH should include school performance data already being collected by the state Department of Education. Being able to link spending with performance is an important tool for parents and researchers. Such information will allow education advocates to identify successful schools and develop best practices for what works and is cost-effective.
- SchoolWATCH should include collective bargaining agreements. Putting these union contracts online provides a resource for teachers, parents, advocates, and members of the media—particularly during contract disputes and strike situations.
- SchoolWATCH should include individual salary information for all employees. Salary information is public record and is already collected (and provided on request) by the state Department of Education. Moreover, salary information for state workers is currently available on PennWATCH. It would be inconsistent to treat public school employees different than state workers.
Commonwealth Foundation already provides individual school employee salary information on OpenPAGov.org—in fact, that is our most popular search. Newspapers have also posted this information from state data. If SchoolWATCH is to be the most comprehensive tool for school financial information, it should include data already being provided on external databases like ours.
In the past, transparency has been a bi-partisan issue. Lawmakers should be able to work together once again to enhance our ability to get good information from state government.
Pennsylvania parents and voters want education reform.
A new poll from StudentsFirst shows that Pennsylvania families strongly support educational reforms, including incentives for high performing teachers (74 percent support), seniority reform that would tie teacher tenure to effectiveness (70 percent support), charter school reform that would combine accountability reforms with allowing independent authorizers (67 percent), and greater school spending transparency via an online database linking spending and outcomes (84 percent).
Some of these proposals have legislative legs:
HB 1722, sponsored by Rep. Tim Krieger, would base teacher retention on their classroom performance, rather than just seniority, helping both teachers and students. Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-Philadelphia) is a cosponsor of this bill and highlights her reasons for supporting seniority reform in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
SB 1085, sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, offers charter school accountability measures while also proposing to let colleges and universities authorize new charter schools. Currently, only school districts can authorize charter schools—which is akin to McDonald's approving any new Wendy's, and has resulted in many legal fights. This bill also addresses the "pension double dip" in charter school payments, but unfortunately includes an arbitrary 5 percent reduction in funding for each cyber school student.
Finally, HB 1411 would create a new website, SchoolWatch, that would allow users to track how their tax dollars are spent. This website follows PennWatch, which includes information about state spending, grants, contracts, and salaries. The Commonwealth Foundation created a similiar website, OpenPAGov—which provides school spending, tax, performance, and salary info—giving us a great deal of experience in bringing transparency to government. Check back at PolicyBlog in the coming days to read more from our experts on this effort.
This week, Commonwealth Foundation placed billboards in Philadelphia subway stations to highlight the problem of seniority rules in our public schools.
Currently, Section 1125 of the Pennsylvania School Code of 1949 lays out rules that determine how we hire, place and lay off teachers in public schools. In a nutshell, it means teachers who have been around the longest—regardless of how well they teach—are entitled to keep their jobs, even if there’s a younger, better teacher around.
When a school district is in financial trouble, the real damage from seniority rules begins to show. Philadelphia school district’s money woes have been in the news, but not all the district's problems come down to lack of funding.
If the school district were able to re-hire and place teachers according to how well they teach, students would win. It’s a smart use of limited resources, and a good way to reward good teachers.
HB 1722, sponsored by Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Delmont), would reform seniority so we can keep our best teachers not only in Philadelphia, but all over the state. The bill bases teacher retention on their classroom performance, helping both teachers and students. It's high time we ditched this outdated policy.
Things have reached a fever pitch in Philadelphia as the city's school district—the eighth-largest in America—is scrambling to close its $300 million deficit and open schools on time. As protestors close in on City Hall and the clock runs down on the start of a new school year, it's worth looking at what's really behind the school funding crisis in Philadelphia.
1. Philadelphia's violent, failing schools are the real crisis, not funding. We've pointed out for years that the real problem in Philadelphia is how district schools are failing students and families. Philadelphia spends $14,000 per student, right at the state average. But despite that, students perform poorly. Whether you look at state tests or national benchmarks, only 20 to 30 percent of Philadelphia students can read or do math at grade level. What's tragically worse is the danger and violence students suffer on a daily basis: In 2011-12 alone, district schools saw 2,310 assaults on students and staff, 15 rapes, 166 indecent assaults, 86 robberies, 157 thefts and 566 weapons possessions.
2. Emergency funding won't fix the spending problem. In fact, the gap is going to get worse. Despite the focus on getting $50 million in emergency funding from the state, and the layoffs of 3,800 teachers and school workers (some of whom are being rehired), Philadelphia's pension costs alone are set to exceed this year's $300 million budget gap by 2020. Simply raising taxes and pouring money into Philadelphia schools won't fix this long-term crisis brought on by failed policies.
3. School union leaders are driving the crisis. Everyone agrees that good teachers deserve to be paid adequately, but the demands of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) have been unreasonable for years. In a district with struggling students and chronic money woes, the PFT's last contract was padded with unnecessary perks. The year 2010-11 alone saw $2.6 million for a legal services fund that covered employees' personal needs such as preparing a will or buying a home; $15.3 million in severance pay; and virtually free health care for employees (that cost the district $165 million—with an extra $66 million for vision, prescription and dental benefits).
