School Choice




Audio: Could Charter Conversion be in York City's Future?

DECEMBER 10, 2014

York City School District—financially distressed and second-to-last in the state in student achievement—may be in for some much-needed change in the coming weeks. After two years of obstruction from the local school board and teachers’ union on more modest measures, the state has finally petitioned for receivership of the troubled district.

Tomorrow, there will be a hearing in York to help inform a judge’s decision to grant the state’s receivership petition. If granted, all of York's district schools will be converted into to charters—one of only a few districts in the country to take such a step.

Today, CF's James Paul joined The Gary Sutton Show on WSBA 910 to provide background on how we got here, who has been blocking other attempts at reform, and what this all could mean for York city students and families.

Listen to a portion of the show below and read James’ recent op-ed “Is Second Worst Good Enough for York Students?” for more.

The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.

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posted by JOHN BOUDER | 03:30 PM | Comments

More Choice on the way to Philadelphia?

DECEMBER 9, 2014

Tens of thousands of Philadelphia students languishing on charter waiting lists have reason to hope. For the first time in seven years, the School District of Philadelphia will consider applications from new charter schools.

This week the district is receiving presentations from 40 applicants who will make the case for additional educational options. A second set of hearings are scheduled in January where applicants will be reviewed and questioned by district officials. Ten of the 40 proposed schools have an explicit focus on the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

What prompted Philadelphia to break its seven-year charter lock-out? Tucked away in the recent cigarette tax legislation was a provision requiring the district to accept annual applications from new charter schools.

Seemingly endless wait lists—combined with the 62,500 students currently enrolled in brick and mortar charter schools—are evidence of the sector’s popularity in Philadelphia. Enrollment in district-run schools has sharply declined over the last decade as more families opt for schools of choice.

On the whole, Philadelphia charter schools are performing well. The average city charter school outperformed the average city district school in 2012-13. What’s more, an analysis by Philadelphia School Partnership reveals that the charter sector is succeeding in serving low-income students: Of the 17 city schools with passing State Performance Profile scores and enrollment of least 80 percent economically disadvantaged students, 12 are run by charter operators.

Given their immense popularity, long waitlists, and encouraging performance, it’s a shame that new charter schools have been locked out of the application process for so long—but it's no surprise. Granting school districts the power to authorize a new charter school is like asking McDonalds to green-light the construction of a new Wendy’s next door. Establishing a high quality statewide authorizer in the commonwealth would be a marked improvement over the current policy. 

It remains to be seen whether any new charters will be approved, but at least there's a chance for more children to find better, safer schools.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

A Shoddy Attack on Charters

NOVEMBER 11, 2014

Charter Schools

My letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News takes issue with the paper's recent characterization of charter schools as "fiscal monsters." 

The Daily News editorial on charter schools ("Frankencharters") includes scary Halloween analogies but does a disservice to genuine efforts to improve education in Philadelphia. Referring to charter schools as "fiscal monsters" flatly ignores that charters spend and receive fewer dollars per student than district schools.

Despite significantly less funding, Philadelphia charters outperformed district schools on the 2012-13 State Performance Profile. Charters actually operate with maximum accountability, since poor academic performance or financial mismanagement will result in closure - a fate that rarely, if ever, befalls district schools. Will the Daily News similarly refer to failing district-run schools as "monsters" that need to be "reined in" when the next cheating scandal occurs?

It should come as no surprise that charters receive their funding from school districts, since charters are public schools, too. That so many families have opted for charters reflect their success - it illustrates the overwhelming demand for expanding school choice.

Continued oversight and transparency is an appropriate policy goal for charter and district-run schools alike - especially in light of the closure of Walter Palmer, which is indeed devastating to the students and families involved. But the unique circumstances surrounding Walter Palmer do not justify demonizing largely successful charters citywide.

The 34,000 students currently languishing on charter waiting lists illustrate the urgent nature of school reform. Denying them more educational options - just to prop up the failing status quo - does not serve the best interests of Philadelphia.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 06:24 PM | Comments

Step Forward for School Choice

NOVEMBER 4, 2014

Geronda Montalvo did not want to send her daughter Zayda to the low-achieving schools in her neighborhood. Thanks to an Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) scholarship, Zayda is thriving at Holy Child Academy. And thanks to the passage of HB 91, more mothers like Geronda will have educational options.

