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.
Allentown School District is no stranger to financial troubles. The third largest public school system in the commonwealth has been in financial distress for years. In 2011, the district laid off 112 teachers, in 2013, 100 teachers, and in 2014, 60 teachers lost their jobs. So it's understandable that former school board member Scott Armstrong and taxpayer Steven Ramos were upset to learn that the district paid more than $1.3 million since 2000 in salary and benefits to the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president, a teacher who doesn’t teach.
“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” said Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”
The current AEA president is Deb Tretter. When Tretter left the classroom in 2009, her salary jumped from $63,245 to $73,373. In addition to the pay pump, Tretter receives a taxpayer-funded salary, insurance, benefits, pension credits and accrues seniority as if she were still employed as a teacher.
"Now, Armstrong, along with fellow Allentown taxpayer Steven Ramos, is taking his fight to court and asking a judge to end the long-held practice of releasing the union president from classroom duties.
Armstrong and Ramos . . . filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Commonwealth Court with the help of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm with offices in King of Prussia and Harrisburg.
They are requesting that the union reimburse the district — with interest — for salary, benefits and pension credits, which they say exceed $1.3 million since the practice began more than 25 years ago."
The lawsuit isn’t questioning the need for a full-time union president, but it is questioning why taxpayers should pay for another organization's employee.
A poll posted at Lehighvalleylive shows overwhelming support for the lawsuit’s argument that taxpayers should not be paying a union employee. Here are the poll results as of this morning:
Allentown schools are struggling to meet basic needs like elementary music and art classes and updated textbooks. In this environment, it seems reprehensible that district leaders choose to spend tens of thousands each year on a ghost employee.
Watch a full report from WFMZ:
It's no secret that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) plucks teachers out of the classroom to work as full-time union operatives. These individuals are known as ghost teachers—and their salaries are paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers.
How much? Philadelphia ghost teachers made more than $1.7 million in 2014.
The union is authorized by the School District of Philadelphia to pull up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to conduct full-time union work. According to the PFT, these teachers typically serve as information officers. But reporting from Evan Grossman of Watchdog.org explains that some ghost teachers work in an explicitly political capacity:
Hillary Linardopoulos, who has not taught in a classroom since 2009, “coordinates much of our political activism and legislative involvement,” according to an op-ed penned by union members that endorses its current leadership team going into an upcoming internal election. Since leaving the classroom, her taxpayer-funded salary has almost doubled to $91,156.
The PFT says it reimburses the district for ghost teacher wages, but documentation supporting that claim was not immediately available from the union.
The article continues:
Candidates running for positions on the PFT’s collective bargaining team have all been on leave from the classroom for years, according to documents obtained by Watchdog. Eight ghost teachers running for office earned a total of $874,305 last year working full-time for the union. On average, those eight individuals have been on leave for an average of 16 years. They’ve also received annual raises, despite a three-year wage freeze while the district and union have failed to negotiate a new teachers’ contract.
Union President Jerry Jordan and Vice President Arlene Kempin have been on leave for more than 30 years and have worked exclusively for the union longer than they taught in the classroom.
Fortunately, the battle to end this abusive system is underway in the state Capitol. House Bill 1649, championed by Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, prohibits employees on public school payroll from leaving the classroom to work full-time for unions. Sen. Pat Stefano intends to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.
Rather than subsidizing union lobbying efforts, it’s time for students and taxpayers to get what they deserve: good teachers in the classroom.
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.
How would you feel if your employer took funds meant for your health insurance and spent them on partisan politics? Sadly, this is a reality for thousands of teachers in Philadelphia.
Evan Grossman of Watchdog.org has the story:
Every year, the [School District of Philadelphia] is bound by its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to pay more than $69 million for employee health care benefits.
The payments come in increments of $167.41 per teacher every two weeks during the school year, adding up to some $4,352 annually for each of the PFT’s 16,000 members. Those funds come from a pool of state and local taxes. The PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund receives a chunk of that money, which is earmarked for supplemental benefits, such as dental and vision, along with other programs like life insurance and its annual educational conference, which will be held in March 2016.
The Watchdog investigation found that more than $6 million from that fund was loaned, interest-free, to the union’s bleeding building fund, where it appears to have been spent on building maintenance and upgrades. According to Internal Revenue Service filings completed by the union, that money may never be paid back.
Part of the cash, loaned in five separate installments, was also used to subsidize the rent of the Jewish Labor Committee.
While teachers are working hard in the classroom, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) is secretly draining their insurance fund to subsidize politics and facilities upgrades.
Philadelphia is one of only two school districts in the state where teachers enjoy no-cost health insurance—generous benefits unheard of in the private sector. When Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission attempted to restore fiscal sanity to the money-bleeding district by asking for modest health cost sharing, the union responded with a lawsuit. The union’s refusal to accept even minor health care concessions is more remarkable given that millions of dollars from the Health and Welfare Fund are not even spent on health insurance.
As long as the Health and Welfare Fund serves as a slush fund for political activity, union leaders will fight tooth and nail to retain their unique taxpayer-funded health care privileges.
Of course, this isn’t the first time PFT leadership has used students and teachers as pawns in a larger political game. And it likely won’t be last—at least until government unions are more transparent in their operations and more accountable to their membership.
