In 2015, several states took action to improve the functionality of their public charter school laws. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania’s 130,000 charter students—as well as the thousands of students on currently on charter waitlists—progress in the commonwealth remained elusive.
According to an analysis by The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Pennsylvania’s charters are losing ground to schools other states. The 2015 report compares Pennsylvania law to the National Alliance’s model legislation. Pennsylvania’s national ranking slipped from 25th to 27th. Lawmakers can do more to ensure healthy growth in the charter sector, especially given that charters were among those hardest hit by the governor’s refusal to sign a responsible state budget until late December.
Findings from the National Alliance suggest that Pennsylvania’s charter laws, despite meeting standards in some categories, need improvement in several critical areas. The most notable failings were related to enrollment caps, authorizer accountability, and fair funding. The commonwealth also has room to grow in terms of access to capital funding and facilities. On the other hand, Pennsylvania received high marks for its transparent application and review processes, as well as for exemptions from local school district collective bargaining units.
What better way to celebrate National School Choice Week (NSCW)—which kicks off today—than to take action strengthening Pennsylvania’s charter school law? NSCW is the country’s largest annual celebration of educational opportunity. A more robust charter sector will empower families to chose from a larger group of high-quality schooling options.
Tom Wolf finally admitted he held school children hostage in hopes of higher taxes: “We're now at a point where I don't want to hold the children of Pennsylvania hostage.” But the governor’s six month crusade for tax hikes hurts more than children. His refusal to sign earlier emergency funding measures resulted in unnecessary pain and worry for countless Pennsylvanians.
Here are ten of Wolf's budget hostages from 2015:
- Children on the brink of returning to failing or violent schools: The governor waited until Christmas Eve to release authorization letters that allow businesses to donate private school scholarships, even though these programs are part of the tax code and have nothing to do with the budget. This resulted in confusion, and possibly fewer donations, which could disrupt the education for thousands of low- and middle-income students.
- Human service employees: Delayed funding to human services agencies caused more than 700 furloughs, according to a United Way survey. Others employees lost benefits or took salary reductions.
- Pre-kindergarteners: At the start of December, 15 early childhood centers were closed, according to the state Department of Education, affecting about 540 children from low-income families.
- Domestic abuse victims: Wolf cut off all funding—including federal—for domestic violence programs, forcing workers at shelters like Survivors Inc. in Adams County to turn away pregnant women and over 100 children. At the beginning of December, Wolf released some federal funds for these victims.
- Charter school students: Across Pennsylvania, charter schools were forced to reach into rainy day funds in order to remain open. Since charters are viewed as riskier investments than traditional school districts, it is more challenging for charters to borrow money. Pennsylvania charters were also denied revenue from the state Treasury when local districts were unwilling or unable to contribute per-student payments.
- Senior citizens: Senior centers around the state closed during the impasse. All four senior centers in Mercer County closed and laid off 50 percent of their employees.
- The hungry: Food banks across the commonwealth struggled throughout the impasse and some dipped into their reserve funds to keep putting food on the table.
- Local taxpayers: Interest payments for schools borrowing money to stay open have reached nearly $1 billion
- Local taxpayers II: Municipalities and counties have skimped on payments and considered borrowing funds to remain afloat. These measures resulted in tax increases or even bond rating downgrades.
- College students: State and federal grants for college students were on hold, as well. East Stroudsburg University offered bookstore credit to PHEAA grantees beginning in November and Penn State added the grants as a credit to bills even though the money hadn't yet come through.
In a nutshell, Gov. Tom Wolf’s guiding philosophy on education reform is to spend more money on public schools.
Embracing the repeatedly-debunked myth of education cuts under the previous administration—and undeterred by the weak relationship between spending and academic outcomes—Wolf leans heavily on this slogan in speaking engagements and social media:
However, no one is proposing to “make Pennsylvania schools weaker.” Even if you accept the governor’s shaky premise that a school’s strength is solely measured by dollars spent, you’d be hard pressed to find lawmakers—Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal—arguing for less education spending.
