Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and a trio of legislators today unveiled a package of bills aimed at reducing cyber school growth and limiting the popular schools' funding. Cyber schools, which opened just 10 years ago, have seen skyrocketing growth as families flock to them, and now boast more than 32,000 students and 16 schools across Pennsylvania.
Take Caela Collins of Lake Ariel, who was born premature with underdeveloped lungs. She was so ill between kindergarten and 6th grade, she could no longer risk being exposed to germs at a regular school. Arbitrarily limiting cyber school growth when parental demand is so high will only hurt Pennsylvania families like the Collins'.
Because the proposed changes are aimed almost completely at reducing cyber school funding, they neither preserve the educational choice parents want nor create accountability measures. Instead, they will squeeze cyber schools' ability to grow and function and treat students who choose public cyber schools as less deserving of support as those in district-run schools.
The legislation will appease certain special interest groups and public school union bosses who have falsely complained that cyber schools "drain" funding from traditional public schools.
The most damaging provision is one that would allowing school districts with in-house cyber programs to deduct 50 percent of that cost from the reimbursement they owe cyber schools. This measure seems solely directed at shrinking cyber school resources so they're unable to compete with school districts.
The ultimate result will be fewer options for parents. To paraphrase Henry Ford, it essentially says, "You can have any cyber school option you want, as long as it's the school district's."
Rather than punitive legislation targetting cyber schools, lawmakers should embrace charter school reform that provides fairness (meaning all students receive equal funding), increases accountability, and expands the choices parents are demanding. For more on cyber schools, check out The Learning Revolution.
We've had several conversations over the last year with public school educators. One thing has stood out: Teachers don't feel like they have a genuine voice on educational and professional issues. Politicians, administrators and union bosses usually speak for them, but we don't often hear directly from teachers.
Teachers have told us they would like an honest, independent forum to learn about and discuss the education issues that affect them. That's how Free to Teach was born. When we explained the mission of Free to Teach to one educator, she told us, "We've been waiting for something like this."
We're putting a high premium on educators' feedback and counsel. If you're a public school teacher, we'd love for you to take our 10-question survey on education and your professional life.
We, along with many Pennsylvania educators, believe students should get the best education possible while teachers enjoy full professional freedom and thrive in their jobs. That's the freedom to teach.
Visit www.FreeToTeach.org for more information!
The Wall Street Journal today writes about "Big Labor's Losses" in Tuesday's election. This may seem hard for many Pennsylvanians to fathom, given the role government union bosses and money played in reelecting President Obama. However, the Journal notes the defeat of Proposition 4 in Michigan—an effort to entrench collective bargaining power in the state constitution.
Moreover, the Journal highlights the legislative victories in Wisconsin, solidifying voter support for the Scott Walker-led reforms enacted there last year.
Why the Wisconsin results? The collective bargaining reforms enacted last year saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $2 billion, according to an analysis released by the MacIver Institute for Public Policy.
Wisconsin's Act 10 required public employees to contribute more to their pensions and health care premiums, and limited collective bargaining to wages for most employees. These reforms provided flexibility to municipalities and school districts to make changes to costly benefits and avoid raising property taxes or cutting vital services.
Act 10 also allowed employees to opt out of paying union dues and eliminated automatic payroll deductions for dues. No person should be forced to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment, and the government should not be in the business of collecting dues for unions. (Check out this grateful teacher's letter to the editor, in which she notes how her money was taken for 15 years "to support policies and politicians I did not believe in.")
Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow Wisconsin's lead, giving government workers the choice to support (or not support) a union and ending taxpayer-funded collection of union dues. Such reforms could save residents billions here in the Keystone state, while ending the "squeeze" government union bosses have over taxpayers.
Pennsylvania's teachers unions rank fourth among all U.S. states in their strength and influence, according to a report released this week from the Fordham Institute. We trail only Hawaii, Oregon and Montana.
