School Choice




Audio: House Expands State Scholarship Programs

MAY 20, 2015

Last week, Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives approved a significant expansion of two state scholarship programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC).

Since 2001, EITC and OSTC have awarded over 430,000 scholarships to students across Pennsylvania, providing lifeboats to children looking to escape dangerous and failing schools.

Matt Brouillette recently spoke with Gary Sutton on WSBA about House Bill 752 and the benefits that its $100 million expansion will bring to children hoping to pursue school choice programs.

Matt explains that EITC and OSTC build connections between corporations and their communities. These programs allow businesses to “see a direct benefit from their tax dollars going to help educate children”–rather than sending that money to strangers in Harrisburg.

Listen below or click here to hear Matt’s interview.

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 | 10:00 AM | Comments

House Expands Indispensable Scholarship Programs

MAY 12, 2015

In a sweeping, bipartisan vote, members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a substantial increase to the state's cherished scholarship programs—the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). Rep. Jim Christiana’s House Bill 752 increases the EITC cap by $70 million and the OSTC cap by $30 million.

It’s hard to overstate what an additional $100 million would mean for low- and middle-income families in Pennsylvania. Should this legislation be signed into law, tens of thousands of new students will be afforded the opportunity to receive a high-quality education.

HB 752 opens the door for more children like Hudson, whose OSTC scholarship allows him to attend and excel at Philadelphia Classical School, and Kaiden Myers, who attended the Westwood School in Philadelphia with the help of the EITC.

All eyes now turn to the Senate—and ultimately the governor—to follow the House’s lead and ensure that more families reap the benefits of these valuable school choice programs.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:00 AM | Comments

Important Education Bills Advance in House

MAY 4, 2015

In a promising move for Pennsylvania students, the House Education Committee passed two important bills today that will keep effective teachers in the classroom and expand educational options. 

HB 805, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Bloom, passed with a 14-10 vote. This legislation would end seniority-based layoffs in Pennsylvania public schools. Rep. Bloom’s Protecting Excellent Teachers Act ensures that in the unfortunate event of furloughs, teachers are evaluated based on their effectiveness in the classroom—not simply the date they were hired.

HB 752, sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana, also passed committee by a vote of 18-8. This legislation would increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit cap by $70 million ($100 million to $170 million) and the the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit cap by $30 million ($50 million to $80 million). Increasing these caps will create more scholarships for students in need.

Pennsylvania’s scholarship tax credit programs allow tens of thousands of low and middle income families to attend schools that are more rigorous, safer, and better-tailored to each student’s unique circumstances. The programs result in great savings to taxpayers, too, since the average scholarship amounts to a fraction of the cost of educating a student in a traditional public school. And these programs allow businesses to ensure that their tax dollars are efficiently spent on a quality private education instead of being funneled into the state government General Fund.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:20 PM | Comments

Wolf's Education Agenda Discourages Choice

MAY 1, 2015

Gov. Tom Wolf has wasted little time staking out his vision for public education, and it doesn’t appear to have much room for school choice.

In a recent opinion piece for The Sentinel, I explain how Pennsylvania’s new governor is hostile to innovative schools and wedded to the educational status quo.

First, the Wolf administration catered to anti-reform interests in the troubled School District of Philadelphia. After the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) approved just a handful of new charter schools, Wolf stripped SRC Chairman Bill Green of his leadership position.

The governor’s message was unmistakable: even tepid support for charter schools will not be tolerated. It’s not as though charters secured a decisive victory in Philadelphia—34 of 39 charter applicants were rejected, leaving tens of thousands on waiting lists.

Still, this meager charter expansion was justification for Wolf to shuffle deck chairs at the SRC. Who was tapped to replace Green as chairman? Marjorie Neff, the only SRC member who voted against all 39 Philadelphia charter applicants.

The Wolf Doctrine on education is particularly detrimental to students who attend public cyber charter schools:

Wolf’s budget is even more punitive to cyber charter students, who disproportionately come from low-income families. For them, Wolf would slash current funding levels by one-third. While the state currently spends an average of $14,600 dollars per public school student, the governor would spend only $5,950 per cyber student.

To better understand how Wolf’s cyber charter cuts would harm families across Pennsylvania, take a look at this video from Commonwealth Connections Academy.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:10 AM | Comments

Video: Tax Credit Scholarships Give Options to Thousands

APRIL 17, 2015

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC) offers businesses the chance to be more involved in their communities by offering tax credits in exhange for sholarship funding. This program allows students in failing or dangerous districts to attend thriving educational organizations like Logos Academy in York.

Matt Brouillette, CF’s president & CEO, and James Paul, a CF senior policy analyst, recently sat down with David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, to discuss the EITC program and the opportunities it affords students who are trying to flee failing school districts.

