School Choice




More on Philadelphia School Trends

AUGUST 15, 2014

Philadelphia-based Research for Action (RFA) took issue with CF’s Policy Points on spending, enrollment, and staffing trends in the School District of Philadelphia. The RFA rebuttal intended to provide “a more complete grasp of the situation.” Yet they don’t dispute any of the facts we provided in the Policy Points, which offer broader perspective on what has happened in Philadelphia over the past decade. Instead of “informing this important dialogue,” RFA only has spin to contribute.  

The following will respond to their criticism, point by point.

Why did CF examine the ten year window between 2002-2003 and 2012-2013?

By not including statistics from the 2013-2014 school year, RFA accuses CF of using “selective data points to build a case.” Our Policy Points relied on data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) Annual Financial Reports, Public School Enrollment Reports, and Professional Personnel Reports. For each set of reports, the most recent year of available data is 2012-2013, so naturally, this is where we concluded our analysis. PDE statistics from 2013-2014 were not available. Far from using “selective data points,” the CF analysis draws on the most recent available information on the preceding decade.

Given the high levels of poverty in Philadelphia, shouldn’t low test scores be expected?

RFA notes that “nobody should satisfied with academic performance among city students.” The authors then qualify this statement by adding that Philadelphia’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation and “its [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores on most categories are comparable to cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago with significantly lower poverty rates.” In other words: Philadelphia scores are lousy, but they are similar to the scores of other cities with high levels of poverty. RFA provides the chart below, which does very little to support their claims.

RFA NAEP

Philadelphia may have a slightly higher poverty rate than Los Angeles, but it also has lower test scores in three of the four categories. Compared to Chicago, Philadelphia scores are lower in all four categories. RFA is thus being rather liberal with the word “comparable.” Also of note: the only listed district with a higher poverty rate—Dallas—has higher average test scores than Philadelphia in all four categories. In this case, even the “selective data points” chosen by RFA do not support their arguments.

RFA claims the CF analysis of academic achievement “rests solely…on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” This is false, as the CF report also compares how charter schools stack up against district schools on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles (SPP). Charters significantly outperform district schools in Philadelphia on this metric, which is noteworthy, since they both operate in similar environments of poverty. 

When it comes to SPP scores, we agree with RFA that cyber charters have been underwhelming. Of course, cyber schools have the ultimate incentives to succeed and improve: they will be shut down if they persistently fail, and they only receive funding when parents choose these schools as the best place to educate their children. 

Throughout their rebuttal, RFA insists on singling out poverty as an explanation of poor academic performance. It is dangerous to get caught up in this “myth of helplessness”—a phrase coined by education policy expert Dr. Jay P. Green. Although many students face serious social problems outside the control of local school districts, is this reason enough to oppose school reforms that expand choice, opportunity, and accountability? Poverty must not become an excuse that prevents schools from improving their services to children and families.

Are charter schools contributing to growing costs for the district?

RFA claims that because “charters assume 30 percent of the district’s budget” they “undeniably contribute to the district’s rising costs.” This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of charter school financing.

For each student attending a charter, the child's home school district sends a payment to the charter equaling the district’s per-student spending, excluding all expenditures for adult education programs, community/junior college programs, student transportation, facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services, debt payments, and federal funds received.

The bottom line? Charters schools spend and receive less funding per student than district schools. In Pennsylvania, this discrepancy amounts to an average $1500 per student, money that school districts retain for students they no longer educate. Accordingly, it is wrong to argue that charter schools add additional costs beyond those of traditional public schools. 

Charters should not be criticized or punished for attracting new students. It is incumbent on district schools to compete, innovate, and improve in order to win back the lost enrollment, as well as the payments that are sent to charter schools.

What is happening with district enrollment? What implications does it have for spending trends?

Over the last decade, district schools have seen a 25 percent decline in enrollment, while charter schools have seen a three-fold increase. This is where spending per Average Daily Membership (ADM) is helpful, because it includes charter enrollment and provides a complete look at district-wide trends.

Curiously, the RFA report did not address CF’s analysis of spending per ADM—which has unquestionably increased in Philadelphia. This is true over both the 5 year and 10 year snapshot, with an inflation-adjusted 8 percent increase since 2008-2009, and a 21 percent increase since 2002-2003. 

philly schools spending per adm

Keep in mind, these figures actually underestimate spending in district-run schools, because they include charter enrollment. As mentioned above, charters spend and receive less funding than traditional public schools.