As 1980s movie buffs know, today—Oct 21, 2015—is the day Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled forward in time in the Back to the Future films. Back to the Future predicted a few things right, and a few things wrong about life in 2015.
But one thing Marty and Doc never expected to see 30 years later is Jerry Jordan—head of the Philadelphia teachers’ union—still working as a ghost teacher. Jordan has been on release time—employed as a “teacher” with the Philadelphia school district, but in reality working for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers—since 1985.
That’s the same year Marty and Doc left from the present—and in the real world, the same year Back to the Future was the number one movie in America.
Yesterday, Representatives Kristin Phillips Hill and Jim Christiana introduced legislation that would put an end to ghost teachers. House Bill 1649 prohibits employees on public school payroll from leaving the classroom to work full-time for unions. Currently, in school districts like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, dozen of employees working for the union remain on school district payrolls (often with the union reimbursing for salaries).
For example, in Philadelphia, due to union contracts, up to 63 district employees can work full-time for the union. In Pittsburgh, up to 16 district employees can work full-time for the union.
These ghost teachers continue to accrue seniority and pension benefits, despite being out of the classroom for many years—and in some cases, like Jerry Jordan, for decades.
This practice in Philadelphia is currently the subject of a lawsuit. You can read more about that case from our friends at the Fairness Center.
For better or worse, we don't have flying cars or self-adjusting clothes in 2015. But we can fix the archaic system of union release time and send ghost teachers "Back to the Future"...or rather, back to the classroom.
Teacher unions are taking money from teachers to fund political causes they do not support. Through Free to Teach, teachers like James Williams and Linda Misja are speaking out and shining a light on shady union practices.
CF’s Brittney Parker was on the Gary Sutton Show to talk about Free to Teach and how it's helping teachers who have fought against being forced to fund causes that conflict with their morals.
Brittney explains, “a lot of teachers feeling like their beliefs are being violated because they are being forced to pay this money to keep their job”.
The Teacher’s Bill of Rights is one of Free to Teach's resources that outlines personal freedoms all teachers should enjoy, including the right to a protected paycheck.
Click here or listen below to learn more about Free to Teach and the Teacher's Bill of Rights.
The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.
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The first month of a new school year is an exciting—but stressful—time for school teachers. This is particularly true for young, newly-hired teachers who must quickly acclimate to their students, colleagues, and a professional environment.
In Pennsylvania, however, rookie teachers face an additional burden. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains how the commonwealth’s hemorrhaging pension system stacks the deck against young teachers:
The pension plans…are structured to favor the small minority who teach in a single system for a working lifetime, at the expense of the vast majority who leave the system much earlier in their careers.
Our state’s backloaded defined benefit pension system is a bad deal for younger teachers—not to mention workers who begin their career late or shift to another job. Fewer than 25 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers will remain in the school system long enough to even become vested in their pension.
The WSJ article continues:
Under current plan structures, teachers accrue almost no retirement wealth in their first several years—then accrue substantially more as they near retirement age. The hypothetical Philadelphia teacher earns an average of about $1,326 in retirement compensation (in present-value terms) during each of her first 25 years of employment, followed by an average of about $37,593 during each of her last 10 years.
The Pennsylvania Public School Retirement System’s actuaries expect that about 80% of teachers will leave the system before their pension benefit is worth a single dollar. And according to a report last year from Bellwether Education Partners, more than half of all public-school teachers nationally will exit their school systems before their pensions vest.
Pennsylvania’s young public school teachers deserve better. They deserve a retirement account that is portable, and they deserve to own their retirement savings. Helping young teachers is yet another reason for Gov. Wolf to re-consider his veto of meaningful pension reform.
Although Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent actions have thrown Chester Upland School District into a state of turmoil, local unions in the district are rising above politics and putting students first. Teachers and support staff in Chester Upland School District agreed to work without pay so their students can return to school on time.
They should be commended for doing so.
The Delaware County Daily Times has the full story:
More than 300 Chester Upland School District faculty members and support staff voted Thursday to work without pay if necessary after learning from Superintendent Gregory Shannon during their first day back at school that there are insufficient funds to meet the district’s first payroll of the school year.
Chester Upland Education Association President Michele Paulick said that at a morning convocation Shannon read a letter from Francis Barnes, the state-appointed receiver for the school district which has been in financial flux for 25 years, that the district currently does not have the funds to make payroll for Sept. 9. Classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 2.
“We knew that the district was in financial straits but we didn’t know it was so immediate so, yes, we were very shocked,” said Paulick Thursday evening.
Following the announcement from the superintendent, the approximately 200 teachers represented by the Chester Upland Education Association and more than 120 secretaries, teaching assistants, licensed practical nurses and other staff represented by the Chester Upland Education Support Personnel Association passed a joint resolution stating their members “will work as long as they are individually able, even with delayed compensation, and even with the failure of the school district to meet its payroll obligations, in order to continue to serve the students who learn in the Chester Upland School District.”
Interestingly, Democrats in the Pennsylvania State House—who are also facing the possibility of foregoing monthly paychecks—are taking a different approach. PennLive reports:
Rep. Frank Dermody asked the Pennsylvania Treasury for "a loan, from whatever source you deem appropriate and in such amount as may be necessary, to be used during the balance of the current budget impasse to help us fulfill our obligation to pay timely salaries and related costs."
Perhaps House Democrats should take note of what is happening in Chester Upland—and follow suit.
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