CF’s work in education focuses on promoting opportunity and improving children’s lives though incentive-based reforms. Instead of repeating the failed attempts to reform education through new rules or additional funding, such reforms use competition to improve education. Incentive-based reforms include providing choice within the public school system through charter schools and cyber schools, providing families with private school options through vouchers or tax credit-funded scholarships, and measuring and rewarding success in education for both schools and teachers. Only when parents are able to choose the best school for their child, have an abundance of educational choices and ample information, and schools are forced to compete for students will we provide the best education to Pennsylvania’s youth.
Did you know teachers’ unions can force many teachers in Pennsylvania to pay dues or a “fair share fee” that’s taken directly out of teachers’ paychecks? What’s more, this withholding of fair share fees, union dues, and even union political contributions is done at taxpayers’ expense, and the teachers have no choice.
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.
Should voters have the right to approve property tax increases? This is a central point of contention within a rumored budget framework that purports to provide Pennsylvanians with property tax relief.
In exchange for increasing the state sales tax to 7.25 percent—with higher amounts in in Allegheny County (8.25 percent) and Philadelphia (9.25 percent)—Pennsylvanians are promised significant property tax reductions, to tune of $1.5 billion.
Unless taxpayers are given proper control over property tax rates, however, nothing would stop school boards from large tax increases in future years. This could completely negate any tax relief doled out by the rumored budget agreement.
Thankfully, Sen. Don White's SB 909 would protect taxpayers from this scenario by requiring voter referenda when a school board requests higher taxes. This commonsense legislation makes school boards accountable to the residents in their districts. Could property taxes increase under SB 909? Yes, but school boards would have to make a compelling case to raise taxes—and voters would be given the opportunity to vote yes or no.
Act 1 in 2006 promised Pennsylvania voters access to tax hike referenda. However, Gov. Rendell pushed for nearly a dozen exceptions which excused school boards from actually facing voter approval. Since then, the Department of Education has approved 1,428 school districts for waivers from referenda, including 172 in 2015-16. It is common, too, for districts to receive multiple exceptions in the same year (pension obligations and special education costs are the most common).
Number of Districts Approved for Exceptions
SB 909 eliminates these exceptions and empowers taxpayers with control over local taxes. Currently, 34 other states require a school district to hold a referendum vote in order to approve the levy of school taxes or an increase in the tax rate.
Predictably, the requirement for voter referenda has been met with fierce resistance the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) and other staunch defenders of the educational status quo. PSBA executive direction Nathan Mains recently penned this piece, foreshadowing the dystopian world in which SB 909 passes and taxpayers are given a voice:
Scenario 1: In five years or less, school facilities will start to see the effects of no investment in their upkeep. Roofs start leaking because there is no money to fix them, buildings are overrun with weeds because maintenance staff were let go. Students are injured as ceiling tiles and drywall start to crumble.
Scenario 2: Pennsylvania student achievement rates over the next decade are compared to the results of Third World countries because the state has opted not to meet its financial obligation of funding public education and has instead left each community to its own devices.
Needless to say, the hysteria is reaching fever pitch. The central claim from the PSBA is that voters will always reject potential tax increases, forcing school districts to make draconian cuts. However, this flies in the face of the experience of other states which employ voter referenda.
Consider Ohio, where voters approved 85 of 101 potential increases to school taxes in 2015. Older data from New York, New Jersey, and Michigan tells the same story: Taxpayers approved more than half of all school budgets, tax increases, or bond issues.
Here’s the bottom line: Taxpayers are willing to raise their own taxes when districts demonstrate the need for additional revenue and a plan for responsible spending.
A budget agreement that shifts taxes without providing local control is a bad deal for taxpayers, who deserve a voice—especially given the astounding growth in property taxes since 2004. Even including the "relief" from slot machine revenue, passed in 2004, property taxes have grown by 34 percent.
In light of stagnating achievement among K-12 students, the last thing Pennsylvania should do is crack down on alternative educational options. Yet a growing chorus says 35,000 students enrolled in Pennsylvania's innovative cyber charter schools should be denied the educational experience that best suits their needs.
