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 have 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.



School Funding Doublespeak

SEPTEMBER 30, 2014

How can school funding be "slashed" yet "technically rise"?

Take a look at this excerpt from a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, (emphasis mine):

Education funding to public schools has been slashed by more than $1 billion on the current governor's watch, noted Stephanie Robinson, a teacher at Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia. (Corbett, who has repeatedly publicly blasted PFT members for not contributing toward their health insurance, maintains that he has granted record amounts of aid to city schools. But, PFT and other opponents contend that although technically school aid under Corbett has risen above Rendell-era levels, the rise is minimal...)

Unfortunately mass confusion about education spending in Pennsylvania abounds, thanks to a well-funded campaign of deception from government union executives. 

The Inquirer piece notes, for instance, that the political action committee of Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers gave $100,000 to Tom Wolf between May 6 and June 9 alone. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, the Pennsylvania State Education Assocation gave him another $200,000.

Unions have invested heavily in commercials and newspaper ads promulgating the myth that Gov. Tom Corbett cut a billion dollars in education funding. In fact, the PA Families First "SuperPAC", which we highlighted before, has been running election-related TV ads spreading the "$1 billion cut" lie. Not coincidently, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Assocation recently gave $1 million to PA Families First, directly from union dues.

Of course, education funding cannot be "slashed" and "technically rise" at the same time. Only one can be true. And the truth is that state education spending is at an all-time high.

But as long as union leaders are willing to cut million dollar checks promoting their billion dollar myth, it’s no surprise a teacher from West Philadelphia is unclear about the facts.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:18 PM | Comments

Charter Schools Promote Segregation? Not So!

SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

My letter to the editor in the Lehigh Valley Express Times refutes a claim that charter schools are promoting racial segregation:

A recent article cites claims by both Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee and Bethlehem School District Superintendent Joseph Roy that charter schools are resulting in segregation. Roy even claims students are leaving the district for charter schools because they “don't want their kids around kids who speak Spanish or poor kids."

But enrollment data from the state Department of Education show they are wrong.

According to state enrollment data, the Bethlehem School District is 37 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African American, and 47 percent White.

Charter schools in the area are collectively near mirrors. The three charter schools serving Northampton County are 39 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African American, and 37 percent White (with a higher percentage “Multi-Racial”). That’s the opposite of segregation.

Indeed, a recent study from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania finds that charter schools across the state have significantly higher enrollment of African-American and Hispanic students.

Lee and Roy are either grossly misinformed about charters schools or misleading readers to advance their agenda. Either way is disappointing from folks in education policy leadership roles.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 11:10 AM | Comments

Teachers Sue PSEA in Landmark Case

SEPTEMBER 19, 2014

Jane Ladley was a special education teacher in Chester County for more than 25 years until she retired this year. She may have left teaching, but she has a bone to pick with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the union that represents some 180,000 educators around the state.

In a landmark step, Ladley and Lancaster County teacher Chris Meier sued the PSEA for violating their rights as "religious objectors." It's the first case for newly established public interest law firm, the Fairness Center.

Ladley and Meier are fee payers—teachers who don't officially join the union, but by contract rules and state law are forced to pay a "fair share fee" to the union to cover representation. However, both teachers became religious objectors who, because their faith conflicts with union support of policies such as abortion, decided to have their fee instead donated to a charity.

In this case, both teachers got stuck in limbo. The PSEA accepted their religious objections, but have nixed the charities the teachers chose. Christen Smith from Capitolwire (paywall) reported on Ladley's experience:

“I first chose a scholarship in our local community for students who showed an interest in the Constitution, which is definitely close to my heart,” she said in editorial submitted to newspapers by her attorney, Nate Bohlander, assistant general counsel for the Harrisburg-based Fairness Center. “They looked at the organization sponsoring it and said they would not agree to it based on it being a political group.”

Ladley said she searched for another charity with a similar mission — she chose one that offers classes on the Constitution, instead — but the PSEA hasn't approved it to date, either.