The RFA authors also claim that “districts cannot pare personnel, building, and services costs proportionately” to offset enrollment declines. This fixed costs argument is a classic red herring in the case against school choice.

What about the bond sale?

RFA seems to view a recent Philadelphia bond issue as a smoking gun in the case for increased state and federal funding for district schools. Of course, borrowing the revenue is not a policy supported by CF either then or now. It will amount to more costs over the long term, and it is yet another temporary solution to a long-term problem. If anything, this type of action underscores the urgent need for better financial management. The bond issue does not change the fact that district spending has increased substantially, which is a key finding of CF’s decade-long analysis.

What is happening to class sizes?

The original CF Policy Points was careful not to make any specific claims about average class sizes in Philadelphia. Our report merely presents the facts: the student-to-teacher ratio has declined over the last ten years. In 2012-2013, this ratio was 15.6 to 1. Nowhere did we claim that the average class size is 15 or 16 students. Average class sizes tend to be somewhat larger than the student-to-teacher ratio. But the ratio remains useful information in the context of claims that classrooms are on the verge of skyrocketing to 40 children or more. In light of a declining student-to teacher trend, it’s fair to say such claims are exaggerated and misleading.

Are school districts struggling to meet their obligations for pensions and debt/construction costs?

Absolutely this is the case, and we agree with RFA on this point. There is no disputing that these obligated costs will force a greater percentage of funds to be spent in areas other than classroom instruction. The key question now, however, is how to deal with such fiscal challenges. Do expensive bills for pensions and debt provide carte blanche to raise taxes? This has certainly been the preferred approach over the last decade, and it appears to remain the preferred approach for those in favor of an increased cigarette tax in Philadelphia.

What would a different approach look like? It would include reforms to public employee pensions, an issue we’ve been concerned about for quite some time. Prevailing wage reform is another step that would significantly lower school construction costs.

CF is hopeful that RFA will join us in support of these policy objectives, which would result in important savings to taxpayers, as well as increased flexibility for local school districts feeling the wrath of poor policy decisions from several years prior. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 08:20 AM | Comments

Study: Charter Schools More Efficient

JULY 28, 2014

School Choice

It is impossible to do more with less, they say; you cannot expect schools to achieve better results without increasing spending.

Yet an essential new report from the University of Arkansas dispels this myth by measuring the cost effectiveness and return on investment (ROI) of charter schools compared to traditional public schools (TPS). The authors find significant advantages for charters in their study of 28 states.

When it comes to cost effectiveness, or bang-for-your-buck, the authors measure National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores per $1,000 of per-pupil revenue.

In this category, charter students achieved an average of 17 more NAEP points in math and 16 more NAEP points in reading than TPS students. In other words, charters were 40% more cost effective—while receiving less funding per student than their traditional counterparts. 

Charters Cost Effective

Consider this most recent study another piece of the ever-mounting evidence that school choice is a win for students, a win for parents, and a win for taxpayers. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:30 PM | Comments

Hope and Success in Opportunity Scholarship Program

JULY 15, 2014

James Cromartie is a 7th grader at the School of Church Farm in Exton, Pa. His mom, Lynne, is grateful for the school's challenging academics, art, music and athletic programs.

"Many of these 'extras' are unavailable at the middle schools in my neighborhood," she explains.

James is one of thousands helped by the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). Reserved for students in the lowest-performing public schools, the OSTC provides hope in largely hopeless situations. The program helped 1,318 students with $15.6 million in credits claimed in its first year. Fifty million dollars in scholarships will be available in the future, meaning the program can save almost three times as many kids from failing schools!

The OSTC, like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), allows businesses to receive tax deductions for funding scholarships, so students like James can participate in groups that don’t exist in many public schools.

The quality of these programs is gaining national praise. A new report by the Center for Education Reform gives Pennsylvania a 'B' grade with the fourth best school choice options in the nation.

Plus, the OSTC is saving tax dollars. Each OSTC student that chooses to attend a private school instead of a public school saves taxpayers more than $11,000.

