Education

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.


Union Abuses Force Pennsylvania Teachers to Speak Out

September 19, 2013 | Commentary by Bob Dick

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.



Saving for a Rainy Day – But Whose Money?

JULY 25, 2016

Let’s talk for a moment about rainy days—specifically, the need to save funds to spend on one. Several school board administrators and lobbyists have taken issue with CF’s searchable, sortable database of school district fund balances, showing public schools are sitting on over $4 billion in "rainy day funds." Meanwhile, 85 percent of school districts plan to raise property taxes.

A Temple University report, authored by a former Pennsylvania School Boards Association employee, argues:

Just as an individual or family should maintain a savings account for unforeseen expenses or emergencies, school districts should also have funds in reserve to pay for emergency repairs or cover unexpected interruptions in revenues – such as a layoff at a major factory which suddenly affects tax collections.

If an individual or family could impose real estate taxes on their friends and neighbors, this analogy might pass muster. But an obvious difference exists between families socking away their own hard-earned money in a savings account and a school board severely over-taxing its district. The CF database shows 21 districts with over 50 percent (!) of their total expenditures squirreled away in reserve.

Every dollar held in excess by a school board is money earned by taxpayers that could otherwise be saved, invested, or spent by taxpayers. While some school districts stock up reserve funds, thousands of Pennsylvanians struggle to balance their family budgets.

Typically, the school board lobby defends excessive reserves by drawing an ironclad distinction between unassigned funds and assigned or committed funds. As CF explained in an earlier blog:

A district’s fund balance—what it owns minus it what it owes—is comprised of assigned, committed, and unassigned funds. Assigned and committed reserves are available funds designated for a specific purpose, while unassigned funds are available for any purpose.

School board directors argue the public should only scrutinize unassigned funds, since assigned and committed funds have already been earmarked. [For example, the Temple University report focuses solely on unassigned funds. Other funds are largely ignored.] They fail to mention, however, how easily money can be shifted among the three funds—often with a mere majority vote at the next board meeting.

The CF database anticipates this line of argument—and provides both total and unassigned reserve funds as a percent of expenditures. You’ll notice many districts keep their unassigned funds stocked to the legally mandated maximum amount at which they can still raise taxes, between 8 and 12 percent of total expenses, depending on district size.

Whether school boards should be judged on all reserve funds or simply unassigned funds is ultimately for taxpayers to determine. But the fact remains that dozens of Pennsylvania districts amassed large rainy day funds while also seeking tax increases.

What’s more, the Temple University report makes no mention of school districts’ capital reserve funds—yet another pot of money districts use to plan for construction projects.

Drawing attention to reserve funds is critical in order to increase transparency and raise awareness for taxpayers. While few school districts are sitting on a “pot of gold,” Pennsylvanians have a right to know that almost all districts enjoy alternatives to higher taxes.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:50 AM | Comments

PSERS Revokes Ghost Teachers’ Illegal Pension Credit

JULY 12, 2016

In a victory for taxpayers, the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) has revoked pension credit illegally given to Allentown “ghost teachers” who were hired to teach but instead worked full-time for the local teachers’ union.

Even as the Allentown School District laid off 272 teachers in the past five years, the district used tax dollars to fund the salary and benefits of the full-time president of the Allentown Education Association.  

In response to a lawsuit filed by the Fairness Center, PSERS determined the tenures of the current and previous AEA presidents were “non-retirement-covered compensation and years of service credit were removed for the same number of years that each served as union president…”

With this announcement, reported by the Allentown Morning Call and the Easton Express-Times, PSERS declared more than $1 million in salary earned by these ghost teachers ineligible for pension credit.

But pensions aren’t the end of it. Allentown taxpayers have also funded the salaries and other benefits of the city’s ghost teachers—even while the cash-strapped district laid off hundreds.

Pennsylvanians expect their education tax dollars will actually fund education. The fact remains that taxpayers should not be on the hook for union work, and teachers should be paid to teach.

Members of the General Assembly agree. Last month legislation that would strictly limit ghost teaching (HB 2125) advanced in the House.

PSERS’ decision is an important first step toward protecting taxpayers from funding employees of a private organization and making sure teachers are actually in the classroom.

Click here to find out if there are ghost teachers in your school district, and watch and share this short video describing the problem:

posted by GINA DIORIO, HUNTER L. AHRENS | 11:16 AM | Comments

Will the Education Code Protect School Choice?