Season 4, Episode 8: Educational Improvement Tax Credit from PMA Perspective on Vimeo.

These scholarships help students who want a better quality education, but lack the resources to obtain one. As Matt describes, these businesses “are either going to pay that money to Harrisburg or give it to a scholarship organization that is rescuing kids and families” from dangerous and violent school districts. Seems like an easy choice, doesn’t it?

Both the continual growth and increasing political support of the EITC program show how beneficial educational choice can be for students. James describes the program’s success by pointing out that “since the implementation of the EITC program in 2001, Pennsylvania has seen nearly 500,000 scholarships awarded”­—scholarships targeted at students in the lowest performing school districts.

Aaron Anderson, CEO of Logos Academy, calls programs like EITC a “no brainer” since they provide  businesses the opportunity to give a student who is in a struggling school district a real opportunity and a real alternative to get a world class education. EITC is ensuring that every child in Pennsylvania has access to a quality, safe school of their choice.

For another example of the benefit tax credit scholarship programs bring to Pennsylvania families, read James Paul's commentary Scholarships Offer Lifeline to PA Students.

posted by JONATHAN REGINELLA | 03:10 PM | Comments

Audio: Real Solutions for Struggling Schools

MARCH 26, 2015

What are some solutions to fixing the environment in failing school districts? Providing families with the flexibility in choosing where their children go to school, rewarding the best—not just the most senior—teachers, and allocating funding based on student need would be a great start.

But with his recent budget proposal, Gov. Wolf has shown that he favors spending more, not spending more wisely, on struggling schools.

James Paul, a CF senior policy analyst, compares this strategy to buying a new car and taking it home, only to realize it needs numerous repairs. After demanding answers from the car dealer, would you agree to buy the same exact car—but for even more money?

Listen to James’ interview with WSBA’s Gary Sutton to hear more about the benefits of school choice.

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 | 04:24 PM | Comments

More Evidence: Charter Schools Thrive in Philadelphia

MARCH 26, 2015

There’s a reason why Philadelphia families endure charter school lotteries in which less than two percent of 5,000 applicants win seats. These schools are producing terrific results in the classroom—and a new study from Stanford confirms it.

Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) compared the performance of urban charter schools to traditional public schools (TPS) in the same neighborhood. After analyzing 41 urban areas in 22 states over a five-year period, CREDO found that charter students receive 40 additional learning days per year in math and 28 additional learning days per year in reading. The results are just as impressive in Philadelphia, where charter students receive the equivalent of an additional 40 days of reading and math compared to TPS students.

What is the CREDO methodology for comparing performance between sectors? The authors match charter students with a “virtual twin” in TPS and track academic achievement over time. Each set of twins have the same (or similar) grade, race, gender, socio-economic status, special education status, and English language learner status.

Strong charter school performance is mainly attributable to high achievement among low-income students, Black and Hispanic students, and English language learners. Across the country—and particularly in Philadelphia—charter schools are excelling at educating students who typically lag behind their peers.

CREDO's authors have found that learning gains increase for charter students as they remain in the charter sector for multiple years. And the benefits of charter schools span from the elementary to middle to high school level. Most importantly, the CREDO findings reject the tired narrative that certain groups of students are incapable of achieving in the classroom.

There is no charter school “secret sauce.” Successful operators in Philadelphia prove that with a few important changes—and a new set of incentives—all students can learn, grow, and achieve. The only thing holding back more students from recognizing their maximum potential is an under-provision of charter schools. 

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 03:00 PM | Comments

Changing the Culture at H.R. Edmunds

MARCH 25, 2015

The first Winter Concert was the turning point. That’s when students at The Philadelphia Charter School for Arts & Sciences—formerly known as H.R. Edmunds—began believing in themselves.  

“Our kids learned they had something to be proud of. They started to take classes more seriously. It was amazing to see,” said Judith Taggart, Dean of Students for grades K-2.   

By all accounts, the concert was a resounding success. But things weren’t always so rosy at the Northeast Philadelphia school.

Prior to 2012, H.R. Edmunds was a traditional public school known for violence and dismal academic performance. The situation became so dire that the district brought in an independent operator to run the school and assume management. Edmunds was awarded to String Theory Charter Schools as part of Philadelphia’s renaissance schools initiative.

The new leadership team decided to kick off the year with a musical performance from an established performing arts school in downtown Philadelphia. The administration intended to show their new charter students what they should aspire to achieve.

As the performance began, the Edmunds students laughed. They booed, hissed, and jeered. The children never before witnessed a live concert, and they never learned how to conduct themselves in an audience.

