School Choice




School Choice: Helping One Student at a Time

DECEMBER 20, 2016

As a recent graduate from PA Leadership Charter School (PALCS), I’m familiar with school choice. In fact, for the past five years, I have joined my Student Government on an annual trip to the capitol in an effort to preserve and strengthen cyber charter schools. I have been homeschooled and cyber charter schooled all of my life, and I know these schools are worth fighting for because traditional schools don’t work for everyone. I've heard countless stories from students who found success when given the choice for an alternative education. 

Benjamin and Cherise BylerMy sister, Cherise, is one of those students.

Upon Cherise’s adoption from Haiti at the age of six, my parents discovered she had lead poisoning, a condition bearing symptoms of developmental delays and learning disabilities. As a result, she processed information more slowly than most and struggled to remember what she learned.

My parents homeschooled her and the rest of my siblings until we reached middle and high school. In the fall of 2009, she began PALCS for about a month. Without an IEP, she struggled in her classes. Thankfully, the principal of our school district’s elementary school recommended we test her for an IEP at Paxtonia Elementary School. At 12 years old, Cherise enrolled at Paxtonia. After completing her IEP tests, she was placed in a 4th grade classroom with 1st grade work.

She loved it. Every day, she met with a Special Ed teacher, thrived in her studies, and enjoyed the public school experience.

One might conclude that because traditional public school helped her succeed once, it would always be the best choice for her. This was not the case. Before Cherise turned 13 in August of 2010, the school district moved her to Central Dauphin Middle School so she could stay closer to her age group. Skipping 5th grade, Cherise found herself in a Special Ed 6th grade classroom.

On the spectrum of severely mentally disabled to normal, Cherise fell just short of normal. Many of her classmates, though, struggled with more complex or severe disabilities. As a result, the classroom proved difficult for her on account of many distractions, interruptions, and behavioral challenges from classmates. Added to that, she faced racist remarks on the school bus and witnessed other students face bullying and discrimination outside the classroom.

Do all public school students experience these circumstances? Absolutely not. However, for Cherise, it was the furthest thing from the thriving learning environment she deserved.

That’s when PALCS came back into the picture. At that time in her life, and for the right reasons, PALCS worked for Cherise. After finishing 6th grade, she transferred back to PALCS with her IEP and thrived in 7th grade. Ever since, Cherise has had the opportunity to job shadow with various local businesses, complete speech therapy, receive one-on-one help from teachers, meet consistently with a life skills teacher, increase her reading skills, and even take classes to earn an arts certificate when she graduates next spring.

I could not be more proud of Cherise and the hard work she’s done to learn and stretch herself. Were it not for school choice and the wonderful teachers and faculty who support it, she would not be where she is today. Her story makes clear that both traditional and cyber charter schools have something to offer students. Both systems exist for the student, and every student is unique. Therefore, whether students thrive in a traditional public school or in cyber charter school, school choice matters. Cherise can attest to that.

posted by BEN BYLER | 09:21 AM | Comments

Magnum, P.I. Comes to Bethlehem

DECEMBER 7, 2016

Bethlehem School District employs private investigators to track down students with fraudulent home addresses. According to The Morning Call, DBM Investigations and Consulting has identified 35 students fraudulently enrolled in Bethlehem schools who will now be expelled:

Superintendent Joseph Roy told the board that DBM used multiple methods to determine whether students and their families actually live in the district, such as looking at public records and knocking on doors. In some cases, an investigator staked out houses to see who came and went, Roy said.

"For people who are purposefully misleading us and lying about their address, that requires more intensive investigation," Roy said. "But we're very, very pleased with the result at a really small cost to the district."

Roy said the district is not pursuing any financial compensation or criminal penalties against the offending families, though it legally could have.

Why is this happening? Two reasons.

First: Nearby Allentown School District limits the number of Allentown students permitted to enroll in charter schools. In so doing, Allentown owes less money to charters and forces the charters to enroll students from other districts. 

This doesn’t change the fact that parents in Allentown are desperate for charter schools. So they submit paperwork with phony Bethlehem residences—thereby requiring the charter school to bill Bethlehem instead of Allentown.

Secondly, The Morning Call explains that some of the fraudulent addresses are from parents who want to enroll in Bethlehem public schools but do not live within district boundaries.

What a sad state of affairs. Unfortunately this nothing new in Pennsylvania—or elsewhere in the country—where districts are increasingly cracking down on “education thieves.”