Cost per Student FY 2012-13

Public Public School Spending Per Student

$14,621

Average Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit

$3,193

Savings Per Scholarship Student

$11,428

Lynne continues, "The effects of inferior education are devastating to families and communities. Parents should be able to select an educational setting which best fits the needs of their child and their families. The Opportunity Scholarship has enabled me to send my son to the school of his choice so that he can pursue his educational goals and dreams."

The OSTC, like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, is a win for families, businesses and taxpayers. But most importantly, it's giving children trapped in violent and failing schools a second chance.

posted by MICHAEL HOGG, ELIZABETH STELLE | 02:32 PM | Comments

A Fair Funding Formula: School Choice

JUNE 12, 2014

Case for School Choice

Although it doesn’t fit the popular narrative of cash-starved school districts, spending on education is at an all-time high.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education budget reached $11.2 billion in FY 2013-14, more than one-third of the total $28.4 billion in General Fund appropriations. Basic education funding alone increased by $90 million, bringing that line item to nearly $5.5 billion.

While school district spending exceeds $14,000 per student, ranking 10th in the nation, performance has not improved with spending increases. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows nearly three in five Pennsylvania’s 8th grade students aren’t making proficiency in reading and math. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania public schools reported 14,572 violent incidents in the 2012-2013 school year.

In contrast, schools of choice have become increasingly popular as they spend less per student and provide better and safer schools for families. School choice saves Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Public charter schools and cyber charter schools educate children for a fraction of the $14,027 per pupil spent in public district schools. The average EITC scholarship, which allows a child to leave a district school for a school of his or her choice, was $1,100 in 2011-12, while non-public schools receive about $1,250 per pupil in taxpayer support. If each of the 391,657 students utilizing school choice returned to public district schools, schools would require an additional $3.8 billion in revenue to handle the enrollment.

Total Taxpayer Savings from Students Attending Schools of Choice

 2011-12 School Year

 

Savings Per Student*

Number of Students**

Total Savings

Private and Nonpublic

$12,777

265,724

$3,395,155,548

EITC Scholarship Students

$11,677

45,200

$527,800,400

Home School

$14,027

20,897

$293,122,219

Public Charter (Total)

$1,429

105,036

$150,096,444

Cyber Charter

$2,516

32,322

$81,322,152

Total

 

391,657

$3,838,374,211

* Includes All state funding for nonpublic schools plus tax credits for EITC scholarships as a cost.

** Homeschooling enrollment estimate based on 2007-08 PDE data.

Sources: PA Department of Education, Summaries of Annual Financial Report Data; Public School Enrollment Reports, http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/data_and_statistics/7202

A report by the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice found that school choice “improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, [and] moves students into more integrated classrooms.” The report includes numerous empirical studies. It finds 11 out of 12 gold standard studies found school choice improved academic outcomes for participants, and all six empirical studies of school choice’s fiscal impact found that school choice saves taxpayer money. Not only is school choice a sound investment for the state, it places power back into the hands of parents.

Is it possible to better educate students at a lower cost to taxpayers? Absolutely, and school choice programs prove it.

posted by JESSICA BARNETT | 09:00 AM | Comments

Philadelphia Charter Schools Fight for Students

MAY 23, 2014

In the search for a solution to its nearly $30 million year-end deficit—not to mention a projected $216 million budget gap next year—the School District of Philadelphia is once again putting public charter schools on the chopping block.

Blaming charter school payments for the district’s increased financial distress, the School Reform Commission (SRC) moved to enforce enrollment caps and withhold funding late last year. This move, illegal in all of Pennsylvania’s other 499 school districts, means that charters must either send students back to their local schools or suffer the threat of having their charters revoked.

But West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School is fighting for its students. Last week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted the school’s request for an injunction against the SRC’s decision, putting at least a temporary stop to the punitive measures.

What’s at stake? West Philadelphia Achievement’s CEO and co-founder Stacy Gill Phillips wants to prevent sending 200 students back to the failing and often violent schools from which they fled (via Philly.com):

The drive behind our historic lawsuit is the best interests of students and families who are desperately seeking quality education. It is time that we shift the charter school conversation from the School District's bottom line back to the children of Philadelphia, where it belongs.

With more than 60,000 current Philadelphia charter students and 44,000 students  on the state’s waiting list, many students and parents clearly prefer charter schools—and there’s academic achievement to back it up. As PA Independent reports, the School Performance Profile for Philadelphia district schools scored 57.5, while its charter schools scored 66.9.