Fast-forward a brief four months later to the 2012 Winter Concert: The same students laughing and jeering in September were now up on stage themselves, playing instruments and performing. This was a 180-degree turnaround. The culture changed.

Michael Rocco, principal at Arts & Sciences and a three-decade veteran of Philadelphia public schools, is proud of the new culture emanating from his classrooms. He attributes much of the school’s success to its longer school day and unique curriculum. In addition to the core subjects, K-5 students try their hands at various musical instruments, ballet, creative writing, and foreign language. By 6th grade, each student declares a concentration and focuses exclusively on this subject for 90 minutes each morning.

Edmunds ballet

Jaime Mong, Dean of Students for Grades 6-8, explains that when new management took over, “students were surprised their tests were actually being graded.” Prior to the charter school transition, Edmunds children had routinely submitted assignments and failed to receive a grade—let alone substantive feedback.

The structure and incentives at Arts & Sciences are unique from Philadelphia’s traditional public schools. Teachers are hired at will. “It’s essentially a one year contract for everyone,” Rocco explains.

It’s impossible to argue with the results in the classroom. Arts & Sciences’ School Performance Profile (SPP) score has dramatically improved every year. In 2013-14, the SPP score exceeded the district average by ten points.

School leaders anticipate even better results in the coming years. It all starts with the new culture of high expectations. “This is our family here at Arts & Sciences. We know these kids,” said Dean Taggart. “We care for them.” 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 07:00 AM | Comments

Pennsylvania's Charter Law: Room to Improve

MARCH 18, 2015

Pennsylvania’s charter school law received its 2015 report card, and unfortunately it will not earn a place on the refrigerator. The commonwealth earned a “C” grade from the Center for Education Reform (CER), an organization that ranks charter laws across the country.

Each state is evaluated on the following criteria:

  • The existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers
  • The number of charter schools permitted
  • Operational and fiscal autonomy from existing state and district mandates
  • Equitable funding

Pennsylvania received 28.5 out of 55 points, which amounts to 18th place out of the 43 states that allow charter schools. Overall, the commonwealth’s charter law has room to improve.  

According to CER, the lack of independent authorizers is Pennsylvania’s biggest shortcoming. A stronger law would allow universities or a statewide body to approve new brick-and-mortar charter schools. The Commonwealth also loses points for inadequate access to facilities funding. On the other hand, Pennsylvania performed fairly well when it comes to autonomy from regulations and mandates.

Policymakers should consider these findings as they consider reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law. Continuing to strengthen the charter sector will be an enormous benefit to thousands of students and families clamoring for expanded educational opportunity. 

posted by JAMES PAUL, LINDSEY WANNER | 02:00 PM | Comments

Education-Industrial Complex Strikes Again

MARCH 16, 2015

Much has been made of recent comments from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan regarding school funding in Pennsylvania. According to Duncan, Pennsylvania's families are “being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding.”

Several observers pounced on these remarks—particularly the notion that Pennsylvania per-pupil spending in low-income districts is one-third less than in wealthy districts—and used them as justification for higher taxes and greater school spending.

Is it true that Pennsylvania’s low-income students are underfunded? Let’s examine the facts.

Duncan’s comments are based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which organizes school districts into quartiles of family income: low poverty, low-middle poverty, high-middle poverty, and high poverty. (Note that NCES figures exclude costs for construction and debt, as well as federal funds).

In each quartile—even among high poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. Put another way: the vast majority of schools in the commonwealth are overfunded. It just so happens that Pennsylvania’s richest districts are particularly overfunded, while low-income districts are slightly overfunded.

Current Education Expenditures, Per-Pupil, 2011-12

Low Poverty

Districts

Low-Middle Poverty

Districts

High-Middle Poverty

Districts

High Poverty

Districts

Pennsylvania $12,529 $11,111 $11,069 $9,387
National Average $10,721 $8,804 $8,040 $9,270

The key takeaway from NCES is that affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their public schools. Hypothetically, the discrepancy in district level spending could be eliminated by capping the local effort in high-income districts. This would make Pennsylvania’s schools appear more “equal,” but it wouldn’t result in better academic performance—nor would it direct more funding to low-income districts.

As Jason Bedrick from the Cato Institute recently explained, the education-industrial complex incessantly lobbies for higher school taxes regardless of student outcomes or fiscal reality. Given that Pennsylvania's schools are better funded than the national average but produce middling achievement, perhaps it’s time to consider other education reforms. 

At the state level, reform should include weighted student funding. This revenue neutral approach offers a more rational, transparent school funding mechanism. At the same time, Pennsylvania should protect and reward its most effective teachers, while expanding school choice for families trapped in persistently failing public schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:00 PM | Comments

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