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.



Budget Solution of the Week: School Choice

JANUARY 20, 2017

Earlier this month, House Majority Leader Dave Reed challenged his colleagues to change the way Harrisburg operates: “Now is the time to reimagine and redesign government, our state and our future.” A change in Harrisburg’s culture is surely needed. Decades of high taxes, wasteful spending, and poorly designed policies have sunk the commonwealth’s finances and stymied economic progress.

What's most devastating is when poor policies impact the future of our children—which is why reimagining our education system is so critical. Too often, Pennsylvania’s education model prioritizes systems over students. School officials—rather than parents—are given precedent to make consequential decisions affecting the education of more than 1.7 million students. This top-down management style has produced subpar outcomes in too many schools, forcing parents to seek alternatives to traditional public schools.

Unfortunately, not every family is lucky enough to send their son or daughter to a high-performing school. The education establishment will place the blame on funding shortages, but as my colleague James has noted, education spending is at its highest level ever. School districts spend, on average, $15,800 per student. This figure could always grow higher, but inflating school budgets will only add to Pennsylvania’s high tax burden, without guaranteeing any improvement in academic achievement.

The solution to the state’s educational woes doesn’t require more political control. It requires more parental control. To a limited extent, Pennsylvania encourages parental control with programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). But more needs to be done.

Every student deserves a quality education. And every family deserves to determine what a quality education looks like. Expanding school choice programs can help make these goals a reality. Putting parents firmly in control of educational decisions has led to improved student outcomes and savings for taxpayers. The latter is especially relevant in the context of the state’s fiscal outlook.

Pennsylvania is staring down a $600 million shortfall for the year, and will need to deal with a projected $1.7 billion projected shortfall in 2017-18. To address these challenges, CF released Embracing Innovation in State Government, detailing how policymakers can reduce state government’s cost to avoid another round of tax increases.

School choice is one of the cost-saving measures included in the report. The costs of the EITC and OSTC represent just a fraction of student funding in a traditional public school. For example, in 2013-2014, the average EITC scholarship was $1,587 per student, whereas funding in a traditional public school exceeded $15,000 per student. Moving students to the less expensive, more effective alternative nets taxpayers significant savings.

Taking a hard look at how Pennsylvania funds education will play a critical role in controlling spending and truly reimaging government. 

posted by BOB DICK | 10:13 AM | Comments

The Student Debt Threat

DECEMBER 29, 2016

It shouldn’t be a debt sentence to get a college education. Yet in 2010, Americans’ student loan debt surpassed even that of credit card debt. In a testimony before a U.S. Congressional Subcommittee, Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute explains why college has become so expensive: the skyrocketing growth of federal student aid, which comes in the form of Pell grants, federal loans, and other assistance programs. 

Consider how the cost of college has risen compared to other industries. Between 1978 and 2011, the annual tuition increase was 7.45 percent. Over the same period, health care costs grew 5.8 percent, and the Consumer Price Index increased by only 3.8 percent.

McCluskey provides this analogy to explain the problem of rising aid: 

If I had been buying a hot dog from a vendor for a dollar, and hot dogs were basically the only available food stuffs, then someone gave me a dollar and, in ear-shot of my vendor and all other vendors, told me I had to use it for a hot dog, my vendor and all the other vendors would have strong incentives to raise their prices. Then, if the hot dog benefactor kept upping my allowance to keep up with rising prices, a price spiral would ensue. That seems a rational explanation for what is basically happening in college pricing...

Federal student aid enables extravagant building projects, as well as higher administrative and overhead costs, which add little educational value to students. 

Gradually phasing out these subsidies would allow individuals and families to assume more responsibility over their education—and lower tuition costs for everyone. Aid that remains should come in the form of flat grants to students. (The grants should not be awarded based on the the cost of tuition at a given university, as this encourages schools to raise tuition and receive greater taxpayer support). What can take the place of declining government subsidies? Private lending, private scholarship funds, and income-based repayment plans

Read McCluskey's testimony in full

posted by ANDREW J. BECKER, JAMES PAUL | 10:41 AM | Comments

School Choice: Helping One Student at a Time

DECEMBER 20, 2016

As a recent graduate from PA Leadership Charter School (PALCS), I’m familiar with school choice. In fact, for the past five years, I have joined my Student Government on an annual trip to the capitol in an effort to preserve and strengthen cyber charter schools. I have been homeschooled and cyber charter schooled all of my life, and I know these schools are worth fighting for because traditional schools don’t work for everyone. I've heard countless stories from students who found success when given the choice for an alternative education. 

Benjamin and Cherise BylerMy sister, Cherise, is one of those students.