JUNE 30, 2016

In addition to general appropriations (SB 1073) and the fiscal code (SB 1320), lawmakers are finalizing language in the education code, HB 530. This legislation promises significant reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law.

Here’s the bottom line on HB 530: It is a sweeping bill that includes a number of positive provisions, but also imposes steep funding cuts on cyber charter schools.

Critically, an amendment by Speaker Mike Turzai increases the available tax credits for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program by $25 million. The EITC, which provides tens of thousands of private school scholarships to students in need, is a pillar of school choice in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Turzai amendment, $75 million in tax credits would be available for K-12 scholarships, $37.5 million for educational improvement organizations, and $12.5 million for pre-K scholarships.

A large EITC increase would be welcome news, and it is one of the best aspects of HB 530.

On the other hand, the bill increases payment deductions that districts may claim when sending funds to cyber charters. The exact magnitude of this funding cut is unclear, but some cyber school administrators suggest it could reach as high as $27 million per year. These cuts, while less severe than earlier versions of HB 530, are particularly punitive given that spending for traditional public school continues to grow on autopilot.

Additionally, previous iterations of HB 530 included direct pay language for cyber charters, which would ensure cybers receive funding from the state—rather than being stuck in limbo waiting for overdue funds from districts. The direct pay provision was amended out of the bill. (Update: A reader informs us this was removed at the request of cyber schools, who may have changed their view on the subject after last year's budget impasse.) 

What else is included in HB 530? Here are some of the notable provisions and regulations: 

  • A statewide funding commission, composed of lawmakers and school administrators, tasked with making recommendations about how charter schools are funded.
  • Clarification that cyber schools may utilize in-person instruction for students with special needs.
  • Increased financial disclosure regulations for charter school administrators.
  • Increased regulations on charter school debt payment.
  • A standardized application will be created by the Department of Education for charter applicants and charters requesting renewal.
  • Expanded initial charter terms from three to five years, and renewal terms from five to ten years.
  • School districts, intermediate units, and public universities must provide cyber charters with reasonable access to facilities for the purpose of administering standardized tests.
  • Clarifies that charter schools are not subject to caps on enrollment.
  • Charter schools are granted the right of first refusal to purchase or lease unused public school buildings.
  • Allows two or more charter schools to consolidate into a “multiple charter school organization.”
  • Expands the size of the Charter School Appeal Board.
  • Limits the amount of funding charter schools may hold in unassigned reserve funds, and requires that funds in excess of these limits be refunded to school districts. This provision is notable, given the massive reserve funds that many school districts have accumulated.

Although aspects of the law will be welcome news for charter schools, such sweeping reforms may have been better considered in smaller pieces of legislation, rather than one comprehensive bill. The EITC increase, however, is unquestionably a terrific development.

HB 530 is expected to be voted in the House later today, at which point it will still need to pass the Senate. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 10:22 AM | Comments

2015 SAT Scores

JUNE 29, 2016

The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is an important indicator of public education quality in Pennsylvania. Currently, the commonwealth ranks 36th out of the 50 states and 3 US territories (Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands). That's one place higher than last year.

A large percentage of Pennsylvania students take the SAT, which does contribute to low overall performance. Average SAT scores are higher in states with lower test participation, typically because only the highest performing students sit for the test. Among states with a participation rate of at least 70 percent, Pennsylvania ranks 6th.

Historical data shows SAT scores are largely unchanged since 1970. Meanwhile, state education spending per student has increased 63 percent. This long-term trend undermines constant calls for more education spending to improve public schools.

To increase student achievement, we must change focus from more spending to reforms that change how tax dollars are spent. One such reform is the creation of education savings accounts, which will give parents stronger control over how, and where, their son or daughter will best succeed.

Below is a table of all states scores and participation rates. Details on Pennsylvania’s statewide performance report can be found here.

posted by HUNTER AHRENS, ELIZABETH STELLE | 11:45 AM | Comments

The Taxpayers’ False Choice

JUNE 28, 2016

Governor Wolf and legislative leaders present Pennsylvanians with two options. The first requires taxpayers to fork over hundreds of millions in higher taxes. The second calls for steep cuts to essential government programs. In the words of Wolf, “We’re going to have cuts the likes of which this Commonwealth has not seen in a generation, if ever.” Taxpayers, we are told, must choose between lousy outcomes: higher taxes or painful cuts.