Competition for school funding continues to drive harmful educational policy, even though increased spending doesn’t necessarily lead to better education. Case in point: Students will wait in lines thousands deep for the opportunities charter schools provide, even though they receive 20 percent less funding per pupil.

What Philadelphia needs is true charter reform which would, as Nate Benefield testified before the Auditor General, strengthen charter school accountability and transparency and pursue alternative authorizers, like 16 other states have.

In the battle between district and charter schools, Phillips puts it best:

If the School District sees a need to control the growth of charter schools, then it should squash the tremendous demand from Philadelphia families by doing its job: offering a quality education to the city's children.

Rather than seek to close and stifle the growth of quality charter schools for financial gain, the School District must evaluate why it has lost so many students, fix where it went wrong, and achieve the level of excellence that will give parents a reason to return to district schools.

 

posted by JESSICA BARNETT | 08:00 AM | Comments

SAT Scores Slip While Spending Soars

APRIL 16, 2014

Pennsylvania education spending is at at all-time high and ranks near the top in dollars spent per student among the states. But all of that extra spending isn't helping kids succeed.

In fact, SAT scores have declined while spending has soared. According to a new Cato Institute analysis, Pennsylvania students perform worse, on average, on the SATs now compared to 1972, despite an almost 120 percent increase—adjusted for inflation—in spending per student. See the chart below.

SAT scor vs Spending

How are we spending so much more without improving education outcomes? The answer is simple: There is no correlation between spending and achievement. How the money is spent is more important than how much money there is to spend. The Cato analysis finds the correlation between state spending and academic achievement is not significant:

Correlations are measured on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 represents absolutely no correlation
between two data series and 1 represents a perfect correlation. Anything below 0.3 or 0.4 is
considered a weak correlation. The 0.075 figure reported here suggests that there is essentially no link between state education spending (which has exploded) and the performance of students at the end of high school (which has generally stagnated or declined).

The answer to our education woes is not more spending, but smarter spending. Education reform should also mean protecting high performing teachers, embracing different education models (themed public charter schools or public cyber charter schools) to serve different learning styles, and reforming the archaic student funding formula.  

School choice and competition is the key to saving students, not never-ending spending increases. 

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 02:29 PM | Comments

Pennsylvania Still Not Making the Grade

FEBRUARY 3, 2014

The bipartisan education reform group, StudentsFirst, released its annual State Policy Report Card grading each state's education policies and demonstrating the need for more student-centered reforms.

How did Pennsylvania fare? Well, we got a D+.

However, other states didn't fare much better as “D+” was the national average. StudentsFirst assessed each state’s education policies on three criteria: elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents, and whether or not a state spends wisely and governs well. Pennsylvania did not score above a “C” in any of these categories.

Why did Pennsylvania score so low, and how can it improve?

Elevate the Teaching Profession (C-): Pennsylvania made progress in this pillar by instituting a new teacher evaluation system, called the Teacher Effectiveness System. The profile is designed to effectively identify teachers who are excelling, while providing support to those teachers who need improvement. To improve, StudentsFirst suggests ending the practice of making employment decisions based only on seniority, which harms both teachers and students.

Empower Parents (D-): Pennsylvania has not done enough to empower parents to make informed educational choices for their children. The state should implement an A-F grading system, building on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, to provide parents with an easy-to-understand way to assess each school, and hold schools more accountable. Supporting the growth of high-performing public charter schools would also go a long way in empowering parents.

If policymakers are looking for the most effective way to empower parents, they should consider expanding educational tax credits and scholarships, which would rescue children from violent and failing schools. Not only would an expansion empower parents, but it would save taxpayers money and improve educational outcomes.

Spend Wisely and Govern Well (C): While Pennsylvania spends more than $14,000 per student, we have not seen the kind of positive results expected from such a large investment. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), more than half of 4th and 8th grade students are not proficient in reading and math. In order to make more effective use of taxpayer resources, StudentsFirst suggests linking spending to student outcomes, creating a statewide recovery district for low-performing schools and providing teachers with a portable retirement plan.

Despite the nation's "D+" grade, progress is being made, as StudentFirst notes:

The second takeaway is that change is still happening much too slowly. Instead of passing a comprehensive set of education policies, far too many states are taking a piecemeal approach. Other states appear to employ an on-again, off-again approach to education, focusing heavily on education reform one year, then taking a pass on putting any complementary policies into place the next year.