Among the factors contributing to the muscle of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers (PFT) are rich resources, deep political involvement and broad collective bargaining privileges. For example:
- PSEA and PFT have a wide combined membership (223,000 according to our count). According to Fordham, that translates to the 12th-highest rate of union membership in the United States, at 93.4 percent, and the 19th-highest annual revenue for state affiliates.
- Union donations made up 1.5 percent of total contributions to political candidates for state office, the 10th-highest among states.
- Collective bargaining is mandatory for public school teachers in Pennsylvania, and they are allowed to strike. In addition, bargaining is explicitly required or permitted over wages, hours, terms and conditions of employment, and management rights. State law implicitly allows for collective bargaining in 17 other areas, including tenure, layoffs, pension benefits, length of school year, and so on.
In fact, the PSEA is preparing to flex even more political muscle—once again increasing dues on teachers and other school employees. In 2012-13, a full-time public school teacher and PSEA member will pay $669 in combined dues to the PSEA and the National Education Association. That's 21 percent higher than five years ago.
Over the past few years, the PSEA has been plowing member dues into politics. In 2007-08, the union spent $1.9 million on "political activities and lobbying," which include election mailers, get-out-the-vote drives, independent campaign activities and lobbying of legislators. By 2011, just three years later, such spending had skyrocketed to $4.2 million—a 121 percent increase. This money doesn't count contributions to PSEA's political action committee, PACE, which further rakes in millions.
Despite raising union dues and spending heavily on politics, teachers unions still hang younger members out to dry in tough economic times. Hundreds of teachers have been laid off across Pennsylvania, and the first to go aren't the worst teachers. With union seniority rules, they're just the youngest. Take Esme Santiago, 26, who taught English as a second language in her hometown of Reading (America's poorest city): "I was thinking about my kids. I honestly love my job. My passion is teaching kids in Reading."
All the statistics about unchecked union influence boil down to this: Kids' education gets hurt. Taxpayers get hurt. And even teachers like Esme get hurt, too. That's the price Pennsylvanians pay for winning fourth place in the union power rankings.
Yesterday, I noted that despite watering down a proposed charter school reform bill, legislators were still hearing from government union bosses and other special interest groups that oppose parental choice were still barraging legislators with myths about charter schools.
To the surprise of many, including me, the state House adjourned last night without even voting on the measure, which had already passed the Senate and been largely agreed to by legislative negotiators. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi explained to Capitolwire (paywall):
Pileggi said, "We negotiated starting back in June through the summer into the fall, had an agreement with the governor and the House Republican leadership. "But PSEA," the state's largest teachers union, "put on a strong push and it never came up for a vote. The PSEA and the PSBA were against the provisions that would allow charters to operate more efficiently and expand in their operations, other than that general philosophical objection, I don't know what line or section or sub-paragraph caused the problem."
This failure to get meaningful charter school reform that empowers parents is but the latest example of what we've been saying: It is not the Republican Party that controls Pennsylvania politics, but the Union Party, and it will continue to thwart much good public policy until the Taxpayer Party takes back control of our government.
Pennsylvania State Education Association President Mike Crossey takes issue with the film "Won't Back Down" for not matching "real-life experience" on teachers unions. He's right—in real life, teachers unions are worse than Hollywood depicted.
Our first proposal was a moderate amendment to the teachers union contract, modeled after contracts AFT affiliates had already approved in other districts. The proposal would have maintained Desert Trails as a wall-to-wall unionized, district-run school. The district rejected it.
Then representatives of the district and union struck back with a calculated rescission campaign. Their tactics made the dirty tricks depicted in the movie "Won't Back Down" seem tame by comparison.
They told some parents the school would be shut down as a result of their efforts. They took photographs of the parents who refused to rescind their signatures. Some parents who were undocumented felt their immigration status was being used against them.
That's the real face of union bosses when they're challenged. Courts have finally ruled that Diaz's petition from parents is legitimate, and they can open their new charter school, but she didn't get her quick Hollywood ending because the teachers union blocked her at every step.