“They are telling me which groups I have to choose,” she said. “It’s a wrong that needs to be righted. I’m doing this on principle and for the other teachers coming up through the ranks, so that they have these options available to them.”

The PSEA has 20 days from the filing of the lawsuit (September 18) to respond.

According to the Fairness Center, the PSEA is exploiting a loophole in Pennsylvania law that effectively silences teachers: The 1988 agency shop law requires the money to go to a "non-religious charity" both union and teacher agree on, but doesn't prescribe a procedure or deadline to reach that agreement.

Ladley says the amount of money at stake or whether she's still in the classroom is irrelevant. "Why should I have to fund an organization that counters my faith and values so I can work as a teacher?" she said. Even if only future Pennsylvania teachers see their rights better protected, for her, it's worth the fight.

For more on the teachers' groundbreaking lawsuit, see stories at PennLive, LancasterOnline, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the below TV report from Fox43.

posted by PRIYA ABRAHAM | 05:24 PM | Comments

Rendell's Legacy Handcuffs Schools

SEPTEMBER 12, 2014

Former Governor Ed Rendell wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer and took issue with our policy points on Philadelphia school trends. The Inquirer printed a portion of our response.

Here is the full version:

Ed Rendell appears more interested in defending his tenure as governor than actually discussing the facts about Philadelphia. The Commonwealth Foundation’s analysis of school spending, enrollment, and staffing trends spanned several administrations. We present the facts—most notably that spending has dramatically increased—regardless of who resides in the governor’s mansion.

Despite that increased investment—more than $1 billion since 2002—Philadelphia public schools continue to leave children unprepared. Four in five students failed to meet proficiency in reading and math in 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card.

These results shouldn’t be surprising, however. A study conducted by the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement” in Pennsylvania.

Rendell goes on to blame Republicans for slashing state education funding. This claim is false. The loss of funding was due to the expiration of temporary federal stimulus money Rendell used to balance the state budget. Today, state education funding in Pennsylvania is at a record high.

The reality facing Philadelphia, though, is that pension costs are consuming more and more of the increase in spending—the result of legislation signed by Rendell and backed by teachers’ union lobbyists to underfund pensions and delay those cost increases until after he left office.

In Philadelphia alone, contributions to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) increased by $133 million over the last 5 years, which is equivalent to the salary of 2,000 school teachers.

The pension crisis is real, and its impact is handcuffing Philadelphia and school districts across the state. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 09:08 AM | Comments

Union Executives “Neutral” on Protecting Children

SEPTEMBER 5, 2014

Legislation to protect children from predators in the classroom has stalled in Harrisburg.

Union executives are standing in the way.

Currently, teachers who sexually abuse or have been otherwise accused of harming children are permitted to reach a "confidentiality agreement" with their district and quietly resign. If the same teacher applies for a position in a new district, they are not required to inform the new school of their alleged misconduct.

An in-depth report from PennLive explains the teacher unions' unpopular position:

Child welfare advocates blame teachers' unions for not backing transparency throughout the background check process. Union representatives refute that claim, saying they're generally neutral on the bill.

"We support efforts to keep schools safe, but we also support due process for teachers and other school employees," Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said.

Due process is not the issue. The issue is an outrageous loophole in state law allowing accused teachers to resign and relocate without having to inform their new district of alleged abuse.

Far from denying due process, the legislation provides for more thorough background checks and allows employers to know if a potential hire was previously investigated.

We all know the vast majority of teachers are committed to the well-being of their students. But apparently union executives won't lift a finger to make classrooms more safe.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

Lies from PSEA Leadership

AUGUST 29, 2014

Repeating the same lie over and over does not make it magically come true. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) leadership from an endless campaign of deception regarding education funding in the commonwealth.

A recent release from the PSEA claims that state funding cuts are causing disproportionately poor test scores for low-income students.

Unfortunately for the “research division” of the PSEA, the truth is state education spending has increased since 2010-2011 and is currently at a record high. What’s more, there is considerable evidence that increased spending has no relationship with improved academic performance.