HB 91 consolidates the EITC and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) into one statute, which will simplify and streamline the application process. Businesses are now able to apply for an alternate credit if its preferred credit is unavailable, and the Department of Community and Economic Development now has the authority to transfer unused credits between programs.

In 2001, Pennsylvania became the first state in the country to enact an education tax credit program. Since that time, the EITC has provided more than 430,000 scholarships to students and families seeking schooling options.

Here’s how the EITC program works. First, businesses make donations to registered, vetted charities that award scholarships. The business receives a tax credit worth 75 percent of the donation, while the charity organization uses the donated funds to award scholarships for students to attend schools of choice. The OSTC was added in 2012—a program designed specifically for students who reside in the lowest performing school districts in the commonwealth.

Ultimately, HB 91 allows more credits to be utilized, more scholarships to be offered, and more lifelines for students trapped in failing schools. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:45 AM | Comments

Victory for Student Safety

OCTOBER 23, 2014

In an important step for safety in the classroom, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that will put an end to the abhorrent practice of “passing the trash.” Gov. Corbett recently signed HB 1816, which prevents teachers accused of abuse from quietly resigning and relocating to a new school without having to inform that new school of their alleged misconduct. The law strengthens the background check process and prohibits school districts from entering into “confidentiality agreements” that suppress abuse allegations.

Government unions had previously taken a neutral position on this commonsense legislation.

Of course, the vast majority of teachers are committed to the well-being of their students. But state lawmakers should be commended for addressing the rising claims of inappropriate relationships, abuse, and staff misconduct in the commonwealth. A most tragic victim of "passing the trash" was Jeremy Edward Bell, a twelve year old student who did not surivive educator abuse. HB 1816 will help ensure that such an atrocity never happens again. 

Having approved this important safety measure, attention should now turn to improving the quality of education in the commonwealth, both through expanded school choice and commonsense reforms to reward excellent teachers.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:45 PM | Comments

How the PFT Fails Philadelphia

OCTOBER 16, 2014

By standing in the way of tens of millions of new dollars for Philadelphia classrooms, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has revealed its true identity—a self-interested, self-serving interest group that fails teachers, fails students, and fails the poor.

Today, the Commonwealth Foundation launched PFTfails.com to inform the city of Philadelphia—as well as all Pennsylvanians across the state—about the failed track record of PFT leadership. Instead of working to improve the broken status quo, PFT executives use children and teachers as pawns to protect their political influence.

And make no mistake: the status quo has demonstrably failed in Philadelphia public schools. More than 80 percent of students did not achieve proficiency in both reading and math in 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card. Violence remains a major problem in city schools, with 2,485 violent incidents reported during 2013-14. Despite the abysmal performance and violent conditions, PFT leaders oppose charter schools and tax credit scholarship programs for low-income families seeking better, safer education opportunities.

Construct a broken system, defend a broken system, and trap low-income families in the broken system. That’s the PFT playbook. 

But it’s not just students and low-income families who are failed by union executives. PFT fails hard-working, high-performing Philadelphia teachers by clinging to rigid seniority mandates that can result in the best teachers being fired. What’s more, PFT refuses to embrace merit pay.

Why does PFT leadership stand in the way of higher salaries for excellent educators? Instead of encouraging and developing their best talent, PFT leaders oppose common sense reforms that would reward the most effective teachers and keep them in the classroom.

To make matters worse, the same teachers hurt by the PFT are forced to subsidize the PFT’s political agenda—whether the teachers agree with it or not. Philadelphia teachers are required to pay union dues or fair share fees—with an average annual cost exceeding $800—to various union affiliates just to keep their jobs.

Union executives take full advantage of their unique political privilege by spending dues at the astounding rate of $70,000 per minute on political television advertisements. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the Washington D.C. based mothership of PFT—is primed to spend more on elections than ever before. This includes a recent gift of $500,000  financed by teachers' dues, and used for political attack ads via a ‘SuperPAC.’

All told, the PFT fails the entire city of Philadelphia by refusing to agree to health care concessions that would distribute an additional $54 million for classroom instruction in the current school year. Former Governor Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board all agree that this money belongs in the classrooms.