Crossey also contends Pennsylvania should be proud that its students do well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, with only a "handful" of states doing significantly better. He neglects to note the actual NAEP proficiencies in reading and math for 4th- and 8th-graders, which hover around 40 percent, and which mean the majority of Pennsylvania children aren't learning at grade level.
Teachers unions are indeed a barrier to improving student performance, largely because they support a host of education policies that create education stagnation: Protecting scale pay, work hours, and weak job performance over student needs; lobbying against proven forms of school choice, such as opportunity scholarships and charter schools; and advocating for higher and higher spending when such spending doesn't improve academic performance.
Educational reality is indeed no match for Hollywood. What parents and children in Pennsylvania face is far more daunting.
"Won't Back Down" is a movie about education that fittingly begins and ends with a close-up of a child reading aloud. Education debates in America frequently whirl around the ingredients of learning: Teachers and administrators, school buildings and bureaucracies. With Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) sounding out her vowels and consonants, we're reminded that children are the focal point of education, not anything—or anyone—else.
It's a point the movie makes over and over as it follows Malia's determined mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and teacher Nona (Viola Davis) battling school officials, teachers unions and a skeptical community to turn around their failing elementary school. In the movie, they use something called the "failsafe law" to take over the school and reverse its course.
In real life, this legal recourse is called the "parent trigger," and 20 states have considered or enacted some form of the law. The movie itself draws on the true story of a brave mother in Adelanto, Calif. who won enough support from fellow frustrated parents to take over her daughter's failing Desert Trails Elementary School, though her fight isn't over. Ironically, "Won't Back Down" is set in Pittsburgh, though Pennsylvania has no parent trigger law.
As Jamie explains to other parents at a "Parenttrooper" rally, kids have only a short window of time before it's too late to rescue their education and future. Displaying this sense of urgency, Jamie runs and rarely walks, dashing between teachers, parents and bureaucrats, desperately fighting to save Malia while there's still time. "I can't wait for 10,000 studies about how being poor affects education—I can tell you being poor sucks, and my kid can't read," she says.
Our CEO and former teacher Matt Brouillette taught at a racially and economically diverse urban Catholic school 20 years ago, and back then he thought "the reform efforts of the 1980s just had to start having an impact...sometime soon. Yet here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and kids are still being told to 'wait' for union-led reforms to improve their schools."
Poor parents are still waiting. In the film, union power and practices get honest exposure while inspiring viewers about the joy and worth of great teaching—and teachers.
"Won't Back Down" powerfully reminds us that we can't wait to change policy on a failing education system. The Pennsylvania legislature is currently considering SB 1115, a charter reform bill that legislators should strengthen with a parent trigger and pass. Go see this inspiring movie, and contact your lawmaker now to tell them Pennsylvania parents won't back down either.
Yesterday, I testified before the House Select Committee on Property Tax Reform, presenting on the best tax policy to finance government operations, and on ways to help school districts and local governments reduce spending, and in turn property taxes.
First, collective bargaining reforms like those adopted in Wisconsin would help save taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. I pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal article that notes Milwaukee public schools saved more than $100 million this year alone, just by changing health care benefits for retirees. Prior to the law, health care benefits both for current employees and retirees could be dictated by labor contracts—as can be the case in Pennsylvania. The new law removes this from contract negotiations, and gives school boards and local elected officials the ability to shop for the most affordable health coverage plan for employees.
Second, I discussed shifting state education subsidies from our current model to weighted student funding. Our current basic education funding formula starts with "hold harmless"—meaning every district receives what it got last year. Student enrollment and other factors are only considered in doling out increases. This harms growing districts, while protecting declining districts from making necessary reductions in staff and buildings. Weighted student funding would award state dollars based on student enrollment—with higher payments for low-income and special needs students that cost more to educate.
Today, Capitolwire reports that the Corbett administration is in fact looking at weighted student funding, quoting Budget Office spokesman Jay Pagni:
"WSF is a way to allocate dollars based on the type of students a district is serving and to ensure students coming with more educational challenges have more resources behind them to address those challenges. So step one is to allocate dollars along WSF model."