Except, of course, when it comes to cyber charter students.
Since the governor’s March budget address, Pennsylvania’s cyber students have been under attack. Wolf initially proposed to slash cyber revenues to $5,950 per student—an arbitrary sum that would reduce per-student spending by one-third. (For the sake of comparison, traditional school districts spend over $15,000 per-student in Pennsylvania).
This radical proposal never gained traction, but late last week Wolf demanded the “budget framework” include a provision cutting cyber funding by an estimated $65 million over the next two years. At a time when the state is increasing aid to school districts by more than $350 million, cyber schools—which enroll a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than do district schools—are threatened with devastating cuts.
In June, many cyber leaders actually agreed to provisions in a House-passed charter reform bill that included, among other things, a significant reduction in per-student revenue. But the Wolf-approved Senate plan cuts cyber funding three times more than the original agreement.
Can Pennsylvania grow stronger if cyber schools are made weaker? Or is Wolf content to treat 36,000 cyber students like second-class citizens?
In light of stagnating achievement among K-12 students, the last thing Pennsylvania should do is crack down on alternative educational options. Yet a growing chorus says 35,000 students enrolled in Pennsylvania's innovative cyber charter schools should be denied the educational experience that best suits their needs.
I recently submitted a letter to the editor to the Easton Express-Times on this subject:
A Stanford University study is the most recent catalyst for cyber school criticism, but the online education frontier is perpetually under fire in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, proposed massive cuts to online schools in his March budget address.
Remembering a few key points is critical when analyzing cyber school performance. First, there is no typical cyber charter student. Many children enroll in cyber schools after enduring bullying or unsafe conditions in a traditional school. Online education is often the only feasible alternative for students in a persistently failing district. What's more, cyber students typically enroll with substantial learning gaps that cannot be rectified in a single school year.
Just as traditional public schools vary, the online education network is diverse in course offerings and academic achievement. It would be a mistake to paint the entire sector with a broad brush.
A charter reform bill, HB 530, currently awaits action in the state Senate. Notably, many cyber charter leaders are supportive of the legislation. Increased accountability for public schools—all public schools, not merely cyber—is a reasonable policy goal with bipartisan support.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the crucial void filled by Pennsylvania’s cyber schools. Singling out cyber schools with Wolf's punitive cuts—and treating these students as second-class citizens—does not serve the best interests of Pennsylvania families desperate for choice and opportunity.
Over the last quarter century, national education scores in both reading and math have modestly trended upward—until this year.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released its biannual report on 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math scores. The results are sobering.
The report, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” draws comparisons among states and reveals overall trends in education across the country. Specifically, it measures student proficiency at the national and state levels as well as at 21 district levels (Philadelphia included).
The national level showed virtually no “proficiency” increase in any grade level or subject category. The only increase in reading scores was among 4th-grade students with disabilities or those eligible for the National School Lunch Program. Meanwhile, 8th-grade scores decreased across the board among males, females, whites, blacks, and Hispanics, as well as in suburbs, towns, and rural areas.
In Pennsylvania, 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 4th-grade math scores remained stagnant, while 8th-grade math scores dropped to a low not seen since before 2007. The commonwealth performs favorably, compared with other states, in overall NAEP performance—but much of this is driven by demographics. After adjusting by race and income, Pennsylvania ranks 16th in NAEP performance, illustrating a sizable achievement gap.
Philadelphia specifically, where scores are typically well below the national average, saw drops in 4th-grade math and no significant growth anywhere else. Student achievement in Philadelphia is far below the major urban cities average, exceeding only Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Fresno. In fact, students in Philadelphia did not achieve proficiency rates above 20 percent in either subject matter or grade level. In other words, fewer than 1 in 5 Philadelphia students are on grade level in math or reading.