To be clear: families should not be celebrated for knowingly submitting false paperwork. But stories such as these demonstrate the lengths parents will go when they are denied educational choice.

Further, they underscore the need to free children from arbitrary school district boundaries. Whether that means expanding access to charter schools, increasing the caps on Pennsylvania’s private scholarship programs, or enacting education savings accounts—all families deserve multiple educational options.

Be thankful if you live in a district with a high quality public school—or have the means to afford private or homeschooling alternatives. Beyond that? Think about supporting school choice for all children in Pennsylvania. Where you live should never determine the quality of your education.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:15 PM | Comments

Children Benefit From School Choice, And So Do You

NOVEMBER 2, 2016

The moral argument for school choice is irrefutable: Every child deserves access to a first-rate education. Families should not be limited by the supply of public schools within artificially-drawn district boundaries. This is why Pennsylvania’s private scholarship programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), are so important. They empower thousands of children each year to break free of the education-by-zip code injustice and instead attend a school that best fits their unique needs.

It is not just scholarship recipients, however, who benefit from tax credit programs. Taxpayers, too, realize massive savings thanks to school choice. This according to The Tax-Credit Scholarship Audit, an essential new report from the team at EdChoice.

Author Marty Lueken’s analysis of Pennsylvania’s EITC program finds roughly $1.3 billion in taxpayer savings between 2002 and 2014. The report, which does not examine the OSTC, compares the cost of an EITC scholarship with the variable costs of each student enrolled in traditional public schools.

Crucially, Lueken estimates and accounts for students who switch from public to private schools as a result of the scholarship program. These are the students who generate the highest savings to taxpayers. The report estimates between 26 and 45 percent of scholarship recipients must have switched from public schools in order for the program to be fiscally neutral—certainly a reasonable and achievable projection.

What’s the bottom line? Say you’re pleased with your local public school. Perhaps you never thought twice about the state’s scholarship program, and you don’t have strong feelings about school choice one way or another. If you’re a Pennsylvania taxpayer, you have still benefited from the EITC.

All the more reason to increase the program and provide more scholarships to families.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

House Speaker Seeks Boost for Vital Scholarship Programs

OCTOBER 17, 2016

Pennsylvania’s private school scholarship programs account for less than 2 percent of the $11 billion in state funds allocated for public schools. Yet it is impossible to overstate the significance of these programs for children and families.

Kevin McCorry of Newsworks tells the story of Thomas Short, a parent in South Philadelphia, who can send his sons to private school thanks to the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs:

The only way he's able to afford Catholic school tuition is because he takes advantage of a scholarship program that's funded by state tax credits. Tuition for two children normally runs north of $9,000 per year.

With the scholarship, he pays just $1,500.

"Without this, [they're] not going here," he said.

According to Mr. Short, St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary is a better option than the traditional district school:

Short's perception of the nearby neighborhood public schools is low.

"They're not trying to develop the person as much as just trying to get them through to the next grade," he said. "I don't know why I'm saying that. It's just my opinion. Maybe that's how the public schools used to be back in the day when I went."

If House Speaker Mike Turzai has his way, the EITC and OSTC will see a sizable boost during the next fiscal year. Speaker Turzai recently released a co-sponsorship memo for legislation increasing the caps on how much businesses may donate to both programs—up from $175 million to $250 million.

This, on the heels of a $25 million EITC increase last July, would be welcome news for families and schoolchildren across the commonwealth.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

Pennsylvania's Economy is Struggling

SEPTEMBER 27, 2016

Americans finally got a raise! That's the gist of recent headlines hailing significant economic growth in 2015, but in Pennsylvania the economy is still struggling. 

From 1991 to 2015, Pennsylvania ranked 46th in job growth, 45th in personal income growth, and 46th in population growth while the size and scope of state government grew dramatically.

Consider the state's unemployment problem:

So what’s the solution to the state’s decades-long stagnation? Some have proposed government mandates like a minimum wage hike and raising taxes to pay for more government spending.

Neither will solve our economic challenges.

Let’s take the minimum wage first. In practice, it harms the very people it intends to help.

For example, Chicago restaurant owners Mark Robertson and Mike Sullivan recently closed their Mexican restaurant because of the city’s wage mandate. The owners stated,

Unfortunately, the rapidly changing labor market for the hospitality industry has resulted in immediate, substantial increases in payroll expenses that we could not absorb through price increases” … “In the last two years, we have seen a 27 percent increase in the base minimum wage, a 60 percent increase in kitchen wages, and a national shortage of skilled culinary workers.