Indeed, weighted student funding is a better way to fund education, and prioritizes students over staff. It is a particularly important reform if Pennsylvania lawmakers choose to shift funding away from property taxes to other state revenue sources.
To read my full testimony, click here.
Pennsylvania is reeling from the Friday release of student test scores for 2011-12, which show declining student performance in our public schools. Kids did worse on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, or PSSAs, the test most widely used to track student progress and measure if the state is meeting goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The results are disheartening: Overall, 1 in 4 Pennsylvania students are not proficient in math, while nearly 3 in 10 cannot read at grade level. As for the state's 500 school districts, just about 60 percent made "Adequate Yearly Progress" (compared to more than 90 percent last year).
Nor do the results stop at mediocrity—this year, a cheating scandal involving educators marred Pennsylvania's schools. Some 100 educators are in the dock for tampering with students' test responses, which inflated performance in certain districts. The state Department of Education argues the latest test results show Pennsylvania's real state of learning.
Unsurprisingly, school administrators and teachers' union heads are slathering the blame on their usual scapegoat: supposed funding cuts. One superintendent complained his and other school districts are at "bare bones." Michael Crossey, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, fumed:
Who really thinks state government can cut nearly $1 billion from the public schools, cut 14,000 educators, and eliminate programs that work for students—without impacting student achievement?
On the contrary, Mr. Crossey believes practicing the same failed policy in education—more money and more time—will suddenly yield schools full of scholars. Here are seven facts on education funding to demonstrate money is not to blame for lower test scores:
- That $1 billion cut was always coming, and school districts knew this, because education spending increases came as a result of temporary federal stimulus funding.
- We've seen mediocre results despite a doubling in overall K-12 education spending in the last 15 years, from 1996 to 2011. Pennsylvania now spends nearly $15,000 per student on average. By contrast, our performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which is both a harder test than the PSSA, and allows us to compare performance with other states, shows only about 40 percent of 4th and 8th-graders are proficient in reading and math with scores unchanged for nearly 10 years.
- Increased spending does not guarantee better academic results. A 2010 study from the 21st Century Partnership for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (21PSTEM) looked at 30 Pennsylvania school districts that improved the most on 11th grade reading and math performance and the 30 districts that declined the most from 2004 to 2010. Schools that declined in performance had higher increases in total per-student spending.
- Pennsylvania's average composite SAT score in reading and math has hovered around 995 for the last 15 years, despite doubling spending.
- School districts have been increasing spending for several years that don't really match student needs. For example, staffing increased by about 35,000 employees over 10 years, while student enrollment declined about the same amount.
- School districts had more than $3 billion in reserve funds as of 2011, which represents a tripling in 14 years. That is, they've been able to save large portions of their allotted education funds, despite increases in spending and claims of education funding cuts.
- Union labor practices and contracts make adjustments during recessions extremely difficult. Because school districts are contractually obligated to meet a certain level of salaries and benefits, the only way to cope with school district budget deficits is frequently to lay off teachers and other school employees, rather than come up with solutions such as higher employee contributions to health care costs.
In the end, poor test scores, cheating and sloppy spending serve a failed education system instead of children. Kids who never learn to read and do math properly can't get decent jobs. That's the real, and frightening, result of poor PSSAs.
With soaring crime, a city in bankruptcy and families on the financial brink, children trapped in Harrisburg School District have to wonder how bad it can really get. Adding insult to their already well-publicized injury, the Patriot News just reported minutes ago that kids in the embattled district didn't meet minimal academic standards for the tenth straight year.
Despite taxpayers forking out more than $18,000 per pupil per year, more than the annual tuition for a graduate student at Penn State's College of Medicine, a scant 34 percent of students tested at grade level on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment with only 35 percent in math.
What's worse, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is currently investigating Harrisburg for cheating by changing incorrect test answers to boost scores, according to Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney.
Unless legislators intend to leave every child left behind then laws that allow parents to choose educational options with money that follows the child seem the only way we end the race to the bottom.
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