Is it true that schools with high concentrations of low-income students face unique challenges? Yes. Should poverty, along with several other social problems, be understood as a factor that influences academic achievement? Of course. Should we thus expect students from low-income families to persistently underperform on state tests and be forever relegated to a second-rate education? Absolutely not.
A fine line exists between recognizing poverty as a factor in academic performance and using it as crutch to excuse dismally performing schools. Nowhere is this more apparent than the York City school district.
A recent article on York’s potential conversion to charter schools explains that none of the district’s eight schools are meeting state testing goals. The piece quotes Wythe Keever, assistant communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), who is undeterred by the test scores:
Wythe said York performs just as well as schools that have similar populations of disadvantaged and special needs children. “The school district is right about where you’d expect it to be when you have an urban school district serving an impoverished population that’s already been decimated by Corbett’s budget cuts," Wythe said.
The comment (emphasis mine) is noteworthy for several reasons. Not only is Keever factually inaccurate about the district’s performance and finances—more on that in a moment—but he also seems to subscribe to the view that urban, low-income students are condemned to bad test scores and substandard learning gains.
A recent CF Policy Points explains that even when compared to other economically disadvantaged students in Pennsylvania, York City students lag behind state averages.
|York City PSSA Results 2012 (Percentage)|
|York City SD||Statewide||Economically Disadvantaged, State|
|Advanced or Proficient, Math||53.1||75.6||61.6|
|Advanced or Proficient, Reading||41.5||72.0||55.4|
|Below Basic, Math||25.7||11.1||19.0|
|Below Basic, Reading||35.8||13.7||24.3|
Keever is also off base when he claims the district was decimated by state level budget cuts. State revenue per student was steady throughout the previous five years, including a substantial increase in 2012-13. Overall revenue levels did modestly fall in the 2011-12 budget, but the chart below clearly demonstrates that this was due to a sharp decline in federal revenue (read: stimulus dollars).
Additionally, out of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, York is consistently within the top quintile of state revenue per student:
York City Revenue Rank, by Source
Factual errors aside, the most disheartening component of Keever’s remarks is that low-income students should be expected to lag behind their peers in academic performance. Setting such low standards does not serve the best interests of students and parents in York City.
It is not entirely surprising, however, that a spokesman from the largest teachers' union in the state has succumbed to the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. After all, the PSEA is a consistent opponent to many reforms—expanded school choice, seniority reform, merit pay—that would improve the quality of education in the commonwealth.
Each student has unique circumstances, needs and abilities—but no student should be resigned to failure.
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.
Matt Brouillette and other members of Commonwealth Foundation were on the ground at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) protest yesterday, handing out fliers and letting teachers know how PFT leaders are failing them, students, and Philadelphia's poor.
WPHT's Dom Giordano interviewed Matt Friday morning to find out why he waded into the midst of a union protest to advocate for the teachers, students, and the poor left behind by Philadelphia Federations of Teachers' policies.
Matt, a former high school teacher, said:
The Philadelphia Federations of Teachers is failing the kids, the teachers, and the poor in the city and it is their policies that block millions of dollars from going into the classroom . . . [PFT leaders] are harming the very teachers they are there to protect and they are preventing the kinds of reforms that are needed that I believe will make it better for the good teachers in the district.
In response to figures like former Gov. Rendell, Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter, and others coming out against PFT's actions, Matt said, “What you are seeing is a union that is out of touch with the public… even with those who are on their traditional side."
Listen here or below for more of the interview:
The Dom Giordano Show airs daily on WPHT in Philadelphia.
Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.
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.
The recent decision by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) to cancel the school district's contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—and require teachers to pay up to 13 percent of their health care premium—has been met with stunning hyperbole from both state and national union leaders.
According to the SRC, this will save $54 million this school year alone—money that can go back into the schools—and upwards of $70 million each year thereafter. Yet PFT President Jerry Jordan compared the SRC action to treating teachers like "indentured servants."
With an average teacher salary of nearly $71,000, though, it would be hard to mistake a Philadelphia teacher for a forced laborer—especially when the average household income is $37,000 in the city. Indeed, average Philly teacher salaries are higher than their counterparts in Chester ($63,600) and Delaware ($68,600) counties, and are not far behind those in Montgomery ($76,600) and Bucks ($80,900).