I recently submitted a letter to the editor to the Easton Express-Times on this subject:
A Stanford University study is the most recent catalyst for cyber school criticism, but the online education frontier is perpetually under fire in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, proposed massive cuts to online schools in his March budget address.
Remembering a few key points is critical when analyzing cyber school performance. First, there is no typical cyber charter student. Many children enroll in cyber schools after enduring bullying or unsafe conditions in a traditional school. Online education is often the only feasible alternative for students in a persistently failing district. What's more, cyber students typically enroll with substantial learning gaps that cannot be rectified in a single school year.
Just as traditional public schools vary, the online education network is diverse in course offerings and academic achievement. It would be a mistake to paint the entire sector with a broad brush.
A charter reform bill, HB 530, currently awaits action in the state Senate. Notably, many cyber charter leaders are supportive of the legislation. Increased accountability for public schools—all public schools, not merely cyber—is a reasonable policy goal with bipartisan support.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the crucial void filled by Pennsylvania’s cyber schools. Singling out cyber schools with Wolf's punitive cuts—and treating these students as second-class citizens—does not serve the best interests of Pennsylvania families desperate for choice and opportunity.
The conventional wisdom in Harrisburg suggests Gov. Wolf is nearing an agreement with the legislature on a state budget. The specific details remain largely unclear, although it appears the deal would increase Pennsylvania’s sales tax to the second highest rate in the nation—amounting to a net tax increase of $190 per family of four.
Central to the budget framework is a substantial increase in state education spending. Wolf has reportedly agreed with legislative leaders to increase the Basic Education line item by $350 million and the Special Education line item by $50 million.
How do these figures—touted by Wolf's office as a "record increase" in school funding—compare to earlier stages of the budget negotiations? See the chart below.
The first columns illustrate the funding Wolf requested in March during his budget address. The middle columns represent the additional funding provided by the House and Senate in the no-tax, on-time budget, which was ultimately vetoed by the governor. The third columns represents the “budget framework” agreement.
If reports are accurate, Gov. Wolf will emerge with most of the new spending he requested in March—including more than 87 percent of the Basic Education funding.
This is notable, given the broader context of education spending in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth currently spends more than $15,000 per public school student, which ranks 11th in the nation. What’s more, funding for public schools is already at an all-time high, both at the state level and overall.
Pennsylvania may be on the verge of a record-high increase to an already record-high level of education spending. Of course, most evidence suggest a tenuous relationship between spending and educational outcomes.
Over the last quarter century, national education scores in both reading and math have modestly trended upward—until this year.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released its biannual report on 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math scores. The results are sobering.
The report, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” draws comparisons among states and reveals overall trends in education across the country. Specifically, it measures student proficiency at the national and state levels as well as at 21 district levels (Philadelphia included).
The national level showed virtually no “proficiency” increase in any grade level or subject category. The only increase in reading scores was among 4th-grade students with disabilities or those eligible for the National School Lunch Program. Meanwhile, 8th-grade scores decreased across the board among males, females, whites, blacks, and Hispanics, as well as in suburbs, towns, and rural areas.
In Pennsylvania, 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 4th-grade math scores remained stagnant, while 8th-grade math scores dropped to a low not seen since before 2007. The commonwealth performs favorably, compared with other states, in overall NAEP performance—but much of this is driven by demographics. After adjusting by race and income, Pennsylvania ranks 16th in NAEP performance, illustrating a sizable achievement gap.
Philadelphia specifically, where scores are typically well below the national average, saw drops in 4th-grade math and no significant growth anywhere else. Student achievement in Philadelphia is far below the major urban cities average, exceeding only Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Fresno. In fact, students in Philadelphia did not achieve proficiency rates above 20 percent in either subject matter or grade level. In other words, fewer than 1 in 5 Philadelphia students are on grade level in math or reading.