Now PFT union leaders are refusing to make financial concessions—regardless of the impact on students—even as their contract is due to expire Aug. 31. They are also worsening the crisis by fighting the school district's suspension of seniority rules. But such rules simply protect longstanding teachers without regard for whether they're the best educators.
4. Charter schools are rescuing students. With the inflexible and expensive teachers' contract, the school district has been hard-pressed to focus its spending better on students, or even downsize as it should given falling enrollment. Unsurprisingly, desperate families want out of Philadelphia's violent, failing schools and are flocking to charter schools. In the last five years alone, enrollment in district schools has dropped 17 percent, while charter enrollment has nearly doubled.
5. Families need more school choice. The explosion in charter schools shows that parents want out of persistently failing public schools. Expanding charter school options, as well as tax credit scholarships, throws an immediate lifeline to students while forcing the school district to spend more effectively and improve its standards—a trend that has improved schools in other major cities. That's the silver lining in the Philadelphia schools crisis: Kids may finally get the education they deserve.
Despite claims of severe budget cuts, school districts’ fund balances—their rainy day funds—grew last year.
School districts increased their fund balances in 2011-12 by more than $200 million. As of June 2012, they held $3.5 billion in total reserve funds.
In the last two years, schools have reduced their total staffing. Yet despite this short-term decline, public school staff has increased by more than 17,000 since 2000. Over the same time period, enrollment dropped by nearly 60,000 students.
Despite the popular claim that Gov. Corbett “cut $1 billion” in education spending in the state budget, state funding for public schools is at an all-time high. In 2011-12, federal stimulus funding—$1.3 billion of which was used for public education in 2010-11—disappeared. The following year, the state budget increased state dollars for public schools by $480 million.
The 2013-14 budget would spend nearly $10 billion on PreK-12 education. This represents a record high, even greater than state plus federal stimulus dollars.
For more on school spending check out 6 Trends in Public School Spending.
A recent report released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates Philadelphia School District (SDP) pension payments will total $349 million by 2020, which is a 378 percent increase from what the state and school district had to pay in 2011. That's a rise of about $1,900 per student. And this pension spike doesn’t just threaten the SDP but school districts all across the Commonwealth.
The report lays out the worst case scenario for the SDP, which serves as a warning to the rest of the state:
When the figures are compared to the district’s likely revenues in 2020, we find that supporting this rise in retirement costs could require SDP to cut as much as $283.9 million—13.0 percent of its spending—on other items. If SDP chose to meet the burden of rising retirement costs by raising the student-to-teacher ratio, it would require eliminating 3,077 (out of 9,227) teacher positions, effectively adding eight students per teacher, from sixteen to twenty-four. If SDP chose, instead, to meet the rise in retirement costs by reducing other components of teachers’ compensation, that drop would need to exceed $30,000 by 2020.
The Commonwealth Foundation estimates that under current law, annual taxpayer contibutions will increase by nearly $1,000 per household to fund pension liabilities for both public school employees and state employees.
Pennsylvania enacted significant pension reform in 2010, cutting benefit accruals for new hires by 25 percent. However, unlike the other two states we examine (Ohio and Wisconsin), the cuts did not make a dent in Pennsylvania’s rising retirement costs. This is because that rise—coming over the next few years—is due to the deferred funding of benefits previously earned, not the cost of benefits for new hires (which take many years to phase in).
For Pennsylvania to avoid school program cuts and higher taxes on working families, we need real pension reform now. For solutions to our pension crisis, visit Principles for Public Pension Reform.
A common complaint we hear about public cyber and charter schools is that they cost school districts too much money. Indeed, along with pension payments and lack of public support for tax increases, the “cost” of charter school students is one of the main budget problems cited by some school districts. Of course this ignores the fact that public cyber schools receive less funding than traditional schools—only 80 percent funding per student. The school districts keep the extra 20 percent without having to educate a child.
But did you know that Pennsylvania’s school districts also maintain generous reserve funds? These “rainy day” funds are supposed to fill budget gaps and compensate for tax revenue shortfalls. Given recent complaints of education funding cuts, these funds must surely be running dry, right? Not quite.
Updated Department of Education data shows that districts across the state hold more than $3.8 billion in reserve fund balances. That’s nearly a $300 million increase from last year.
That number sounds familiar, doesn’t it? $300 million is just about the yearly cost of public cyber schools for the entire state of Pennsylvania, and schools districts sock that amount away in just one year.
For even more perspective, the current $3.8 billion in school district reserves by themselves would pay for all the state’s cyber schools for more than a decade.
The next time you hear complaints about cyber schools taking funds from school districts, remember that districts are saving every year what cyber schools spend.
Help us defend cyber schools from funding cuts at www.CyberSchoolsSave.org and protect choice in public education for more than 32,000 Pennsylvania students.
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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.