Upon Cherise’s adoption from Haiti at the age of six, my parents discovered she had lead poisoning, a condition bearing symptoms of developmental delays and learning disabilities. As a result, she processed information more slowly than most and struggled to remember what she learned.

My parents homeschooled her and the rest of my siblings until we reached middle and high school. In the fall of 2009, she began PALCS for about a month. Without an IEP, she struggled in her classes. Thankfully, the principal of our school district’s elementary school recommended we test her for an IEP at Paxtonia Elementary School. At 12 years old, Cherise enrolled at Paxtonia. After completing her IEP tests, she was placed in a 4th grade classroom with 1st grade work.

She loved it. Every day, she met with a Special Ed teacher, thrived in her studies, and enjoyed the public school experience.

One might conclude that because traditional public school helped her succeed once, it would always be the best choice for her. This was not the case. Before Cherise turned 13 in August of 2010, the school district moved her to Central Dauphin Middle School so she could stay closer to her age group. Skipping 5th grade, Cherise found herself in a Special Ed 6th grade classroom.

On the spectrum of severely mentally disabled to normal, Cherise fell just short of normal. Many of her classmates, though, struggled with more complex or severe disabilities. As a result, the classroom proved difficult for her on account of many distractions, interruptions, and behavioral challenges from classmates. Added to that, she faced racist remarks on the school bus and witnessed other students face bullying and discrimination outside the classroom.

Do all public school students experience these circumstances? Absolutely not. However, for Cherise, it was the furthest thing from the thriving learning environment she deserved.

That’s when PALCS came back into the picture. At that time in her life, and for the right reasons, PALCS worked for Cherise. After finishing 6th grade, she transferred back to PALCS with her IEP and thrived in 7th grade. Ever since, Cherise has had the opportunity to job shadow with various local businesses, complete speech therapy, receive one-on-one help from teachers, meet consistently with a life skills teacher, increase her reading skills, and even take classes to earn an arts certificate when she graduates next spring.

I could not be more proud of Cherise and the hard work she’s done to learn and stretch herself. Were it not for school choice and the wonderful teachers and faculty who support it, she would not be where she is today. Her story makes clear that both traditional and cyber charter schools have something to offer students. Both systems exist for the student, and every student is unique. Therefore, whether students thrive in a traditional public school or in cyber charter school, school choice matters. Cherise can attest to that.

posted by BEN BYLER | 09:21 AM | Comments

Will Lower Standards Help Pa. School Performance?

DECEMBER 9, 2016

Pennsylvania’s primary tool for grading schools—the School Performance Profile (SPP)—is being overhauled. The current SPP is not particularly straightforward, but it’s based mainly on test scores and academic growth. At the direction of Gov. Tom Wolf, the revised SPP will become more complicated, less reliant on tests, and more reliant on “holistic” measures of school success.

According to the Department of Education, here’s what we can expect from a more holistic SPP:

  • Increasing the weighting of value-added measures
  • Measuring English language acquisition among non-native speakers, not simply performance on a test of grade level standards
  • Incentivizing career awareness instruction beginning at the elementary level
  • Increasing the weighting of rigorous course offerings such as AP, IB, and “dual enrollment”
  • Allowing districts to include locally-selected reading assessments and math as additional snapshots of student progress
  • Awarding extra credit to schools graduating students with at least one industry recognized credential

It’s too early to know exactly how this will change the SPP’s 0-100 scale used to compare performance in buildings across the state. While some of these items may be worthwhile, the overall trend is to de-emphasize test scores, lower standards, and award credit for course offerings and credentials (to say nothing of their impact on achievement).

Wolf’s administration is following through on an earlier promise to weaken the SPP. While this may result in higher scores for Pennsylvania schools, it will do little to boost performance in the classroom.

Standardized testing is a contentious topic among parents and educators. Are tests useful? Which test should we use? How often should we test? These questions are fair game for debate and deserve thoughtful consideration. But it’s hard to imagine eliminating testing as the solution to Pennsylvania’s educational problems.

Tests provide a valuable benchmark to measure student proficiency. They provide parents with important information, and they underscore gaps in achievement between different groups of children. [Of course, to the maximum extent possible: the form, frequency, and style of testing should be determined by schools and localities—not Harrisburg or Washington.]

A better approach than Wolf’s would move Pennsylvania to an A-F school grading system. This would be easier to understand than a convoluted SPP. Already employed by over a dozen states, A-F ratings would deliver transparency and accountability—inspiring all public schools in the commonwealth to make the grade.  

