An amusing opinion article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette takes aim at pending legislation that would protect high-performing teachers and change incentives in persistently failing schools. Authors Adam Schott and Kate Shaw have various misleading things to say about both HB 805 and SB 6, but this sentence sums it up:
An increasing number of state policy proposals…[treat] teachers as an interchangeable commodity, rather than highly skilled professionals.
What a peculiar claim about legislation that clearly respects the art of teaching and treats teachers as individuals.
HB 805 stipulates that, in the unfortunate event of furloughs, teachers be retained by virtue of job performance, not merely their years of service in the classroom (seniority). Under HB 805, teachers are evaluated based on the state’s new evaluation system, which currently rates 98.2 percent of teachers as distinguished or proficient. HB 805 would protect a teacher rated “distinguished” in favor of a teacher rated “failing.”
Only 15 percent of the evaluation system is based on test scores from each teacher’s classroom, so crocodile tears about an overreliance on “high-stakes testing” ring hollow. Reasonable people can debate the components of Pennsylvania’s evaluation system—which was endorsed by the state’s largest teachers' union—but teacher quality is closely connected with student learning, and measures of teacher effectiveness are quite reliable.
Above all else, it takes real chutzpah to claim that retaining teachers based on actual job performance treats them as “interchangeable commodities.”
The argument from Schott and Shaw boils down to: “Teachers are much more than widgets, so let’s treat them as widgets.” It is, ironically, opponents of seniority reform who view teachers as interchangeable commodities that cannot be evaluated like other professionals.
Over the weekend, Adam Brandolph of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review penned an excellent story on James Williams, a Mercer County science teacher standing up for his rights against the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).
Williams was long displeased with how the union spent his dues, but he only recently decided to resign his membership. The final straw was learning about the landmark lawsuit filed by Jane Ladley and Chris Meier, who sued Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union for violating their basic rights as religious objectors. (Read more about the lawsuit here, here, and here.)
Upon learning about the Ladley/Meier case, Williams took the necessary steps to leave the union and is planning to become a religious objector himself.
The entire Tribune-Review story is worth your time, but here’s a significant section:
[Williams] left his district's union this year when he learned about a lawsuit filed by two Pennsylvania teachers who, like he does, oppose the liberal causes and political candidates on which the Pennsylvania State Education Association spent money.
A 1988 state law allows teachers' unions to require those who opt out of the union to pay a “fair share” payment in lieu of membership dues to compensate the union for the collective bargaining benefit the non-member receives. If someone opts out based on religious grounds, the money is donated to a nonreligious charity agreed upon by both sides.
The teachers sued the PSEA in September when the union refused to remit their money to charities they chose.
“I had been thinking about it for a while but I pulled the trigger when I saw that lawsuit,” Williams said. “The union has an agenda, which I vehemently oppose. They've consistently not done what I think they should be doing.”
Williams joins Jane Ladley, Chris Meier, Linda Misja, and a growing chorus of Pennsylvania teachers who refuse to accept the PSEA's mistreatment. Fortunately, Rep. John Lawrence has moved to correct this injustice. His legislation, HB 267, ensures religious objectors can donate their “fair share fee” to a non-religious organization of their choosing—without interference from a union.
Seniority-based teacher furloughs may soon become a relic of the past for Pennsylvania public schools.
On Tuesday evening, the state House approved Rep. Stephen Bloom’s HB 805—the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. The legislation ensures teachers are retained based on their effectiveness, not merely their seniority, in the unfortunate event of furloughs. Teacher quality is measured based on a statewide evaluation system—one endorsed by the teachers’ unions—that currently rates 98.2 percent of teachers as satisfactory.
HB 805 protects Pennsylvania’s “proficient” and “distinguished” teachers from being furloughed in favor of a teacher with more seniority who is rated “needs improvement” or “failing.” In the event two teachers have the same rating, seniority will still serve as the tiebreaker.
Rep. Bloom's legislation passed despite intense lobbying from government unions who placed the interests of 1.8 percent of non-proficient teachers over the needs of every other high-performing teacher in the state—and over the needs of students.
Attention now turns to the state Senate to approve HB 805. If the legislation passes the Senate, it will be up to Gov. Wolf to prioritize teachers over his biggest campaign contributors and sign the law.
One government union is putting its political preferences and self-interest above the interests of public school teachers. Now, teachers are fighting back.
Jane Ladley, who recently retired from teaching after 25 years, Chris Meier, who teaches in the Penn Manor School District, and Linda Misja (pictured), a language teacher at Apollo-Ridge High School, are suing the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) to win back control of their own money.
We brought you Jane and Chris's story last year, but here's a quick synopsis: In Pennsylvania, if public employees demonstrate a bona fide religious objection to compulsory unionism, as Jane, Chris and Linda have, they are not required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Instead, they can send their dues to an IRS approved charity.
But there's a problem. The PSEA is hijacking the religious objection process, and the Fairness Center (TFC), which is the group representing Jane and Chris in their lawsuit, explains why:
Now, the PSEA is telling Jane and Chris that it has a “policy” against allowing religious objectors to send their money to charities that they choose. According to the PSEA, Jane’s educational charity was too “political,” and Chris’s charity was a conflict of interest” because it represented teachers in separate, unrelated lawsuits against the PSEA.
Chris and Jane are currently waiting for a decision to be handed down by Common Pleas Court. Meanwhile, TFC filed a similar lawsuit against the PSEA today on behalf of Linda Misja, charging the union with the same transgression. Here's the background on Linda's case:
...Linda objected on religious grounds in 2012, the PSEA refused to let Linda send her money to a pro-life pregnancy center that, among other things, provides support to teenage mothers. Then the PSEA refused to allow her to send her money to the National Rifle Association Foundation, the 501(c)(3) charitable arm of the larger organization, which supports firearm safety education across the country.
In these three instances, the PSEA anointed itself the arbiter of what is political and made a calculated decision to put its self-interests ahead of public school teachers. Their intransigence has led to not only two lawsuits, but legislation to protect teachers' rights in the religious objection process.
House Bill 267, sponsored by Representative John Lawrence, would give religious objectors the freedom to choose a charity for their donation. After all, the money belongs to Jane, Chris, and Linda, not the PSEA.
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.
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