Make no mistake—this is a false choice. A responsible appropriations bill can be crafted that controls spending and holds the line on tax hikes. New revenues are not necessary to balance the budget—especially not $1 billion worth.

Recall that just last year, Wolf claimed Pennsylvania’s $2.3 billion “structural deficit” mandated $4.6 billion in higher taxes. When the dust settled after a 9-month impasse, the legislature balanced the budget without taxes while also boosting funding for education ($250 million in non-pension spending) and human services ($83 million).

The 2015-16 General Fund spent roughly $30.0 billion. The final revenue projection from the Independent Fiscal Office projects 2016-17 revenues of $30.4 billion. If, in other words, lawmakers merely limited spending increases, there would be no need for higher revenues. 

Some argue government programs must assume a “cost-to-carry”—baked-in spending increases from one year to the next. Surely, though, this does not apply to Community and Economic Development programs, which see a $10 million bump under the House budget plan. Or the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which would enjoy a $44 million boost. Is there a "cost-to-carry" for House Caucus Operations (R and D), which are set to increase by $16 million? 

The spending plan, as currently written, also assumes another $250 million in non-pension education spending, at a time when school district reserve funds are at all-time highs

Don’t fall victim to the taxpayers’ false choice. By limiting spending increases to $400 million worth of core government functions, lawmakers can protect working families from harmful tax increases. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:00 PM | Comments

School Districts Amass Record Reserve Funds

JUNE 15, 2016

Is your local school board planning to raise property taxes despite holding millions in reserve funds? For many Pennsylvania school districts, the answer may be “yes.”  

Check out CF's sortable, searchable database of fund balances for Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts in the 2014-15 school year. It is important to note these figures predate the 9 month budget impasse, during which Gov. Wolf held school districts hostage in an attempt to extract record-high tax hikes from families and businesses.

Many districts were forced to dip into their reserves last year, as a result of Gov. Wolf's actions. (Next summer's financial reports will reveal how much districts were forced to "spend down"). But the sheer size of reserve funding in certain school districts is staggering—especially given the constant drumbeat that Pennslyvania schools are "underfunded." 

A district’s fund balance—what it owns minus it what it owes—is comprised of assigned, committed, and unassigned funds. Assigned and committed reserves are available funds designated for a specific purpose, while unassigned funds are available for any purpose.

State law requires that districts seeking tax hikes limit their unassigned fund balances to 8 to 12 percent of total spending. Our sortable database includes the total fund balance for each district, as well as each district’s total expenditures in 2014-15. It also includes each district’s fund balance as a percentage of total expenditures.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, speaking to Jan Murphy of Pennlive, says it is excessive to maintain a fund balance greater than 20 percent of total expenditures:

More than 300 of the 747 districts, charter schools and career and technical centers included in the department's data had fund balances topping 20 percent of their total expenditures, which is where state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he believes the line should be drawn.

"It is a judgment call as to what is too high," DePasquale said. "Certainly anything that is above 20 percent, clearly that's where you start to question it."

In fact, there are 21 districts who have socked away over 50 percent (!) of their total expenditures in reserve. When looking only at unassigned fund balances, 36 districts have over 20 percent of total expenditures squirreled away.

These figures should be eye-opening to anyone who believes Pennsylvania schools are unfunded—and they should be a wakeup call for school board officials who instinctively seek higher taxes from state or local taxpayers.

Check out CF's sortable, searchable database.

 

 

 

Largest Fund Balances
As % of Expenditures

District

County

%

Southern Fulton

Fulton

84.93%

Northwestern

Erie

78.07%

Union

Clarion

76.26%

Brockway Area

Jefferson

75.64%

Salisbury-Elk Lick

Somerset

73.26%

West Jefferson Hills

Allegheny

71.67%

Commodore Perry

Mercer

70.94%

Forbes Road

Fulton

65.60%

Iroquois

Erie

63.70%

Central Cambria

Cambria

60.61%

 

Largest Fund Balances

District

County

$

Pittsburgh

Allegheny

 $   198,989,522

Lower Merion

Montgomery

 $      55,974,232

Altoona Area

Blair

 $      53,772,084

East Stroudsburg Area

Monroe

 $      47,573,171

Pocono Mountain

Monroe

 $      45,944,586

Neshaminy

Bucks

 $      41,351,622

Abington

Montgomery

 $      39,627,474

Reading

Berks

 $      36,985,138

Allentown City

Lehigh

 $      36,444,773

North Penn

Montgomery 

 $      36,343,484

 
 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:30 PM | Comments

Is $27 Billion Enough?

