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!
The Education Law Center has issued an attack on legislation to allow universities to approve new charter schools. In a single paragraph, a spokesman for the group makes makes three false claims in trying to demonize charter schools.
"School districts are, you know, they’re charged exactly with that under the law that their job is to ensure that all students receive a quality education," Lapp said. "When charters expand without any management, it concentrates those student groups more heavily in school districts and gives them less funding and less ability to adequately serve them."
Myth #1: The public school monopoly ensures that all students receive a quality education. According to the Nation's Report Card released last week, nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania's 8th grade students did not make proficiency in reading or math.
The only real accountability in education occurs when parents can choose the best school for their children. Charter schools don't get a single dime in funding unless parents choose that particular school for their child.
Myth #2: Charter schools drain resources from school districts. Actually, charter schools only receive about 80 percent of the funding that school districts spend per student. Districts keep the remaining 20 percent for children they no longer have to educate—allowing them to spend more per student for those who remain.
Myth #3: Charter schools "cream" the best students. In fact, charters disproportionately serve low-income, minority students who were struggling in traditional schools.
Requiring charter schools to get permission from school districts to compete for students is like requiring Wendy's to get approval from McDonald's to open a new restaurant. Allowing alternative authorizers, like universities, for charter schools, eliminates the flawed mechanism that incentivizes school districts to fight against new educational options—keeping thousands of families on waiting lists for charter schools.
This is a reform nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters support, and the time is ripe for lawmakers to make this positive change.
Cyber schools have been falsely maligned as impersonal and anti-social environments for learning, but the truth is far different. Case in point: Achievement House Cyber Charter School is bringing blended learning options to kids across the state—most recently in York.
Nikelle Snader at The York Dispatch highlighted a new Resource Center where local Achievement House students can drop in whenever they need a little extra help. The center is primarily designed to complement online classes and extend hands-on help and support to struggling students. But it will be used for even more.
The centers host parent meetings, medical screenings, face-to-face instruction, study sessions, and standardized testing. Special education and bilingual instructors also regularly visit to provide more specialized learning options for those who need it. Achievement House now offers 11 such centers across the state, including three in Philadelphia alone.
William Rodriquez, a senior at Achievement House, feels drawn to the familial environment of the Resource Center. “I don’t feel like something’s about to happen,” he said—a welcome change from his previous two schools.
Safety also motivated Stephen Frank to attend 21st Century Cyber School, where he flourished without the threat of physical bullying. This Saturday, as part of its “Kindness Matters” program, Agora Cyber Charter School is hosting an anti-bullying event in York, as well as similar events elsewhere in the state during the month of October.
Cyber schools have become a very real presence in the lives of more than 35,000 students and in their communities.
But Resource Centers require funds to operate, and major cuts recently passed by the House put Achievement House’s efforts in peril. Slashing funding for schools that already receive 20 percent less per student ignores the success stories of students like Jake Swink, who has spoken out against treating cyber school students as second-class citizens.
Click here to let the State Senate know that you oppose arbitrary cuts to cyber school funding.
A recent poll found that 87 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania think parents should have the option to choose the type of public school that’s best for their children—do you?
With a composite score of 1480, Pennsylvania now ranks 37th in the nation. You can view the full state profile here.
A more accurate comparison of state achievement, however, factors in student participation. States with high participation rates have a larger percentage of the student population taking the test, including lower-achieving students, which often translates to lower average scores. Therefore, we have also created a table ranking states with participation rates similar to Pennsylvania (see "high participation states" in the table below).
According to the College Board's 2013 SAT Report on College & Career Readiness, only 43 percent of SAT takers from the class of 2013 are prepared for college course work, matching the rate from the past 5 years.
The College Board suggest these national trends signal a "call to action." Pennsylvania must heed this call and push for dramatic changes to our current approach to education, which throws more money at underachieving schools. Instead, we should give parents the power to choose which school best fits their child's unique needs. School choice has shown to improve student achievement at a lower costs to taxpayers.
Note: According to The College Board, the percentage of high school graduates is based upon the recently revised projection of high school graduates in 2013 by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), and the number of students in the class of 2013 who took the SAT in each state. Therefore, participation rates from prior years are not fully comparable to those listed above.
If you’re one of the most violent school districts in Pennsylvania, failing your students, and borrowing to make ends meet, would you spend money on a lavish retreat? If you’re the Wilkinsburg School District, the answer is yes. Here is an excerpt from the troubling story courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
The Wilkinsburg School District is in such difficult financial condition that this calendar year it went on the state's financial watch list, took out a $3 million loan, voted to eliminate some teaching and administrative positions this fall and charges the highest property tax rate in Allegheny County.
But it still was able to pay for a two-night professional development retreat for administrators, staying Aug. 13 and 14 at the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort where the resort tab was $15,665.50—which amounted to more than $1,000 per person.
