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.
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.
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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.
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