Students and families cannot afford to wait another two years to learn whether scores improve or continue declining. A solution to this disturbing reality is the expansion of educational options through the EITC and OSTC programs, which empower students to attend high-performing private schools and deliver cost-savings to taxpayers. Unfortunately, the EITC and OSTC programs are currently in limbo—held hostage by the Wolf administration as leverage for massive tax hikes.
The Nation’s Report Card results underscore the urgent need for expanded school choice in Pennsylvania. Our state's children deserve no less.
Pennsylvania is home to several innovative education programs, including the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which provides a path to a great education for low income students.
CF’s James Paul spoke with WSBA’s Gary Sutton to explain how Gov. Wolf’s hostage-taking budget tactics are hurting students dependent on the EITC. By essentially putting the the program on hold, Gov. Wolf is severing a lifeline that many low income families use to escape failing schools.
[EITC] gets better results for families, lets them go to a school that best fits their needs, and also results in a great savings to the taxpayer. But instead of letting this program go forward and letting students be educated and teachers teach, it seems the Wolf administration is content to spread the pain around.
Despite claiming that his “hands are tied,” freezing the funding process for these educational programs demonstrates how Gov. Wolf prioritizes politics over school children and teachers.
Click here or listen below to hear more.
The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.
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Earlier this week, The Neighborhood Academy, a private school in Pittsburgh, held a rally in the state Capitol to highlight Gov. Wolf’s withholding tax credits for student scholarships.
Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC), along with the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), lets businesses contribute funds for scholarships so thousands of low-income students across Pennsylvania can attend private school.
For students, this is a lifeline to better or safer schools. For schools like The Neighborhood Academy serving high poverty areas, the scholarships are essential to survival.
The Wolf administration justifies withholding tax credits by claiming its “hands are tied” due to the budget impasse.
But this makes little sense. The EITC and OSTC are not appropriations that are part of the budget.
Instead, they’re part of Pennsylvania’s tax code. This code is in effect despite the budget impasse. After all, everyone reading this is still paying taxes.
Unfortunately, holding school children hostage has become part of that "pressure."
Families in Chester Upland breathed a sigh of relief this week after a Delaware County Judge rejected Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to arbitrarily slash payments for the district’s cyber and special needs charter students.
From The Inquirer:
After a hearing that stretched over two days, Judge Chad Kenney said the commonwealth's plan was "wholly inadequate" to restore the district to financial stability. He also faulted the state's and district's lawyers as failing to provide "meaningful specifics or details" as to how they arrived at the plan.
The ruling is a victory for Chester families pursuing high quality education—and an embarrassing setback for an administration fixated on limiting school choice in Pennsylvania.
In less than a year, Gov. Wolf has established an ugly record on education policy. Here's a recap:
- In March, Wolf removed Bill Green as chairman of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) after the SRC approved merely 5 of 39 applicants from new charter schools. This was a clear message that even tepid support for charters will not be tolerated.
- Wolf’s proposed state budget includes massive cuts to cyber schools—reducing their revenue by one-third—and denies all charters the right to maintain rainy day reserve funds. Recent events in Salisbury and Bethlehem underscore why charters deserve to hold reasonable fund balances.
- Wolf undermined the recovery plan in York City School District, effectively forcing out the district’s chief recovery officer as retribution for his support of charter schools.
- Wolf personally lobbied three Democratic state representatives who bucked party leadership in support of legislation that would protect excellent public school teachers from furloughs. After the governor met personally with Reps. Davidson, Harris, and Wheatley, the trio of Democrats were no-shows for a vote on a key amendment to the bill.
- Wolf attempted to balance Chester Upland’s budget on the backs of special education charter students. Chester students are otherwise relegated to a school system Wolf admits “failed its students” and has been “mismanaged for over 25 years.”
- Wolf’s Department of Education issued a “kill order” to Education Plus Academy, a cyber charter school that primarily serves special needs students, one week before the start of the school year. Why is the administration threatening to shut down Ed Plus? For spending too much time educating students in person, and not enough time engaging in strictly online instruction.