Students and families cannot afford to wait another two years to learn whether scores improve or continue declining. A solution to this disturbing reality is the expansion of educational options through the EITC and OSTC programs, which empower students to attend high-performing private schools and deliver cost-savings to taxpayers. Unfortunately, the EITC and OSTC programs are currently in limbo—held hostage by the Wolf administration as leverage for massive tax hikes.
The Nation’s Report Card results underscore the urgent need for expanded school choice in Pennsylvania. Our state's children deserve no less.
Fell Charter Elementary School near Scranton will stop paying teachers next month and the school is considering a four-day week thanks to the state budget stalemate.
Fell's announcement is just the latest reminder of Governor Wolf's strategy to leverage schools for tax hikes. First the governor withheld EITC and OSTC scholarship funds, which allow thousands of Pennsylvania kids to escape failing schools—even though these scholarships are part of the tax code which is still in effect.
Next, a handful of district schools stopped sending tuition payments to charter schools, which serve more than 100,000 kids in Pennsylvania. When the state began to pay charters by redirecting gaming revenue, districts vehmently protested, leading the Treasury to stop payments at the request of Senate Democrats.
It's not just students at charter schools that are pawns in Gov. Wolf's political game. District schools desperate for funding were told they could not seek loans from the state Treasury. This is in spite of the comparisons they made to a loan floated to House Democrats from the Treasury.
In short, all types of schools and students across the commonwealth are held hostage.
Yesterday, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced at least 27 school districts and two intermediate units are now borrowing money to stay open. That puts total borrowing at $431 million, plus an estimated $14 million in interest costs. DePasquale expects the number of borrowing districts to jump to 54 by Thanksgiving
Hours later, the state Senate tried once again to provide relief to schools by attempting a veto override of a stop-gap budget that would release four months of funding to schools and social service agencies. The move fell short by 3 votes.
As rumors of a new deal circulate one thing should be clear: No one wins by holding schools hostage for historic tax increases.
Pennsylvania is home to several innovative education programs, including the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which provides a path to a great education for low income students.
CF’s James Paul spoke with WSBA’s Gary Sutton to explain how Gov. Wolf’s hostage-taking budget tactics are hurting students dependent on the EITC. By essentially putting the the program on hold, Gov. Wolf is severing a lifeline that many low income families use to escape failing schools.
[EITC] gets better results for families, lets them go to a school that best fits their needs, and also results in a great savings to the taxpayer. But instead of letting this program go forward and letting students be educated and teachers teach, it seems the Wolf administration is content to spread the pain around.
Despite claiming that his “hands are tied,” freezing the funding process for these educational programs demonstrates how Gov. Wolf prioritizes politics over school children and teachers.
Click here or listen below to hear more.
The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.
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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.
School districts have borrowed $346 million—and taxpayers will pay to pay up to $11 million in interest payments—as a result of Gov. Wolf’s budget vetoes, according to a report from Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
DePasquale noted that this borrowing is due to the lack of tax dollars flowing out of Harrisburg—despite the fact the state is certainly still taking money from taxpayers.
At the press conference announcing these findings, Sen. Scott Wagner stood up to say he’s tired of taking blame for Gov. Wolf’s actions. That is, the House and Senate passed a budget—and subsequently passed a temporary funding plan—but Gov. Wolf’s vetoes denied funding for schools and social services.
Sen. Wagner is right. The only person to blame for schools having to borrow money is Gov. Tom Wolf, who vetoed the original budget in its entirety—rather than using the line-item veto as previous governors have done—and the temporary stop-gap measure.
Wolf says his vetoes are about education funding, but are they really?
Education spending is already at an all-time high, while Pennsylvania ranks among the highest spending states. The Republican-passed budget would have increased aid to public schools by another $350 million (and $1.4 billion more than four years ago).
Republicans even offered Gov. Wolf $300 million above that total.
Gov. Wolf thinks that’s not enough, and continues to cling to his demand for higher taxes on working families.
But there can be no doubt, Wolf is the only reason schools are struggling to make payroll.
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.
Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.
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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation transforms free-market ideas into public policies so all Pennsylvanians can flourish.