Increasing government spending is another popular proposal that harms the economy. States with the highest tax rates experience slower income growth and job growth than states with the lowest tax rates.

The commonwealth must head in a new direction.

The first step is restraining government spending—starting with $800 million in corporate welfare—and lowering taxes to put more money in the pockets of working people.

Another critical step is improving the quality of education. Increasing school choice options—such as expanding tax credit scholarships is critical to creating a society where all Pennsylvanians can seize economic opportunities. 

Together, these solutions will empower Pennsylvanians and reinvigorate the state's economy.

posted by ANDREW RYAN | 10:31 AM | Comments

Podcast: Why Charter Schools - and School Choice - Matter

SEPTEMBER 21, 2016

In Pennsylvania, 130,000 kids attend public charter schools—about 5 percent of the state’s schoolchildren.

For many of these kids and parents, charter schools are a lifeline to a safer, better education. Unfortunately, demand for charters continues to far exceed supply, resulting in thousands of students languishing on waiting lists—subject to the whims of a lottery to determine their future.

In this week's episode of Commonwealth Insight, we talk with Nina Rees, president & CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about why charter schools matter, what to do about failing charter schools, and the elements that bring success to a charter school.

Regarding charter school oversight, Nina says charters are, “given a degree of autonomy and freedom in exchange for accountability.” What level of accountability? “A charter can be closed if it doesn’t live up to expectations in its contract or attract enough students.”

The truth is, no one is forced to attend a charter school—they truly are schools of choice. The fact that thousands are lining up to choose them speaks volumes about the value parents see in these alternatives to local school districts.

Later in the podcast, James Paul, CF’s senior policy analyst and education expert, joins to discuss school choice in Pennsylvania—and addresses claims that choice drains resources from school districts.

“If you believe, as I do, that these funds belong to children and families, then any objections to draining funding simply don’t pass muster,” James says.

Indeed, the first goal of public education funding should be to serve the next generation of Pennsylvanians, not to simply maintain the status quo in an educational system or institution. When funds follow families, everyone wins.

Click here or listen below, and stay tuned for more by subscribing on iTunes, SoundCloudGoogle PlayStitcher, or via RSS.

posted by DOUGLAS BAKER | 11:03 AM | Comments

Public Remains Supportive of School Choice

AUGUST 30, 2016

That’s the upshot of the 10th annual public opinion survey from Education Next, which covers a range of topics including school choice, school spending, personnel policy, testing, and accountability. The entire poll results are worth reading—check out the interactive results from 2016, as well as trends over the last decade—but here are a few key findings.

On the topic of school choice:

  • Tax credit scholarships are favored 53-29 by the general public, 64-17 by African Americans, and 60-25 by parents. Tax credit scholarships, including Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits, are the most popular school choice mechanism.
  • The general public supports charter schools by a 51-28 margin, including 45-33 among Democrats.
  • Support for both means-tested and universal vouchers is slightly greater among Democrats than Republicans. Hispanics support universal vouchers 57-24.

Regarding school spending:

  • The general public underestimates the average amount spent on children in public schools, which mirrors the experience in Pennsylvania. When asked to estimate the per-pupil cost, respondents guessed $8,500. The actual average is more than $12,000.
  • The general public estimates the average yearly teacher salary is roughly $40,000, which is 30 percent below the actual average teacher salary ($58,000) reported by the National Education Association. Even teacher respondents underestimate average teacher salaries—they guessed $46,000.

Finally, on personnel policy:

  • 62 percent of the public supports “basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn,” also known as merit pay. Only 20 percent of teachers are supportive of merit pay.
  • Support for teacher tenure has declined by 10 percentage points since 2013, with the general public opposing teacher tenure 54-28.
  • By a margin of 44-35, the public opposes agency fees—which require non-union members to nonetheless pay roughly 80 percent of full-member dues to the union.
  • The public is split, 33-32, on whether unions have a negative effect on public schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:30 PM | Comments

Pittsburgh-Area Family Punished for Choosing Charter School

AUGUST 29, 2016

Fauna Shaffer Butera, mother of two young boys just miles to the northwest of Pittsburgh, opted to enroll her sons in Young Scholars Charter School. She was shocked to learn of the transportation option afforded by her school district of residence.

Northgate School District offered Fauna bus passes for her five and seven year old, which would require the following route:

Her children would have to walk over a block in Avalon to get the PAT bus on California Avenue at 6:30 a.m. and take it to downtown Pittsburgh, where they would cross a busy intersection to the Wood Street T Station and get on the T.