Keep in mind that the only change the SRC is making is asking teachers to pay part of their health care costs. The decision to impose modest premium sharing comes after years of deadlocked negotiations with the PFT leaders, who refused to budge one inch when it comes to health care payments.
Philadelphia teachers currently do not pay for their health benefits, and even under the new plan would pay far less than the average working Pennsylvanian, who pays 20 percent for individual or 23 percent for family coverage.
Is the PFT really concerned with protecting teachers, or maintaining its slush fund (the PFT "Health and Welfare Fund") which currently administers the health care plans?
Randi Weingarten, President of American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—the Washington, DC-based mother-ship of the PFT— had an equally alarmist response to the SRC, calling their decision "the most egregiously political action I’ve seen in a school district."
Weingarten would know. Given her union's heavy involvement in Pennsylvania politics, she is an experienced political activist.
Both the AFT and PFT have taken full advantage of their unique political privileges to spend massive sums of money canvassing and cheerleading for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. In early September, the PFT spent $70,000 for one minute of television advertising attacking Gov. Tom Corbett during an Eagles football game.
Surely $70,000 per minute could go a long way toward health care premiums—if the PFT were more interested in promoting the interests of its members than using forced dues to influence elections.
Furthermore, the AFT gave $500,000—directly from union dues—to the PA Families First 'Super PAC,' which has been on the air further promoting the lie that Gov. Corbett cut state education funding. All told, AFT is poised to spend more in 2014 than in any other election cycle.
Years of mismanagement, lagging academic performance, and declining enrollment have left Philadelphia in the unenviable position of making difficult choices to keep its schools financially viable. Union leaders are pretending to defend teachers with their rhetoric, but their actions demonstrate how they are exploiting teachers for political gain.
High-performing educators—and the children they teach—deserve better from union leadership. Given the PFT's refusal to negotiate in good faith for nearly two years, the SRC's action is a reasonable, necessary step for the School District of Philadelphia—despite the loaded rhetoric from hyper-political union bosses.
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.
How can school funding be "slashed" yet "technically rise"?
Take a look at this excerpt from a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, (emphasis mine):
Education funding to public schools has been slashed by more than $1 billion on the current governor's watch, noted Stephanie Robinson, a teacher at Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia. (Corbett, who has repeatedly publicly blasted PFT members for not contributing toward their health insurance, maintains that he has granted record amounts of aid to city schools. But, PFT and other opponents contend that although technically school aid under Corbett has risen above Rendell-era levels, the rise is minimal...)
The Inquirer piece notes, for instance, that the political action committee of Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers gave $100,000 to Tom Wolf between May 6 and June 9 alone. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, the Pennsylvania State Education Assocation gave him another $200,000.
Unions have invested heavily in commercials and newspaper ads promulgating the myth that Gov. Tom Corbett cut a billion dollars in education funding. In fact, the PA Families First "SuperPAC", which we highlighted before, has been running election-related TV ads spreading the "$1 billion cut" lie. Not coincidently, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Assocation recently gave $1 million to PA Families First, directly from union dues.
Of course, education funding cannot be "slashed" and "technically rise" at the same time. Only one can be true. And the truth is that state education spending is at an all-time high.
But as long as union leaders are willing to cut million dollar checks promoting their billion dollar myth, it’s no surprise a teacher from West Philadelphia is unclear about the facts.
Jane Ladley was a special education teacher in Chester County for more than 25 years until she retired this year. She may have left teaching, but she has a bone to pick with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the union that represents some 180,000 educators around the state.
In a landmark step, Ladley and Lancaster County teacher Chris Meier sued the PSEA for violating their rights as "religious objectors." It's the first case for newly established public interest law firm, the Fairness Center.
Ladley and Meier are fee payers—teachers who don't officially join the union, but by contract rules and state law are forced to pay a "fair share fee" to the union to cover representation. However, both teachers became religious objectors who, because their faith conflicts with union support of policies such as abortion, decided to have their fee instead donated to a charity.
In this case, both teachers got stuck in limbo. The PSEA accepted their religious objections, but have nixed the charities the teachers chose. Christen Smith from Capitolwire (paywall) reported on Ladley's experience:
“I first chose a scholarship in our local community for students who showed an interest in the Constitution, which is definitely close to my heart,” she said in editorial submitted to newspapers by her attorney, Nate Bohlander, assistant general counsel for the Harrisburg-based Fairness Center. “They looked at the organization sponsoring it and said they would not agree to it based on it being a political group.”