When calculating education spending, the PSEA refuses to acknowledge rising pension costs, which are an enormous cost driver for districts across the state. You can’t have an honest discussion about education policy without talking about pension reform—unless you’ve buried your head in the sand. In fact, every governor since Milton Shapp in the early 1970s has included pension costs as funding for public schools. 

Growing pension costs are directly responsible for layoffs and program cuts. By standing in the way of responsible pension reform, the PSEA holds much of the blame for the current pension crisis.

Since 2009, the state has seen a $1.9 billion increase in Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) payments. To put that increase in perspective: $1.9 billion is equivalent to the salary of 33,400 public school teachers.  

The PSEA claims that Pennsylvania should “just let Act 120 work”—referring to legislation passed in 2010 that slightly reduced benefits for new employees and relied on unrealistic projections of future investment returns. But letting Act 120 "work" will result in pension costs continuing to skyrocket in coming years. School districts will thus have less money to spend in the classroom, and property taxes will sharply increase to keep pace with pensions.

Of course, higher property taxes are a desirable outcome for PSEA leaders. “Let Act 120 work” essentially means “let higher property taxes fund our retirement.” Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the average Pennsylvania household will pay nearly $900 in new taxes as a result of pension obligations.

The PSEA doubles down on faulty arguments by pointing the finger at imaginary spending cuts for low scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). A study conducted by The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, however, found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement.”

This is just another piece of the growing evidence that throwing more money at struggling schools will not improve student performance, but it will hurt property owners—particularly seniors on fixed incomes.

The PSEA is entitled to its own opinions, but not its own facts. Government union bosses should stop deliberately confusing Pennsylvanians with false and misleading claims.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:13 AM | Comments

Audio: 73% of PA Voters Underestimate School Spending

AUGUST 26, 2014

Yesterday, we released a new poll showing just how confused voters are about state education spending levels and the results that money is buying.

When 54% of voters say they would not be personally willing to pay higher taxes to increase education funding, other solutions like pension reform and school choice must be considered.

To discuss the poll details and what can be done to improve our public education system—without raising taxes—CF's Matt Brouillette joined WSBA's The Gary Sutton Show.

Listen to a portion of the conversation:

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.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 03:29 PM | Comments

Pension Costs Forcing Teacher Layoffs

AUGUST 20, 2014

We've debunked on this blog the "billion dollar education cut" myth time and time again.

Yet another common refrain—even among those who admit state spending has increased, which it certainly has—is that new expenditures are not "showing up in the classroom." In other words, school districts are hamstrung by pension costs and have to make cuts in other areas.

This point does indeed carry water. 

Take a look at how Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) contributions have skyrocketed over the last five years in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state's two largest districts. We can also project the coming costs for 2013-14 and 2014-15 using the mandated contribution rates for those respective years.

In Pittsburgh, pension payments rose from $11 million in 2008-09 to $26 million in 2012-13, and an estimated $45 million in 2014-15. In Philadelphia, payments rose from $42 million to more than $101 million, and will reach $175 million this coming school year.

Phila SD PSERS

Pitt SD PSERS

The statewide retirement contribution trend tells the same story. From 2008-09 to 2012-13—a span of just five years—statewide PSERS costs nearly tripled. Estimated payments for this year are about 5 times what they were in 2008-09.

With contribution rates continuing to rise, the fiscal outlook only grows more ominous in the years ahead. 

PA Statewide PSERS

To put this in perspective, consider how these costs compare to teachers' salaries. Pension costs from all public schools will have risen by approximately $1.9 billion from 2008-09 to 2014-15. Given that the average teacher salary is $63,500, that increase in pension payments equals the salary of 30,400 public school teachers.

The bottom line is that Pennsylvania faces a genuine pension crisis. School districts are simply running out of options. Even increased education revenue will not be able to offset the growing retirement costs. 

Responsible pension reform is the best way to ensure that future education funding truly finds its way into the classroom. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:15 PM | Comments

Podcast: Teachers Opt Out of Union Membership

AUGUST 19, 2014

As part of National Employee Freedom Week, we sat down with two western Pennsylvania teachers who successfully left their teachers’ unions last year. John Cress is a middle school math and special education teacher and Rob Brough is a 20-year history and reading teacher. Both were motivated to opt out after seeing the political nature of their unions’ activities.