Once the children get off at the Killarney Station, they first have to cross the T tracks and then navigate on a foot path through a tunnel, which cars come through one at a time because it's so narrow.

After the tunnel, the children have to walk nearly a mile up a hill in a neighborhood with no sidewalks until they reach Young Scholars Charter School at the top.

Here's the full story from WPXI news:

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:45 PM | Comments

The Power of Educational Choice

AUGUST 16, 2016

The story of Malachi Kuhn is a moving example of how lives are changed by educational choice. Malachi’s education savings account (ESA) helped him to literally stand on his own.

Patrick Gibbons chronicles Malachi’s experience on RedefinED Online:

For nearly three years, starting before his third birthday, Malachi lived in an orphanage in Adama, in central Ethiopia. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes leg weakness and limits mobility, he had to crawl across the orphanage’s concrete floors.

The orphans shared clothes from a communal closet and he rarely wore shoes causing his feet to become covered with callouses. At night he slept in a crib in a shared room with five other orphans. They ate communal meals prepared by their caretakers over a wood-burning fireplace. With his doctor more than an hour away in Addis Ababa, the capital, he rarely had access to much-needed medical attention.

His caregivers did their best with what little resources they had, but Malachi was only surviving. It seemed impossible that he would one day stand on his own — much less walk, or go to school.

All of that changed last year, when Malachi arrived in Florida where he now lives with two adoptive parents, and, with the help of a revolutionary scholarship program, has begun pursuing an education.

After speaking to other parents with special needs children, Kamden and Mitchell Kuhn learned about Florida’s education savings account program, which helps parents customize a unique schooling experience for their child.

They applied for the Gardiner Scholarship and enrolled him in Ruskin Christian School. Kamden Kuhn said the nearby public school was good, but she didn’t want her son pulled out of class time for therapy. She wanted Malachi to have the same amount of class time as the other students. The Kuhns used funds left over after paying his tuition to purchase after-school physical, occupational and behavioral therapy.

His mother said the therapists provided instruction and therapy through play.

“I’m not the best educator for my son,” Kuhn said. “But this allows me to shop around for the best educators and best therapists. I can decide what is best, because I know him best.”

Malachi is thriving in an educational environment that is perfectly suited to his needs:

“He made so much progress in the first nine months,” Kuhn recalled. He quickly started to learn to speak English and to stand upright with the aid of a walker. Now stronger than ever, he uses a forearm cane to walk.

“Ms. Stacy helped me learn to walk, and Ms. Colleen helped me get in control,” Malachi said of his physical and occupational therapists. In a telephone interview, he said phonics is his favorite subject because he loves learning letters and how to put them together to make words.

Malachi’s story is inspiring. It also provides a call to action for Pennsylvania to move forward with ESA legislation. Every child in the commonwealth deserves educational opportunity, especially those with learning disabilities or special needs. Read more about ESAs here.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:15 PM | Comments

Education Choice Benefits All

AUGUST 3, 2016

Private school choice programs benefit students, public schools, and taxpayers, according to new report from EdChoice.

The report, the fourth edition of A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, summarizes the findings of 100 studies of education choice programs providing scholarships to students attending private schools. The analysis finds that school choice improves education outcomes for participants, improves outcomes in public schools, saves money, and reduces segregation.

  • Of the 18 “gold standard” studies (that is, random assignment) of participating students, 14 found school choice programs improved academic performance.
  • There were 33 studies of the impact of programs on public schools; 31 found that public schools improved as a result.
  • Of 28 studies on the fiscal impact of school choice programs, 25 found they save taxpayers—costs to both local districts and state government—because school choice programs educate students for significantly less per student.
  • Ten studies look at the impact of school choice on racial segregation, with 9 finding choice reduces segregation.
  • Finally, 8 out of 11 studies on civic values find that school choice programs improve civic values.

School choice truly is a win-win for students, parents, and taxpayers.

Pennsylvania should learn from this evidence and embrace school choice. The commonwealth’s two school choice programs—the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC)—have proven immensely popular with families and lawmakers alike. 

Thankfully, the legislature increased funding for the EITC this year. Yet even with this increase, the $125 million available for K-12 scholarships represents less than 0.4 percent of the funding for school districts.

Pennsylvania's students, parents, and taxpayers would all benefit from continuing to expand our school choice offerings. 

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 01:52 PM | Comments

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