JUNE 8, 2016

Is $27 billion enough money for Pennsylvania's public schools? This is the question policymakers must answer before voting to raise taxes on families, businesses, and entrepreneurs.

According to the most recent figures from the Department of Education, Pennsylvania school districts spent approximately $27.4 billion in 2014-15--an increase of nearly $1.3 billion over the prior year. This amounts to nearly $16,000 per student, which ranks top 10 nationally

Notably, school districts added $200 million to their reserve funds in 2014-15, with a combined $4.28 billion in committed, assigned, and unassigned fund balances. 

CF's most recent Policy Memo includes trends on education spending, revenue, pension costs, fund balances, and property taxes. Read the complete memo here

posted by JAMES PAUL | 01:57 PM | Comments

Ghost Teaching Put to Rest?

JUNE 7, 2016

Are ghost teachers about to be put to rest?

Ghost teachers in Pennsylvania would be strictly limited under legislation approved by the state House Education Committee today. HB 2125 restricts teachers unions’ ability to pluck teachers from the classroom to work full-time for the union while remaining on the public payroll.

In Allentown, taxpayers have paid more than $1.3 million to fund the salary and benefits of the Allentown Education Association (AEA) president—using money meant for educating students. That practice is being challenged in a lawsuit by local taxpayer Steven Ramos and former school board member Scott Armstrong. 

Another lawsuit is pending in Philadelphia, where last year, 16 ghost teachers earned $1.5 million while working for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

HB 2125 ends ghost teaching with two exceptions:

  • Statewide teachers’ unions (like the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Education Association) could have three officials on leave for up to six years, and
  • School district employees may be on leave for 15 total days each school year but no more than three consecutive days.

Most importantly the bill requires teachers unions to reimburse every cent associated with school employee leave. CF's James Paul explains:

Year-in and year-out, Pennsylvanians are asked to contribute more and more of their hard-earned dollars to public education. The least state government can do is ensure this funding is used in the classroom and not tapped to staff private organizations. HB 2125 strictly limits ghost teaching and is a victory for Pennsylvanians.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 04:41 PM | Comments

Wolf Admin. Thanks Excellent Teachers, But Won’t Protect Them

JUNE 1, 2016

The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently released a video featuring Secretary Pedro Rivera congratulating students for completing a school year. He praises children for “show[ing] up each and every morning ready to learn,” and encourages them to “above all, have fun with learning.”

Most interesting, however, is Rivera’s remark 50 seconds into the clip. Speaking directly to public school teachers, Rivera says, “Studies have shown that effective teachers have the greatest impact on the success of students…know that the governor and the Department of Education appreciate your efforts.”

While it is true effective teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement, this is a galling statement from an administration that recently vetoed HB 805, the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. This legislation would have retained teachers based on performance, rather than simple seniority, in the unfortunate event of school district furloughs. The bill passed both chambers of the state Legislature, only to be promptly rejected by Gov. Wolf, who sacrificed high-performing teachers in return for union approval.

It’s nice the Wolf administration took time to acknowledge Pennsylvania’s excellent teachers. But it would have been more meaningful to protect their jobs and ensure a high-performing teacher in every classroom.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:04 PM | Comments

An Easy Way to Give School Budgets a Boost

MAY 19, 2016

“I want to put more education dollars in our classrooms, not our school buses,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, while releasing an analysis of 19 school districts that exceeded their state busing allowance.

According to the report, 95% of overspending districts do not make use of competitive bidding. DePasquale says it’s time to make contract bidding for transportation services mandatory:

Some school districts simply don’t believe what the audits showed. In fact, six of the 19 districts indicate either in response to their audit or in their action, that would be Scranton, that they have no intention of seeking bids for transportation services. Even though the audits showed, and they agreed, that they were paying too much. . . they offer some type of justification as to why they don’t seek competitive bids. It will range from well there isn’t any competition out there, it’s not a requirement. And the list goes on and on and on. And I just view them as lame excuse, after lame excuse, after lame excuse.

DePasquale indicates school districts could save nearly $55 million without raising taxes or cutting programs. Making use of competitive bidding to save public funds should be standard operating procedure. This is a critical step school boards must take to ensure education dollars are spent in the classroom, where they belong. 

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 11:33 AM | Comments

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