Why is an annual educational campaign designed to inform teachers of their right to opt out of full union membership even necessary? Teachers’ unions don’t make such information widely available. Indeed, both Rob and John thought they had to join the union as full members in order to get their first teaching jobs.

Rob Brough for BlogBrough says, “The bottom line is: No. I can say with absolute certainty that none of those options were given to me . . . If a person doesn’t know that their rights even exist, how can they exercise those rights freely?”

Cress agrees, saying, “There should be full disclosure on where the dues are going and the educator should be permitted to make the decision by him or herself as to whether or not to continue to contribute to those causes.”John Cress for Blog

After years of union membership, Brough determined that the teachers’ unions weren’t designed to help improve his effectiveness in the classroom: “I was learning nothing about becoming a better public servant. I was, however, learning about politics. I was learning about organizations that were designed to increase the union’s effectiveness.”

Cress disagreed with his unions’ political stances but was powerless to change them: “It was very frustrating every time one of those [political] emails came because I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to be part of this organization? Why do I have to support these causes just to be a teacher? I should have free will. I should be able to have an open mind, but I was under the impression that I couldn’t.”

Listen to the full conversation:

Know a teacher who might benefit from knowing their rights? Send them to www.FreeToTeach.org for more information.

Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 09:00 AM | Comments

More on Philadelphia School Trends

AUGUST 15, 2014

Philadelphia-based Research for Action (RFA) took issue with CF’s Policy Points on spending, enrollment, and staffing trends in the School District of Philadelphia. The RFA rebuttal intended to provide “a more complete grasp of the situation.” Yet they don’t dispute any of the facts we provided in the Policy Points, which offer broader perspective on what has happened in Philadelphia over the past decade. Instead of “informing this important dialogue,” RFA only has spin to contribute.  

The following will respond to their criticism, point by point.

Why did CF examine the ten year window between 2002-2003 and 2012-2013?

By not including statistics from the 2013-2014 school year, RFA accuses CF of using “selective data points to build a case.” Our Policy Points relied on data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) Annual Financial Reports, Public School Enrollment Reports, and Professional Personnel Reports. For each set of reports, the most recent year of available data is 2012-2013, so naturally, this is where we concluded our analysis. PDE statistics from 2013-2014 were not available. Far from using “selective data points,” the CF analysis draws on the most recent available information on the preceding decade.

Given the high levels of poverty in Philadelphia, shouldn’t low test scores be expected?

RFA notes that “nobody should satisfied with academic performance among city students.” The authors then qualify this statement by adding that Philadelphia’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation and “its [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores on most categories are comparable to cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago with significantly lower poverty rates.” In other words: Philadelphia scores are lousy, but they are similar to the scores of other cities with high levels of poverty. RFA provides the chart below, which does very little to support their claims.

RFA NAEP

Philadelphia may have a slightly higher poverty rate than Los Angeles, but it also has lower test scores in three of the four categories. Compared to Chicago, Philadelphia scores are lower in all four categories. RFA is thus being rather liberal with the word “comparable.” Also of note: the only listed district with a higher poverty rate—Dallas—has higher average test scores than Philadelphia in all four categories. In this case, even the “selective data points” chosen by RFA do not support their arguments.

RFA claims the CF analysis of academic achievement “rests solely…on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” This is false, as the CF report also compares how charter schools stack up against district schools on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles (SPP). Charters significantly outperform district schools in Philadelphia on this metric, which is noteworthy, since they both operate in similar environments of poverty. 

When it comes to SPP scores, we agree with RFA that cyber charters have been underwhelming. Of course, cyber schools have the ultimate incentives to succeed and improve: they will be shut down if they persistently fail, and they only receive funding when parents choose these schools as the best place to educate their children. 

