Gov. Tom Wolf has wasted little time staking out his vision for public education, and it doesn’t appear to have much room for school choice.
In a recent opinion piece for The Sentinel, I explain how Pennsylvania’s new governor is hostile to innovative schools and wedded to the educational status quo.
First, the Wolf administration catered to anti-reform interests in the troubled School District of Philadelphia. After the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) approved just a handful of new charter schools, Wolf stripped SRC Chairman Bill Green of his leadership position.
The governor’s message was unmistakable: even tepid support for charter schools will not be tolerated. It’s not as though charters secured a decisive victory in Philadelphia—34 of 39 charter applicants were rejected, leaving tens of thousands on waiting lists.
Still, this meager charter expansion was justification for Wolf to shuffle deck chairs at the SRC. Who was tapped to replace Green as chairman? Marjorie Neff, the only SRC member who voted against all 39 Philadelphia charter applicants.
The Wolf Doctrine on education is particularly detrimental to students who attend public cyber charter schools:
Wolf’s budget is even more punitive to cyber charter students, who disproportionately come from low-income families. For them, Wolf would slash current funding levels by one-third. While the state currently spends an average of $14,600 dollars per public school student, the governor would spend only $5,950 per cyber student.
No one should be forced to fund political activity that they don’t support. Jane Ladley, a teacher in Chester County, didn’t want her dues money being spent on partisan political causes. She initially decided against joining the union. However, her school became agency shop in her last year, so she had to become a fair share fee payer. Subsequently she filed a religious objection, where the amount equivalent to the fair share fee is sent to a charity mutually agreed upon by the teacher and union.
Sounds pretty simple, right? The problem is that the unions believe that they are under no obligation to agree to the teacher’s charity choice.
Jane chose to direct her fees to a scholarship fund for high school seniors showing interest in the U.S. Constitution. The PSEA rejected her request.The PSEA never responded to her regarding her second choice, a charity which provides education material on the U.S. Constitution. Jane retired from teaching in 2014, but her fees are still sitting in an escrow account.
Sadly, this is not unusual as there are numerous cases of teachers’ charities being rejected or ignored. Chris Meier also became a religious objector and opted to send his money to the Right to Work Legal Foundation. The PSEA refuse to approve his choice because they said it was a “conflict of interest.”
Fed up with the games being played with their hard earned money, Jane and Chris filed a lawsuit against the PSEA through The Fairness Center. Their hope is to give teachers the freedom to choose which charity receives their money.
Thanks to their bravery, state legislators are taking action. State Representative Lawrence plans to introduce legislation that would allow religious objectors, like Jane and Chris, to send their fees to any recognized 501(c)3 charity of their choosing.
If you’re a teacher or know one who is interested becoming a religious objector, check out this primer ‘4 Steps to Leaving Your Union’ and consider sharing your own story!
Frank is a high school teacher in Lackawanna County who has been frustrated with the NEA’s support of abortion for a long time: “I just don’t want to see any of my money going to support abortion in any way.” Unfortunately, Frank’s desire has been ignored.
According to the NEA’s financial report disclosed to the U.S. Department of Labor, $1.15 million in donations went to the AFL-CIO and another $15,333 went to the SEIU, both of which donate to Planned Parenthood.
As a member of the NEA, Frank’s dues are spent on many political causes that violate his moral beliefs. “The union does not represent or even respect my deeply held convictions. It forces me to violate them,” he explains.
So when Frank learned he could resign his union membership and donate his fair share fee to a charity, he knew he was morally obligated to do so. “I have been in the union for 28 years. I never knew that I had a religious objection option. Had I known that earlier, I would have taken action.”
But there was a problem. Frank’s current contract prohibits him from resigning from the union until June 2017, after he’s eligible for retirement. “I haven’t made any decisions yet [about retirement], but it doesn’t appear that there is any way for me to stop funding the pro-abortion movement short of leaving my job.”
Frank’s experience isn’t uncommon. Contracts give educators little opportunity to opt-out or resign their union membership. Pennsylvania’s regulations are especially restrictive.
If a school district collective bargaining agreement contains a maintenance of membership provision, teachers have a very brief window to resign their membership. This is frequently an annual 10-day or two-week period, or a 15-day period right before a contract expires.
In rare cases, a teacher could be denied the right to leave their union for decades. If a union and employer agree to a new contract before the opt-out window, the window is vacated and employees operating under the contract cannot leave their union.
Additionally, no teacher has successfully challenged a valid maintenance of membership provision in Pennsylvania, despite the constitutional concerns presented by such a provision.
Frank hopes his story will help other educators become aware of their opt-out options and that lawmakers will take notice to of these oppressive regulations that limit the freedom to teach.
Shortly after graduation, Dominique took a job at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging turnaround high schools, University City. After one very successful year the district experienced significant layoffs and she saw many of her young colleagues—including one who had won a city distinguished teaching award—laid off. Dominique was so disheartened by the experience that she left University City.