Given that educational choice continues to deliver positive results for students and families, one can only wonder why Gov. Wolf is so vehemently opposed to it.
Chester Upland School District is ground zero for the most recent example of this hyper-partisan, antiquated philosophy.
Yesterday, the Wolf administration went to court in Delaware County, filing an amended recovery plan for Chester Upland that would slash district payments to charter schools. Officials project $25 million in savings entirely through reduced payments for special education charter students and flat-funding cyber charter students at $5,950 per pupil.
Although Wolf admits that district finances have been “mismanaged for over 25 years,” his solution is to effectively block families from a escaping a school system that has, in the words of Wolf, “failed its students.”
What does failure look in Chester Upland? Two percent of students are proficient in math at Chester High School. Sixteen percent are proficient in reading. The average SAT score for Chester High students is 725 (out of 1600), and the School Performance Profile (SPP) score is 33.5.
In contrast, the three brick and mortar charter schools that receive Chester Upland students have SPP scores of 71.7, 61.5, and 51.3. Parents and students have been fleeing to better-performing schools.
Persistently low academic performance spurred almost 54 percent of Chester students to enroll in charters. Naturally, charter payments assume a significant chunk of the district budget—46 percent in 2014-15.
Although charter students account for more than half of the district’s enrollment, they comprise less than half of the district’s cost.
Chester Upland certainly faces financial challenges, but charters are not the culprit. Amazingly, the revised recovery plan includes no other cost saving measures aside from the punitive action taken against charters.
The illogical Wolf Doctrine on public education is perfectly encapsulated, here, by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera:
“For too long the quality of education a student receives has been dictated by their zip code, and in some cases a child’s education has suffered due to the missteps of adults. Reducing the structural deficit is essential in order to secure financial stability for the district and make the improvements needed to provide Chester Upland students with the opportunities they deserve.”
These remarks are detached from reality, as it is the Wolf administration perpetuating the “education-by-zip code” travesty that has dominated public education for decades. Trapping families in a failed district and arbitrarily punishing students seeking alternative educational options will not produce “Schools that Teach.”
Amidst a flurry of hearings on severance taxes, incomes taxes, and pension reform, a piece of legislation with less fanfare advanced with bipartisan support out of the Senate Education Committee. Senate Bill 6 has the potential to rescue thousands of students from persistently underperforming public schools.
Senator Smucker's SB 6 has two major components. First, it would enable school districts to utilize new powers to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent of statewide performance. These schools would be identified as "intervention schools," and local school boards would have enhanced staffing flexibility, as well as the ability to convert the school into a charter.
Most importantly, the legislation creates an Achievement School District (ASD), which could absorb schools in the bottom 1 percent of performance. This is the most transformative aspect of the law. Perpetually failing schools would transfer to the ASD, which has similar powers outlined above. However, the ASD is overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the governor and legislature. This unique management structure provides the right incentives to institute meaningful school reform for students who need it most.
Achievement school districts are gaining in popularity across the country as a means to turn around chronically underperforming schools. They are perhaps most famous in New Orleans, where a Recovery School District was scaled up after Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, some 93 percent of public school students attend charters. Only 7 percent of schools are currently designated as failing, compared to 62 percent less than a decade ago. And 62 percent of students test at grade level or above, up from 35 percent in 2006.
Similar turnaround school district initiatives exist in Tennessee and Michigan, and they have recently been enacted in Georgia and Nevada.
Education solutions must be more innovative and forward-looking than simply raising taxes—especially given that Pennsylvania education spending is currently at an all-time high. During Tuesday’s hearing on SB 6, Democratic Senator Anthony Williams explained tax hikes over the last fifteen years have not improved the quality of schools in his district.
"Pouring more water into a bucket that has holes in it doesn't put out the fire." Take a look at Sen. Williams' complete remarks:
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