But the PFT refuses to compromise. Add it to the list of PFT failures. They fail us all when they put personal political scores ahead of what’s best for teachers, students, and the poor. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:45 AM | Comments

York Schools Can Send a Lifeline to Kids

OCTOBER 15, 2014

School Choice Pennsylvania

The York City school board is considering an intriguing proposal to turn over some of its schools to a charter operator to compete with the remaining city schools (if the district can come to a new collective bargaining agreement). Why is this transformation needed?

York City schools are among the worst performing schools in Pennsylvania. On the state's "School Performance Profile," the district ranked 499th out of 500 districts.  And preliminary results show that most schools in the district declined in 2013-14.

Interstingly, commenters on a Fox 43 story about our analysis claim the district can't be expected to do better—that its performance is driven by bad parents and poor students. Certainly, poverty does play a role in academic performance, but high performing schools across Pennsylvania and the nation succeed even with low-income students.

We can, and must, do a better job to help our poorest students. And it is clear that despite the challenges, York can do better.

Not only do York schools score worse than the state average, but they perform worse than the average among all low-income students in Pennsylvania. That is, the dreadful test scores aren't driven by poverty alone. Nor is the problem in underfunding. York City schools saw a 33 percent increase—adjusted for inflation—in spending per student over the past decade. The $15,256 the district spends per student exceeds the statewide average.

Consider this: New Hope Academy Charter School was shut down after 2013 for a poor performance record—yet it performed better than most of the schools in the district.

The status quo simply isn't good enough. To send a lifeline to York children, major change is needed. Choice and competition, along with accountability measures via a performance contract, would better serve students and families.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 11:30 AM | Comments

Union-Backed Report Rife with Hypocrisy

OCTOBER 3, 2014

Charter schools

Three union-affiliated groups released a report alleging that Pennsylvania charter schools defrauded taxpayers to the tune of $30 million since 1997. Predictably, this story has been greeted with glee from defenders of the education status-quo and those who oppose school choice. The union-backed report ultimately calls for a moratorium on new charter schools.

Try making that argument to the thousands of Pennsylvania families currently on charter waiting lists

Increased transparency and accountability for all public schools—both charters and traditional district schools—should be welcomed with open arms. But the findings from this particular report must be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Government unions consistently fight tooth and nail to prevent the authorization of new charter schools—if for no other reason than to maximize the number of dues-paying teachers. They would rather maintain their political influence than let children find a better or safer school via school choice, and they cannot be trusted to provide impartial research on charters.

Of course, government unions are welcome to commission studies and engage in the political arena. We at the Commonwealth Foundation simply prefer they do so without forced dues collected at taxpayer expense.

Charters are already asked to do more with less, as they receive less money per student than traditional public schools. Now government union-funded research organizations are demanding that charters be held to significantly higher standards as well. Charter schools that fail to perform academically or suffer from financial mismanagement can be shut down, whereas school districts are never held accountable.

Where are the calls for a moratorium on district schools when one of their financial scandals makes the news? How about in the event of sexual abuse in a public school? Demanding charter schools be effectively shut down, while ignoring fraud and abuse in traditional public schools, fails to put the needs of students first. 

Charter reforms, like those in SB 1085, would make them more accountable and transparent while also expanding choice across the commonwealth. 

A moratorium on new charters, though, would only punish thousands of families seeking a better academic future. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:15 PM | Comments

Charter Schools Promote Segregation? Not So!

SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

My letter to the editor in the Lehigh Valley Express Times refutes a claim that charter schools are promoting racial segregation:

A recent article cites claims by both Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee and Bethlehem School District Superintendent Joseph Roy that charter schools are resulting in segregation. Roy even claims students are leaving the district for charter schools because they “don't want their kids around kids who speak Spanish or poor kids."

But enrollment data from the state Department of Education show they are wrong.

According to state enrollment data, the Bethlehem School District is 37 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African American, and 47 percent White.

Charter schools in the area are collectively near mirrors. The three charter schools serving Northampton County are 39 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African American, and 37 percent White (with a higher percentage “Multi-Racial”). That’s the opposite of segregation.

Indeed, a recent study from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania finds that charter schools across the state have significantly higher enrollment of African-American and Hispanic students.

Lee and Roy are either grossly misinformed about charters schools or misleading readers to advance their agenda. Either way is disappointing from folks in education policy leadership roles.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 11:10 AM | Comments

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

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