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:01 PM | Comments

Magnum, P.I. Comes to Bethlehem

DECEMBER 7, 2016

Bethlehem School District employs private investigators to track down students with fraudulent home addresses. According to The Morning Call, DBM Investigations and Consulting has identified 35 students fraudulently enrolled in Bethlehem schools who will now be expelled:

Superintendent Joseph Roy told the board that DBM used multiple methods to determine whether students and their families actually live in the district, such as looking at public records and knocking on doors. In some cases, an investigator staked out houses to see who came and went, Roy said.

"For people who are purposefully misleading us and lying about their address, that requires more intensive investigation," Roy said. "But we're very, very pleased with the result at a really small cost to the district."

Roy said the district is not pursuing any financial compensation or criminal penalties against the offending families, though it legally could have.

Why is this happening? Two reasons.

First: Nearby Allentown School District limits the number of Allentown students permitted to enroll in charter schools. In so doing, Allentown owes less money to charters and forces the charters to enroll students from other districts. 

This doesn’t change the fact that parents in Allentown are desperate for charter schools. So they submit paperwork with phony Bethlehem residences—thereby requiring the charter school to bill Bethlehem instead of Allentown.

Secondly, The Morning Call explains that some of the fraudulent addresses are from parents who want to enroll in Bethlehem public schools but do not live within district boundaries.

What a sad state of affairs. Unfortunately this nothing new in Pennsylvania—or elsewhere in the country—where districts are increasingly cracking down on “education thieves.”

To be clear: families should not be celebrated for knowingly submitting false paperwork. But stories such as these demonstrate the lengths parents will go when they are denied educational choice.

Further, they underscore the need to free children from arbitrary school district boundaries. Whether that means expanding access to charter schools, increasing the caps on Pennsylvania’s private scholarship programs, or enacting education savings accounts—all families deserve multiple educational options.

Be thankful if you live in a district with a high quality public school—or have the means to afford private or homeschooling alternatives. Beyond that? Think about supporting school choice for all children in Pennsylvania. Where you live should never determine the quality of your education.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 05:15 PM | Comments

Hits and Misses from the 2015-16 Legislative Session

DECEMBER 5, 2016

That's a wrap.

The 2015-16 legislative session is officially in the history books. Despite a $650 million tax hike, Pennsylvanians have a lot to celebrate from the past two years. From elimination of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax to wine modernization, recent events signal Pennsylvania’s political leaders may be ready to start tackling the broken systems that are driving state spending far faster than Pennsylvania’s economy.

Here are the top seven taxpayer victories from the 2015-16 legislative session:

  1. Five tax hike proposals defeated in 2015. During his first year in office, Gov. Wolf proposed five different broad-based tax hike plans, including higher personal income, sales, and tobacco taxes; a natural gas severance tax; and more. The first proposal would have increased a family of four's tax burden by $1,450. Ultimately, the governor allowed a no-tax-hike 2015-16 budget to become law.
  2. Capital Stock and Franchise Tax elimination. Originally set to expire in 2011, this business tax, combined with the 2nd-highest corporate net income tax rate in the nation, discouraged job creation and contributed to PA’s poorly ranked business climate.
  3. No broad based tax hikes in 2016. The legislature refused to entertain sales or income tax increases. Unfortunately, lawmakers implemented $650 million in narrow-based tax hikes.
  4. Increased labor union accountability. Until last year, union leaders and members could legally stalk, harass, and threaten to use weapons of mass destruction when involved in a “labor dispute.” Act 59 of 2015 closed this loophole. In early 2016, Act 15 of 2016 gave taxpayers the ability to see the costs of government union contracts before they go into effect.
  5. Funding students, not systems. The 2016-17 budget increased the Educational Improvement Tax Credit by $25 million, giving more students the opportunity to escape violent and failing schools. The budget also includes a student-based funding formula, directing any funds above 2014-15 levels to schools based on current enrollment.
  6. Liquor modernization. In a small step forward, restaurants and grocery stores can now sell wine, and beer distributors gained additional freedoms, like the ability to sell six-packs.
  7. Honorary mention: Uber and Lyft legalization. Despite a contentious relationship with the Public Utility Commission, lawmakers finally made the ridesharing services Uber and Lyft permanently legal in Philadelphia and across the commonwealth.