Yesterday, Senator Ryan Aument and Representative Stephen Bloom introduced legislation to ensure that furlough decisions are based on actual job-performance, not simply years in the classroom.
Seniority rules mandate that teachers be placed and furloughed simply according to their years in the system, not how effective they are at instructing students. This results in the best teachers being left out in the cold, while those who are less effective, but longer tenured, are protected.
Rep. Bloom explains how seniority mandates are particularly harmful to low-income students:
Moreover, seniority-based layoffs disproportionately impact low-income and minority students. Schools serving primarily low-income and minority families often have higher concentrations of new teachers than more affluent schools. When seniority-based layoffs occur, these schools experience higher teacher turnover and lose many more faculty compared to other schools.
Favoring seniority over performance punishes the best teachers, not to mention the children in each classroom. Even one child deprived of a first-rate teacher is one child too many.
Much has been made of recent comments from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan regarding school funding in Pennsylvania. According to Duncan, Pennsylvania's families are “being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding.”
Several observers pounced on these remarks—particularly the notion that Pennsylvania per-pupil spending in low-income districts is one-third less than in wealthy districts—and used them as justification for higher taxes and greater school spending.
Is it true that Pennsylvania’s low-income students are underfunded? Let’s examine the facts.
Duncan’s comments are based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which organizes school districts into quartiles of family income: low poverty, low-middle poverty, high-middle poverty, and high poverty. (Note that NCES figures exclude costs for construction and debt, as well as federal funds).
In each quartile—even among high poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. Put another way: the vast majority of schools in the commonwealth are overfunded. It just so happens that Pennsylvania’s richest districts are particularly overfunded, while low-income districts are slightly overfunded.
Current Education Expenditures, Per-Pupil, 2011-12
The key takeaway from NCES is that affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their public schools. Hypothetically, the discrepancy in district level spending could be eliminated by capping the local effort in high-income districts. This would make Pennsylvania’s schools appear more “equal,” but it wouldn’t result in better academic performance—nor would it direct more funding to low-income districts.
As Jason Bedrick from the Cato Institute recently explained, the education-industrial complex incessantly lobbies for higher school taxes regardless of student outcomes or fiscal reality. Given that Pennsylvania's schools are better funded than the national average but produce middling achievement, perhaps it’s time to consider other education reforms.
At the state level, reform should include weighted student funding. This revenue neutral approach offers a more rational, transparent school funding mechanism. At the same time, Pennsylvania should protect and reward its most effective teachers, while expanding school choice for families trapped in persistently failing public schools.
The long, frustrating wait continues for Philadelphia families desperate for educational opportunity.
Last Wednesday, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) rejected 34 of 39 charter school applicants. Five charters were approved, albeit with substantial restrictions and conditions. Each approved school must enroll significantly fewer students than it requested, and each school received a three year charter instead of the customary five year agreement.
All of the approved applicants currently operate high performing charters in Philadelphia: Independence Charter School West, KIPP Dubois, MaST Community Roosevelt Campus, Mastery Gillespie Campus and TECH-Freire. Each operator runs a school with a School Performance Profile score exceeding 70 (the district average is 56.8) and substantial enrollment of low-income students. In other words, their students outperform Philadelphia's traditional public schools, even though they spend fewer dollars per-pupil.
These are exactly the type of innovative, successful models that district leaders should promote and encourage. Independence, KIPP, MaST and Mastery sought to open a combined nine new schools—yet only four were accepted, and each with strings attached. For example, MaST's Roosevelt application intended to enroll 1,575 students in the first year, but the SRC is limiting them to 400 seats.
These approved schools will provide life-changing opportunity for approximately 2,600 students over the next four years. Sadly, though, tens of thousands of other Philadelphia students remain trapped in schools they’re seeking to leave.
Opponents of expanded choice in Philadelphia decry “fixed costs” as the main reason to block new charters, but the district is already revising down the projected charter school price tag—despite continuing to use the disputed $7,000 per-pupil stranded costs estimate.
Jerry Jordan, president of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, criticized the SRC for approving any charters whatsoever. Jordan also thanked SRC member Marjorie Neff for voting against all 39 applicants.
What’s the next step for denied charter schools? Appeal. For the first time in 14 years denied applicants can petition the State Charter Appeal Board to reverse the SRC’s decision. According to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, the seven-member Board may not consider the financial impact a proposed charter will have on the district, which should allow each school to be evaluated on the merits of its application alone.
Given the strength of many Philadelphia applicants, perhaps there is reason to be optimistic about a favorable appellate ruling. In the short term, however, school choice remains out of reach for far too many Philadelphia families.
Last week the Bethlehem Area School District approved a new labor contract that will force all teachers—even those who do not want the union's services—to pay the organization hundreds of dollars each year. Shortly after the vote, the Lehigh Valley Times editorial page argued that these so-called "fair share fees" are a good compromise. I responded with a letter arguing that teachers should have the freedom to decide who negotiates their salary.