Any progress is welcome, but states need to pick up the pace on reform. The longer reform is put off, the more children will suffer from sub-par education in failing schools. Their future depends on education reform.

posted by BOB DICK | 00:45 PM | Comments

Philly Experiment Shows Charter School Promise

JANUARY 17, 2014

School Choice 101

Philadelphia schools have long battled declining student achievement, sky-rocketing violence, and unsustainable spending levels. Yet, several turn-around schools have managed to overcome this bleak educational trajectory and should serve as a model for further reforms.

Pennsylvania Independent’s Maura Pennington examines the striking consequences of Philadelphia School District’s 2010 experiment in reforming its lowest performing schools. The district employed two models: district-managed Promise Academies and privately-operated Renaissance Charter Schools.

The outcome? In short, things worsened for district-run schools, but the Renaissance Charter alternatives are showing improvement.

The latest report shows that the district’s Promise Academies lacked proper oversight and clarity as they sought to hire new staff and enforce a uniform dress code. One major hurdle they could not overcome was seniority requirements, which led to major staffing problems. And the district’s fiscal mismanagement led to funding decreases that severed the cornerstone of the reform—greater student instruction time.

At this point, three district-run Promise Academy high schools have closed, and in those that remain, academic performance sits below the district average. 

Renaissance Charter Schools—free from seniority requirements and other bureaucratic restrictions—managed to surmount the same obstacles and forge a path to success. When implementing new policies and procedures, they were governed by specific missions and goals and, consequently, achieved, according to one Renaissance Charter parent, “more order, organization, safer learning environment and a mutually agreed upon commitment from the staff at all levels.”

The benefits are tangible:

  • Decreased violence. At Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, serious safety incidents plummeted from 23.86 per 100 students in 2008-09 to .61 in 2010.
  • Increased academic achievement: Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School gained 10 percentage points in reading and math proficiency one year after the change.

With such stark results and parental support, Philadelphia should look to the charter model of reform to take its failing schools to the next level.   

posted by JESSICA BARNETT, JOHN BOUDER | 11:30 AM | Comments

PODCAST: StudentsFirst on Education Reform

JANUARY 8, 2014

Part two of our conversation with Ashley DeMauro, PA state director for StudentsFirst, features an in-depth discussion of seniority reform, teacher evaluations, school transparency, and charter school reform.  Here are some highlights:

How can we measure teacher effectiveness to ensure education quality?

Because of recent reforms pushed for by StudentsFirst and others, Pennsylvania now has a robust, 4-tier rating system for educator performance.

So, once they're identified, how do we reward and protect the best public school teachers in the state?

Doing away with the "last in, first out" seniority-based hiring and firing is an obvious step one.

How can we make school spending and contracting more transparent to protect taxpayers?

A proposed transparency website called SchoolWATCH promises to do just that.

What’s on the General Assembly’s plate regarding long-overdue charter school reform?

SB 1085, while unnecessarily punitive to cyber schools, promises to expand charter authorization while enhancing accountability measures.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Find out more about StudentsFirst in PA and follow them on Twitter @PAStudentsFirst.

In case you missed it, listen to our first conversation with Ashley DeMauro on Pennsylvania's new student performance profiles.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 02:55 PM | Comments

VIDEO: Charter Schools Threatened by Punitive Rules

JANUARY 2, 2014

With a waiting list 30,000 students long, you'd think Philadelphia would be working to expand the reach of charter schools. Sadly, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission is seeking just the opposite, despite the city's dismal academic achievement scores.

As reported by Maura Pennington of the Pennsylvania Independent, the School Reform Comission recently issued an ultimatum to several area charter schools. A bevy of new rules and regulations, called SRC-1, were to be signed by December 15, but many charters have refused to comply.

These new rules would restrict charter growth via enrollment caps—even for high-performing charters—and enable the School District of Philadelphia to withhold their funding, according to Sarah Leitner at MediaTrackers PA.

What's behind this power grab by the education establishment and how can charters fight to maintain choice for urban students?

We talked to Maura Pennington and Sarah Leitner in our latest Google Hangout:

Stay up to date on social media:

Twitter: @PAIndependent & @MediaTrackersPA
Facebook: PA Independent & MediaTrackers PA

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 09:00 AM | Comments

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