The last two years also saw some missed opportunities:

  1. An unbalanced 2016-17 budget. Lawmakers passed—and Gov. Wolf let become law—a spending bill without revenue to pay for it. Despite $650 million in tax hikes, spending will still exceed revenue projections, according to the Independent Fiscal Office.
  2. Pension reform. In June 2015, lawmakers passed landmark legislation to place new state employees and public schoolteachers in a defined-contribution retirement plan, similar to a 401(k). Gov. Wolf vetoed the legislation.
  3. Liquor privatization. Both chambers passed complete liquor privatization, which Gov. Wolf promptly vetoed.  
  4. Paycheck protection. In October of 2015, the state Senate passed SB 501 to ban the use of public resources to collect political union dues and campaign contributions. The legislation stalled in the House.
  5. Medicaid expansion. Despite opposition from the legislature in 2014, Gov. Wolf rewrote a federal waiver to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act with little opposition in 2015. At the time, officials predicted about 500,000 new enrollees and an infusion of federal cash that would stimulate the economy. To date, rolls have grown by more than 670,000, while the commonwealth spent $500 million last year and $240 million this fiscal year.
  6. Seniority reform. Gov. Wolf vetoed legislation to protect great teachers by ensuring that during furloughs, teachers are retained based on effectiveness, not simply seniority.
  7. Corporate welfare reductions. Pennsylvania spends more than $800 million per year on myriad tax credits, grants, and special loans to private corporations. Yet, we continually rank near the bottom in economic growth. While a few bills to reduce these loans made progress, the legislature has, by and large, failed to recognize these programs don't work.

The commonwealth's financial troubles are serious and systematic. In the new year, lawmakers will have another chance to tackle the broken systems that harm Pennsylvanians by pursuing true pension reform, welfare reform and expanded educational choice for families.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 09:47 AM | Comments

Details Emerge on Philly Union Negotiations

NOVEMBER 29, 2016

Intrepid reporter Kristen Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer unearthed several details from contract negotiations between the school district of Philadelphia and the local teachers’ union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). Currently, the district is operating under the most recent labor contract, which expired three years ago. Per Graham, the district proposed a $100 million offer—despite facing a $500 million shortfall by 2021:

The deal would include restoration of "step" increases, or pay bumps for years of experience. It would also include incentive bonuses over the life of the four-year pact for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, and it would give raises to teachers now at the top of the pay scale, according to sources familiar with the talks.

By way of background, 18 percent of Philadelphia students in grades 3-8 are proficient in math, with 32 percent proficient in English.

For union leaders, health care concessions have long been a sticking point:

The deal on the table would also require teachers to begin contributing toward their health-care costs. They do not currently pay toward those premiums.

That the district insists on teachers paying something toward health premiums is promising. These contributions are commonplace in the private sector and among public employees.

Notably, the district prefers to fill teacher vacancies with the best available candidates, not simply the teacher with the most seniority. This irks PFT President Jerry Jordan:

All future teacher vacancies would be filled by "site selection" rather than seniority, giving principals and school communities the power to hire candidates based on fit rather than be forced to accept them based just on experience.

Jordan called that proposal "very disrespectful to members." Now, principals can remove teachers from buildings not for performance, but for "compelling reasons," a practice he said sometimes results in unfair treatment.

Hite said that universal site selection has generated real improvements in schools and that it would be better to put processes in place to deal with potential unfair treatment than to scrap the system.

How strange that an organization billing itself as serving students’ best interests would defy reforms that staff classrooms with the most qualified candidates. Nevertheless, the union is not responding warmly to the district’s offer. Jordan says he will not even take it to his members for consideration. 

Where do negotiations go from here? It’s difficult to predict. Graham quotes a source who described the union’s counter-offer as “fiscally irresponsible and completely unworkable,” which doesn’t instill confidence in a quick resolution.

It would be illuminating to know more about the terms of each side’s proposal, but unfortunately these negotiations take place behind closed doors, without taxpayer input. All the more reason for enhanced contract transparency at the local level.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

Can a Dwight Schrute Save Scranton?

NOVEMBER 8, 2016

Dwight K. Schrute is an employee at Dunder Mifflin—a fictional Scranton paper company featured in NBC’s The Office. And he just may be the key to overcoming the city’s very real economic decline.

But before offering a way forward for Scranton, it’s important to understand why the city is struggling. A new paper from the Mercatus Center does an excellent job detailing the source of Scranton’s troubles.

The authors—Adam Millsap and Eileen Norcross—identify Scranton’s inability to adapt to changing economic conditions as one of the main reasons for the city’s economic and fiscal problems.

They specifically cite economist Ed Glaeser who wrote, “In the coal towns of central Pennsylvania, exodus, not innovation, was a more common response.” Glaeser's rhetoric matches reality. In 1930, the city’s population was 143,433. In 2014, it was just 75,281.

