Late on Friday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf quietly announced the fiscal code will become law without his signature. This significant development closes the door on a tumultuous year of state budget politics—and represents an important victory for public and private school children.
Just last month Wolf opted to veto the fiscal code, which included a fair funding formula for education spending, language authorizing businesses to receive tax credits for their donations to private school scholarship organizations, and state funding reimbursing school districts for construction and renovation costs.
Lawmakers responded to the governor's veto by passing a stripped-down version of the fiscal code—this time with strong bipartisan support and veto-proof majorities. Apparently Wolf saw the writing on the wall and decided to refrain from yet another veto.
Thanks to passage of the fiscal code, education spending above 2014-15 levels will be distributed through a rational formula that accounts for student enrollment. This formula includes recommendations presented by CF in testimony to the Basic Education Funding Commission.
Ideally, the formula would apply to the entire Basic Education line item—not only the new education spending—but the fiscal code remains a step in the right direction. Certainly, the formula is an improvement over Wolf’s preferred funding scheme which funneled millions to Philadelphia, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg at the expense of 423 other districts.
Further, the finalized fiscal code allows businesses that made donations to the state’s popular scholarship tax credit programs to utilize their tax credits in either 2015 or 2016. Recall that last year the Wolf administration put a freeze on the scholarship programs—claiming student hostages and causing confusion for participating businesses. The technical amendment in the code will reduce administrative headaches for businesses and allow more students to receive scholarships.
A no-tax increase state budget, combined with a fiscal code that protects students, is a crucial victory for families and businesses in the commonwealth.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) empower parents to personalize the academic experience for their children, as CF explains in a recent policy brief. But ESAs are about more than school choice.
They are changing lives for families in need.
ESAs have only existed for a short time—enacted in 2011 in Arizona and 2014 in Florida. But the stories of children served—and saved—by these flexible spending accounts are growing by the dozens.
Jordan Visser, a nine-year-old in Arizona diagnosed with cerebral palsy and dyslexia, was one of the first children to benefit from an ESA. Thanks to his ESA, Jordan receives more individual time with a reading teacher for the visually impaired, as well as his physical therapist:
When Katie Swingle’s son, Gregory, was eighteen months old, doctors worried that Gregory’s autism would prevent him from being able to speak. But thanks to Florida’s ESA program, seven-year-old Gregory is not only speaking, he’s writing in cursive. Watch Gregory’s mother describe the impact of ESAs on her family:
Consider Max Ashton, an eighteen-year-old in Arizona born legally blind, who used the ESA funding for specialized education and college tuition:
Eighteen-year-old Max Ashton is an ESA recipient in Arizona. Max is an exceedingly bright and ambitious young man. He was also born legally blind and has additional needs in school. This is why, when given the option to use an ESA in 2011, Max’s parents jumped at the chance. Marc Ashton, Max’s father, said of the decision:
A blind student in Arizona gets about $21,000 dollars per year to educate that student. We took 90 percent of that, paid for Max to get the best education in Arizona—the best education in Arizona—plus all his Braille, all his technology, and then there was still money left over—still money left over—to put toward his college [tuition]. And so he is going to be able to go on to Loyola Marymount University…and do extremely well, because we were able to save money even sending him to the best school in Arizona over what the state would normally pay for.
ESAs were also life-changing for Kasey Locke, a six-year-old diagnosed with autism who was not best-served by the local public school:
Rebecca Locke was frustrated with her daughter Kasey’s academic progress. Six-year-old Kasey is autistic, and when she started kindergarten at the local public school, her parents worked with school officials to incorporate a new learning method, applied behavioral analysis (ABA), into Kasey’s school work. “We were looking for different modes of treatment for her and came upon applied behavioral analysis, and that’s the only treatment that’s been empirically shown to cause improvement.”
But her parents were frustrated because Kasey’s school couldn’t incorporate ABA methods into her full school day. It really wasn’t the school’s focus to use this type of treatment. “We did look into private schooling, but there was no way we could financially reach that.”
Then, when Arizona passed educational savings accounts into law, “it was almost too good to be true” for the Lockes. With an education savings account, Kasey’s portion of state education funding would be deposited into an account her parents could use for any educational services.
The education savings account has been life-changing for Kasey, who now attends Chrysalis Academy, a private school that incorporates ABA tools. Recently, Kasey visited her speech therapist, who was “amazed” with Kasey’s progress. Her parents say the education savings account has been “a huge success for us.”
The experiences of Jordan, Gregory, Max, and Kasey must be replicated for all Pennsylvania families seeking the same type of educational opportunity. Everyone deserves access to this life-changing program.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) empower parents to design the best educational experience for their children.
How do they work? Funding otherwise earmarked for K-12 education is deposited into an account controlled by parents and supervised by the state. These funds may be spent on a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online programs, transportation, textbooks, standardized test fees, and therapy for students with disabilities.
ESAs are changing lives for students in need. Consider the story of 4-year-old Elias from Arizona, the first of five states to enact this innovative program.
When Elias turned 4 months old, his mom, Holland, knew something was wrong. Holland explained he needed to be held constantly, and while most babies do not sleep through the night, Elias’s discomfort was troubling.
After months of research and doctor visits, Holland discovered that Elias had symptoms on the autism spectrum. He would need 20-40 hours per week of individual therapies to help him function each day.
When he was old enough to attend school in Arizona, Holland said that Elias’s educational needs were diverse. Along with autism, he had hyperlexia, a precocious reading ability.