The bill included 13 rooms at $229 plus $20.61 tax per night, meals running as high as $85.50 per person and $1,300 in gift cards, one for each of the 13 guests at $100 each to spend at the resort.
While it may be necessary for administrators to use a retreat as a chance to relax and build professional relationships, a school district that is in horrible financial shape should not be spending such an obscene amount of money on a retreat. Maybe the money used for the retreat could have been better spent on figuring out how to help students learn in failing Wilkinsburg Borough schools?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Wilkinsburg School District has spent a large sum of money on retreats. The district spent more than $30,000 for two retreats in 2011 and 2012.
Instead of continuing to funnel taxpayer money to persistently failing school districts, lawmakers should consider expanding school choice options to throw students a lifeline and save taxpayers from the burden of paying higher taxes.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) might take legal action against the School District of Philadelphia for ... wait for it ... hiring back teachers.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) decided to suspend parts of the Pennsylvania School Code in order to rehire recently laid-off staff based on merit, rather than simply based on seniority.
Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools William R. Hite Jr. said the move to hire back school staff based on need instead of seniority was necessary in order to open schools on time in September. This common sense concept outraged the PFT, which complained that the SRC (Philadelphia’s version of your local school board) lacked the authority to make such decisions. The idea that rehiring based on need might be beneficial for students appeared to be last on union leaders' minds.
Given the fact that many Philadelphia schools are violent and failing, one would think the union would be open to changing the way the district operates. Instead, union bosses are content with reaching into your pocket to temporarily “solve” the problems they are largely responsible for. And next year, when the same problems return, they'll be back for more.
Thankfully, there is an alternative to the union-dominated education model. It includes giving parents and students the option to escape the failed system and choose their own school. And there is strong evidence that suggests school choice improves educational outcomes.
So, who should have first priority when it comes to public education: unions or teachers and students?
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.
A new poll has found a very healthy majority—62 percent—of the state’s registered and likely voters favor parental choice in public education. And 87 percent think parents should have the option to choose the type of public school that’s best for their children.
But while the benefits of choice in public education may be reaching the public—comparisons to earlier polls show increases in support for charter schools—it’s taking Pennsylvania’s legislators a little longer to get the message.
Legislation pending in the state House would unfairly target cyber schools for cuts that could reach as much as 12 percent of their funding. While some reforms are necessary, cyber schools already receive an average 81 percent per student of the funds given to traditional schools. These additional cuts would make it extremely difficult—if not impossible— for cyber schools to compete. Indeed, many would be forced to close their doors at these drastically reduced funding levels.
As the new poll shows, Pennsylvania’s parents want more options in public education, not fewer. Students such as Hannah, Alyssa, Avi, Stephen, Rachel, and tens of thousands more rely on cyber schools to reach their full potential.
You can defend their choice at CyberSchoolsSave.org by telling the governor and your legislators that you support cyber school funding!
What does a neighborhood do when its surrounding school districts are underperforming, or downright violent and failing? Where can the kids go? In the Pittsburgh area, many students find refuge in a different type of public school: Propel Braddock Hills High. Against the odds, the charter school is achieving great results—a testament to the power of school choice.
Right now, Propel Braddock Hills High has about 250 students, but the waiting list for all nine Propel schools around Pennsylvania is 3,000 and counting. The school nurtures its students, including ones like Brandon Quarles, who come in with little but poor grades and attitude. The teachers and administrators offer innovative programs, pull students up to higher academic standards, and know every kid by name. Watch how Braddock Hills High is transforming the lives of its students—and its community.
Avi Stein, a resident of Camp Hill, overcame learning disabilities and the challenges of mentoring four younger siblings to be one of only 20 Central Pennsylvania students honored with a 2013 Best & Brightest award. With his unique gifts, he decided to attend Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA), a cyber school with teaching centers across the state, including one in Harrisburg.
A member of the National Honor Society, Avi was also part of a team that designed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the Pennsylvania Real World Design Competition. CCA won first place in the statewide competition—for the third straight year—and will be competing at the national level. Avi, who was chosen to give a TEDxYouth talk earlier this year, plans to attend the honors program at Susquehanna University, studying engineering and pre-medicine.
But due to bills pending in the state legislature, his four younger siblings may not benefit from the same opportunity for choice in public schooling that helped Avi achieve success.
One week ago, hundreds of cyber and charter school parents and students marched on Harrisburg in support of these popular alternatives to traditional public education. Supporters rallied at the capitol where Sen. Mike Folmer and Rep. Dan Truitt were among the speakers urging continued pressure on legislators with the goal of saving cyber and charter schools from punitive and arbitrary funding cuts
The proposed cuts would leave cyber schools struggling to compete with already better-funded brick and mortar schools. Cyber schools are a solution for the education needs of more than 32,000 kids like Avi and Stephen who will excel if given the chance.
Help us protect cyber schools as a viable option for families at CyberSchoolsSave.org, where you can send a message to your legislator supporting parental choice in public education.
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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.