Ladley said she searched for another charity with a similar mission — she chose one that offers classes on the Constitution, instead — but the PSEA hasn't approved it to date, either.
“They are telling me which groups I have to choose,” she said. “It’s a wrong that needs to be righted. I’m doing this on principle and for the other teachers coming up through the ranks, so that they have these options available to them.”
The PSEA has 20 days from the filing of the lawsuit (September 18) to respond.
According to the Fairness Center, the PSEA is exploiting a loophole in Pennsylvania law that effectively silences teachers: The 1988 agency shop law requires the money to go to a "non-religious charity" both union and teacher agree on, but doesn't prescribe a procedure or deadline to reach that agreement.
Ladley says the amount of money at stake or whether she's still in the classroom is irrelevant. "Why should I have to fund an organization that counters my faith and values so I can work as a teacher?" she said. Even if only future Pennsylvania teachers see their rights better protected, for her, it's worth the fight.
Most workers are shortchanged by Pennsylvania’s public employee pension programs, according to two recent studies.
The Urban Institute gives Pennsylvania's State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) an "F" grade, ranking it third worst in the nation—better than only Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The September 2014 report says:.
The plan scores poorly because it is inadequately funded, it penalizes work at older ages by reducing lifetime benefits for older employees, and it provides few retirement benefits to short-term employees"...
One in five employees with at least five years of completed service lose money by participating in the plan because pensions they earn are worth less than their required plan contributions.
SERS gives 76 percent of the benefits to 25 percent of employees, according to the Urban Institute.
A similar disparity is found in a Bellweather Education Partners study of the nation’s pension funds for public school teachers, including the state’s Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS).
Generous benefits for long-term teachers are partly paid at the expense of those who leave teaching earlier or move from place to place within the profession, according to the study, Friends without Benefits: How States Systematically Shortchange Teachers’ Retirement and Threaten Their Retirement Security.
Less than 25 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers ever become vested in the pension system, compared to a national median of approximately 45 percent, says Bellweather.
In contrast, defined contribution plans like the 401(k), offer many features better for younger workers. In addition to portability and better benefits for short-term employees, our recent pension study outlines several reason why transitioning to a defined contribution retirement system is an improvement for many employees.
- Ownership. Workers with higher risk preferences can pursue their own investment strategies without restrictions.
- Potentially higher returns. A growing body of evidence suggests that a lifetime of defined contribution retirement investments produce higher returns than individuals cashing out of a defined benefit program.
- Security. By definition, defined contribution plans are fully funded. All of the funds promised to an employee are paid up front and become the employee’s property. There is no risk of reduced benefits from municipal bankruptcy as in the case of Detroit.
The primary obstacle to a more equitable retirement system are teacher unions notes the Bellweather study, saying “the teachers who remain in the system long enough to maximize their benefits—an ever shrinking group—are the most organized politically, via teachers unions and other stakeholder groups."
Unfortunately, government unions' refusal to acknowledge the need for pension reform will hurt workers for years to come. Pension reform is essential to not only protecting taxpayers from enormous debt and rising property taxes, but to give workers a higher quality retirement system where benefits are better distributed.
Legislation to protect children from predators in the classroom has stalled in Harrisburg.
Union executives are standing in the way.
Currently, teachers who sexually abuse or have been otherwise accused of harming children are permitted to reach a "confidentiality agreement" with their district and quietly resign. If the same teacher applies for a position in a new district, they are not required to inform the new school of their alleged misconduct.
An in-depth report from PennLive explains the teacher unions' unpopular position:
Child welfare advocates blame teachers' unions for not backing transparency throughout the background check process. Union representatives refute that claim, saying they're generally neutral on the bill.
"We support efforts to keep schools safe, but we also support due process for teachers and other school employees," Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said.
Due process is not the issue. The issue is an outrageous loophole in state law allowing accused teachers to resign and relocate without having to inform their new district of alleged abuse.
Far from denying due process, the legislation provides for more thorough background checks and allows employers to know if a potential hire was previously investigated.
We all know the vast majority of teachers are committed to the well-being of their students. But apparently union executives won't lift a finger to make classrooms more safe.
Total Records: 148
Who are We?
The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation transforms free-market ideas into public policies so all Pennsylvanians can flourish.