In 2011, Holland and Elias applied for an education savings account. Arizona was the first state to adopt the accounts, and the state deposits public funds in a bank account that Holland used to pay for Elias’s education needs. The accounts allowed Holland to pay for education therapies, school textbooks, and private school tuition.
The accounts’ flexibility has helped Holland find a host of quality services for Elias. Holland said that Elias had an adapted schedule that allowed him to attend school half-time to work on academics, social interaction, and classroom etiquette. The other half of his school week was spent attending speech, occupational, physical, and music therapies that his doctor prescribed.
Unlike vouchers or tax credit scholarships, which can be used only for private school tuition, ESA funds can be spent on multiple educational services. With an ESA, parents are no longer limited by the selection of nearby brick-and-mortar schools. Instead, parents have the freedom to customize the best learning environment for their child.
School choice is popular in the commonwealth, with upwards of 120,000 charter students and 45,000 tax credit scholarship recipients. But demand exceeds supply for affordable, high-quality educational options. Thousands of Pennsylvania students are stranded on waitlists for charter schools. Tax credit scholarships are limited by the caps on business donations. ESAs are the next step Pennsylvania students and families deserve.
Read more about ESAs in CF’s most recent policy brief.
My latest op-ed at PennLive debunks several school funding myths that continue to haunt Pennsylvania:
While local school revenue is notably high (6th in the nation), state revenue per student also exceeds the national average—ranking 24th-highest in the country, according to NCES.
Why, then, does Gov. Wolf repeatedly claim Pennsylvania ranks 45th in state support of public schools? This rhetorical sleight-of-hand refers to education spending in percentages, not dollars.
Would you rather have 50 percent of a dime or 36 percent of a dollar? Right now, state taxpayers provide the latter, paying more than a third of a total figure that significantly exceeds the national average.
I also address the funding gap between high- and low-income districts in the commonwealth:
You've probably heard about Pennsylvania's largest-in-the-nation funding gap between wealthy and poor districts. Isn't that reason enough to boost funding? While the discrepancies in district spending are higher in Pennsylvania than in other states, there is more to the story.
The NCES recently organized each state's school districts into four quartiles of family income. In each quartile—even among high-poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. The discrepancy arises only because some affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their schools.
Read the whole piece here. Relatedly, Gov. Wolf continues to hold schools hostage for the sake of his political agenda. His administration recently sent a memo to districts with instructions for shutting down:
A how-to manual on closing a school district for lack of funds is not provided in Pennsylvania's Public School Code but the state Department of Education did its best to compile one in response to districts' inquiries.
The department this week shared a memo with districts that outlines 11 actions that school boards would have to consider before taking the drastic step of shuttering their schools until funding becomes available.
Of course, nowhere in Wolf’s memo does he explain the only reason so many districts lack funds is because he vetoed more than $3 billion in state support of public schools. The governor could release those dollars in a matter of days, if he so desired, but he would rather spread the pain than solve the problem.
Pennsylvania’s legislature granted extraordinary powers to Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) when they created the body in 2001. Tasked with shoring up the district’s finances, the SRC was authorized to suspend provisions of the state’s public school code and charter school law.
Over the years, the SRC used these powers to cap charter enrollment growth, which is otherwise forbidden by law. The SRC also used this authority to expedite school closings, bypass irrational seniority provisions, and alter employee labor contracts.
On Tuesday, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a significant ruling that will curtail the SRC from taking such drastic measures. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The court ruled that the SRC had no legal power to suspend portions of the state charter law and school code. The ruling strips the commission of extraordinary powers it believed it had - and used.
By declaring unconstitutional a portion of the takeover law that the SRC has relied on heavily, many of the major actions the commission has taken in recent years - up to and including bypassing seniority in teacher assignments - could be subject to reversal.
The Philadelphia Public School Notebook has more:
In essence, the court said that the General Assembly overstepped its bounds and was too open-ended in granting the SRC these powers in 2001.
“The Legislature gave the SRC what amounts to carte blanche powers to suspend virtually any combination of provisions of the School Code – a statute covering a broad range of topics,” the ruling said. It said that prior court decisions “have never deemed such an unconstrained grant of authority to be constitutionally valid.”
The ramifications of this decision could be most prevalent in the Philadelphia charter school community. The case was brought by West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, which challenged the SRC for limiting its enrollment.
If this ruling paves the way for expanded school choice in Philadelphia, it will be welcome news for parents who have been searching for quality educational options. There certainly is no shortage of demand for more seats in high-quality charter schools. For example, just yesterday, MaST Charter School received over 8,000 applicants for 99 open seats.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers described the court’s decision as a “double-edged sword.” Union president Jerry Jordan is pleased to see the SRC’s powers diminished, but is dismayed at the prospect of increased charter school freedom among families desperate for choice:
On the other hand, the ruling also removes enrollment caps from charter schools. This means that the three new charter schools approved by the SRC will place even more of a strain on the District's already overstretched budget. Now more than ever, the PFT is reiterating its call for a moratorium on new charter schools because Philadelphia simply cannot afford any more conversions.
With tonight's vote, the SRC has taken another step toward bankrupting the school district. The irresponsibility of the SRC's actions provides more evidence that body needs to be abolished in favor of local control of our children's schools.
At the same time thousands of families are stranded on waitlists for better schools, the teachers’ union president calls for a moratorium on new charters. So much for putting the children first.
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.
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