The Jan. 30 editorial, "Fair share fees allow non-union teacher to have their cake and protest it, too," misses the fact that the Bethlehem Area Education Association's new obligation to represent non-union members such as Richard Coppock was not imposed on the union -- they actively negotiated for it. In other words, the district just allowed the union -- and its related state and national affiliates -- to confiscate Coppock's right to represent himself.
It's absurd that this power-grab is being twisted around to accuse Coppock of "free-riding." Coppock doesn't want something for nothing, he wants the ability to refuse all union benefits. Coppock's rights should not be sacrificed simply because he was in the minority.
The editorial goes on to say Coppock has the option to become a religious objector and, "donate the fee to a non-religious charity of their choosing." But the law actually says the charity must be "agreed upon by the nonmember and the [union]." The difference is more than semantics: Two Pennsylvania teachers are in the midst of lawsuit because the state teachers union has refused to allow their money to go to the non-religious charity of their choice.
Teachers must know their rights. FreetoTeach.org, a project of the Commonwealth Foundation where I work, offers clear and concise resources to let teachers make their own decisions -- a principle that the teachers' unions apparently ignore.
Michigan teacher Jim Perialas has an unusual story. In 2012 his school, Roscommon Area School District, became the first in decades to decertify (or leave) the state-wide Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) to form a local-only, independent union.
Jim readily admits he’s not anti-union, “unions do good and bad things . . . but I still think they should play a role in the workplace.” So, why did teachers at Roscommon want to leave the MEA? They were simply frustrated by the undemocratic, expensive, and secretive state union. “We talk about the lack of a voice . . . there is a so-called democratic process, but really it’s not,” explains Jim.
And as Nathan Benefield blogged on this date last year, most teachers’ union members never hear from state and national union officials. It’s no wonder teachers are looking for better options.
Going local wasn’t easy. Jim warns that any district considering the local option needs to be united and prepared to withstand immense pressure from the state union, but the rewards can be worth it.
Today, members of the independent Roscommon Teachers Association have seen their dues decrease from $980 to $600 a year and members still have access to grievance support and other services. Most importantly, members have local control and can clearly see how their money is being spent.
Hear about the challenges Jim and his fellow teachers faced during the decertification process in our latest podcast.
The school district of Philadelphia saw a $1 billion increase in revenue over the past decade, even as enrollment declined. Yet many claim there isn't enough funding for basic classrooms supplies. The question is: Where is the money going if not into the classroom?
1. Union Leader Salaries
The PFT forces teachers to pay more than $700 for the average teacher each year in dues (or more than $500 in fair share fees to keep their jobs). Teachers never see that money as it is deducted from their paycheck just like taxes.
At the same time, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, makes an astounding $550,000 a year off of teachers' dues. In fact, AFT has more than 200 staffers making more than $100,000 in compensation, according to the Center for Union Facts.
Without such high dues, teachers could keep more of their salary and higher take home pay would help attract high quality teachers.
2. Political Spending
Philadelphia teacher union dues are being spent on political ads at the rate of $70,000 per minute. PFT ran two 30-second TV ads during an Eagles football game attacking Governor Corbett and select lawmakers. The cost of those two ads alone were $35,000 each, according to records filed with the FCC.
Nationally, the AFT spent more money on elections this year than ever before, including a gift of $500,000 from teachers’ union dues to fund attack ads via a “SuperPAC.” This money could buy countless classroom supplies the union claims Philadelphia schools lack. The teacher’s union’s actions indicate leadership is more concerned with playing politics than providing resources to struggling teachers and students.
3. Administrative Costs
The School District of Philadelphia has among the highest administrative costs in the state. In 2012-13, Philadelphia had a higher administrator to student ratio than the average Pennsylvania school district. In addition, the average administrator salary is $129,573, which ranks in the top 25 most generous school districts in Pennsylvania. These high overhead costs focus resources on adults instead of kids.
4. Health Care Costs
This past fall, for the first time, Philadelphia teachers were asked to contribute a portion of their salary towards health care premiums, a request made of teachers in every other Pennsylvania school district save one. With this change, approximately $54 million could go directly to classrooms if teachers begin to contribute just a percentage of their own health care costs. The School Reform Commission proposed teachers pay between 5 and 13 percent of their health care costs. That is about half of the 23 percent the average Pennsylvanian pays towards employer sponsored family coverage.
Former Governor Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board all agree with the necessity for reasonable concessions—but the PFT refuses to compromise. Without these savings, more teacher layoffs will be necessary.
5. PFT Health and Welfare Fund
Apart from health insurance, the school district contributes to the PFT Health and Welfare Fund. This entity, controlled by the PFT, provides supplemental benefits, such as dental and vision, along with a wide variety of other programs, such as term life insurance and an annual educational conference.
By simply ending the PFT’s monopoly control over these benefits, and selecting a high-quality benefit provider in the marketplace, the school district would save an estimated $22.4 million. Teachers will still receive these benefits with the savings would being directed back into the classroom for the benefit of students.
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.
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