Throughout their rebuttal, RFA insists on singling out poverty as an explanation of poor academic performance. It is dangerous to get caught up in this “myth of helplessness”—a phrase coined by education policy expert Dr. Jay P. Green. Although many students face serious social problems outside the control of local school districts, is this reason enough to oppose school reforms that expand choice, opportunity, and accountability? Poverty must not become an excuse that prevents schools from improving their services to children and families.

Are charter schools contributing to growing costs for the district?

RFA claims that because “charters assume 30 percent of the district’s budget” they “undeniably contribute to the district’s rising costs.” This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of charter school financing.

For each student attending a charter, the child's home school district sends a payment to the charter equaling the district’s per-student spending, excluding all expenditures for adult education programs, community/junior college programs, student transportation, facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services, debt payments, and federal funds received.

The bottom line? Charters schools spend and receive less funding per student than district schools. In Pennsylvania, this discrepancy amounts to an average $1500 per student, money that school districts retain for students they no longer educate. Accordingly, it is wrong to argue that charter schools add additional costs beyond those of traditional public schools. 

Charters should not be criticized or punished for attracting new students. It is incumbent on district schools to compete, innovate, and improve in order to win back the lost enrollment, as well as the payments that are sent to charter schools.

What is happening with district enrollment? What implications does it have for spending trends?

Over the last decade, district schools have seen a 25 percent decline in enrollment, while charter schools have seen a three-fold increase. This is where spending per Average Daily Membership (ADM) is helpful, because it includes charter enrollment and provides a complete look at district-wide trends.

Curiously, the RFA report did not address CF’s analysis of spending per ADM—which has unquestionably increased in Philadelphia. This is true over both the 5 year and 10 year snapshot, with an inflation-adjusted 8 percent increase since 2008-2009, and a 21 percent increase since 2002-2003. 

philly schools spending per adm

Keep in mind, these figures actually underestimate spending in district-run schools, because they include charter enrollment. As mentioned above, charters spend and receive less funding than traditional public schools.

The RFA authors also claim that “districts cannot pare personnel, building, and services costs proportionately” to offset enrollment declines. This fixed costs argument is a classic red herring in the case against school choice.

What about the bond sale?

RFA seems to view a recent Philadelphia bond issue as a smoking gun in the case for increased state and federal funding for district schools. Of course, borrowing the revenue is not a policy supported by CF either then or now. It will amount to more costs over the long term, and it is yet another temporary solution to a long-term problem. If anything, this type of action underscores the urgent need for better financial management. The bond issue does not change the fact that district spending has increased substantially, which is a key finding of CF’s decade-long analysis.

What is happening to class sizes?

The original CF Policy Points was careful not to make any specific claims about average class sizes in Philadelphia. Our report merely presents the facts: the student-to-teacher ratio has declined over the last ten years. In 2012-2013, this ratio was 15.6 to 1. Nowhere did we claim that the average class size is 15 or 16 students. Average class sizes tend to be somewhat larger than the student-to-teacher ratio. But the ratio remains useful information in the context of claims that classrooms are on the verge of skyrocketing to 40 children or more. In light of a declining student-to teacher trend, it’s fair to say such claims are exaggerated and misleading.

Are school districts struggling to meet their obligations for pensions and debt/construction costs?

Absolutely this is the case, and we agree with RFA on this point. There is no disputing that these obligated costs will force a greater percentage of funds to be spent in areas other than classroom instruction. The key question now, however, is how to deal with such fiscal challenges. Do expensive bills for pensions and debt provide carte blanche to raise taxes? This has certainly been the preferred approach over the last decade, and it appears to remain the preferred approach for those in favor of an increased cigarette tax in Philadelphia.

What would a different approach look like? It would include reforms to public employee pensions, an issue we’ve been concerned about for quite some time. Prevailing wage reform is another step that would significantly lower school construction costs.

CF is hopeful that RFA will join us in support of these policy objectives, which would result in important savings to taxpayers, as well as increased flexibility for local school districts feeling the wrath of poor policy decisions from several years prior. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 08:20 AM | Comments

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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank.  The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.