Regrettably, government policies only made things worse. Spending and taxes rose—forcing fewer taxpayers to pay for bloated budgets driven by public sector benefits. Millsap and Norcross cite the inflexibility of Pennsylvania’s collective bargaining process as the main culprit:

Act 111 is intended to give police and firefighters’ unions binding arbitration in exchange for a prohibition against striking. [26] However, the law evolved to “give uniformed employees the upper hand when it comes to collective bargaining.” [27] When negotiations between the city and unions break down, an arbitration panel of three people is selected. Municipalities are required to pay the full cost of arbitration, regardless of ability to pay. Arbitration sessions are not open to the public. The municipality has limited ability to appeal the panel’s decisions.

The chart below illustrates spending growth for police and fire services—a product of the state’s broken collective bargaining process.

Officials have tried to improve Scranton’s finances with a combination of tax increases, cost cutting, and asset sales but costs, thanks to pensions, continue to soar. They’ve also utilized government-subsidized development projects to boost economic growth but to no avail. Government-centric solutions simply aren't working.

To truly turn Scranton around, dramatic changes to state and local policies are necessary. At the local level, Millsap and Norcross recommend improving the city’s business climate by reducing the overall tax burden. Controlling spending is critical too. Officials can do this by privatizing government functionsthe city's parking authority is one possible option, according to the report.

At the state level, officials must reform the collective bargaining process to help distressed cities get control of their budgets. As it stands now, collective bargaining law imposes costs on cities without taking into account their ability to pay. By giving local officials more autonomy to negotiate with unions, they can better protect local taxpayers.

Back to Dwight Schrute. If you know the character, he has a reputation for being entrepreneurial and hardworking (also, a little quirky). If distressed places like Scranton and Uniontown are going to experience a revitalization, that's exactly the kind of people they'll need to attract. 

Ultimately, government can only lay the foundation for an economic turnaround. But if that foundation is strong, innovative, educated, and hardworking people can and will build upon it.

posted by BOB DICK | 09:45 AM | Comments

Children Benefit From School Choice, And So Do You

NOVEMBER 2, 2016

The moral argument for school choice is irrefutable: Every child deserves access to a first-rate education. Families should not be limited by the supply of public schools within artificially-drawn district boundaries. This is why Pennsylvania’s private scholarship programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), are so important. They empower thousands of children each year to break free of the education-by-zip code injustice and instead attend a school that best fits their unique needs.

It is not just scholarship recipients, however, who benefit from tax credit programs. Taxpayers, too, realize massive savings thanks to school choice. This according to The Tax-Credit Scholarship Audit, an essential new report from the team at EdChoice.

Author Marty Lueken’s analysis of Pennsylvania’s EITC program finds roughly $1.3 billion in taxpayer savings between 2002 and 2014. The report, which does not examine the OSTC, compares the cost of an EITC scholarship with the variable costs of each student enrolled in traditional public schools.

Crucially, Lueken estimates and accounts for students who switch from public to private schools as a result of the scholarship program. These are the students who generate the highest savings to taxpayers. The report estimates between 26 and 45 percent of scholarship recipients must have switched from public schools in order for the program to be fiscally neutral—certainly a reasonable and achievable projection.

What’s the bottom line? Say you’re pleased with your local public school. Perhaps you never thought twice about the state’s scholarship program, and you don’t have strong feelings about school choice one way or another. If you’re a Pennsylvania taxpayer, you have still benefited from the EITC.

All the more reason to increase the program and provide more scholarships to families.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

House Speaker Seeks Boost for Vital Scholarship Programs

OCTOBER 17, 2016

Pennsylvania’s private school scholarship programs account for less than 2 percent of the $11 billion in state funds allocated for public schools. Yet it is impossible to overstate the significance of these programs for children and families.

Kevin McCorry of Newsworks tells the story of Thomas Short, a parent in South Philadelphia, who can send his sons to private school thanks to the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs:

The only way he's able to afford Catholic school tuition is because he takes advantage of a scholarship program that's funded by state tax credits. Tuition for two children normally runs north of $9,000 per year.

With the scholarship, he pays just $1,500.

"Without this, [they're] not going here," he said.

According to Mr. Short, St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary is a better option than the traditional district school:

Short's perception of the nearby neighborhood public schools is low.

"They're not trying to develop the person as much as just trying to get them through to the next grade," he said. "I don't know why I'm saying that. It's just my opinion. Maybe that's how the public schools used to be back in the day when I went."

If House Speaker Mike Turzai has his way, the EITC and OSTC will see a sizable boost during the next fiscal year. Speaker Turzai recently released a co-sponsorship memo for legislation increasing the caps on how much businesses may donate to both programs—up from $175 million to $250 million.

This, on the heels of a $25 million EITC increase last July, would be welcome news for families and schoolchildren across the commonwealth.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:00 AM | Comments

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