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 fitting that Wolf chose Groundhog Day to demand another $577 million in basic education funding—$377 million for the rest of FY 2015-16 and an addition $200 million in the next fiscal year. The governor’s demands are rooted in the “framework budget” from last November, which was rumored to include $350 million in new basic education funding.
“I believe they may be the only party that does not believe the framework is dead,” said Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher of the Wolf administration. “I'm sorry but it died the day that pensions did.”
The administration provided no explanation for why the $350 million figure increased to $377 million. Perhaps this was intended to offset the $50 million in borrowing costs incurred by school districts as a direct result of Wolf’s budget vetoes. Nonetheless, the administration seeks to distribute the 2015-16 funding through a hyper-political “formula” that ignores the recommendation of the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission.
Wolf continues to demand more spending while placing little value on smarter spending, which is exactly what the Funding Commission was created to ensure. The governor is not demonstrating a willingness to compromise, either: his education spending requests are not much different than his original proposal last March.
Rather than a $377 million windfall, what schools really need is the $3.1 billion that Wolf vetoed in December.
Of course, Pennsylvania revenue per-student already exceeds the national average by $3,400. Even when looking solely at state funding, Pennsylvania schools are better-funded than average.
In 2015, several states took action to improve the functionality of their public charter school laws. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania’s 130,000 charter students—as well as the thousands of students on currently on charter waitlists—progress in the commonwealth remained elusive.
According to an analysis by The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Pennsylvania’s charters are losing ground to schools other states. The 2015 report compares Pennsylvania law to the National Alliance’s model legislation. Pennsylvania’s national ranking slipped from 25th to 27th. Lawmakers can do more to ensure healthy growth in the charter sector, especially given that charters were among those hardest hit by the governor’s refusal to sign a responsible state budget until late December.
Findings from the National Alliance suggest that Pennsylvania’s charter laws, despite meeting standards in some categories, need improvement in several critical areas. The most notable failings were related to enrollment caps, authorizer accountability, and fair funding. The commonwealth also has room to grow in terms of access to capital funding and facilities. On the other hand, Pennsylvania received high marks for its transparent application and review processes, as well as for exemptions from local school district collective bargaining units.
What better way to celebrate National School Choice Week (NSCW)—which kicks off today—than to take action strengthening Pennsylvania’s charter school law? NSCW is the country’s largest annual celebration of educational opportunity. A more robust charter sector will empower families to chose from a larger group of high-quality schooling options.
Upon finally approving the majority of a state budget, Gov. Tom Wolf admonished the General Assembly for "cutting $95 million from public schools." Yet it is the governor himself who is responsible for vetoing $3.1 billion worth of education funding.
In a recent op-ed, my colleague Nate Benefield explains Wolf's misleading budget math:
Wolf is propagating the bold-faced lie that the budget cuts education by $95 million.
In truth, the budget increases public school funding by $400 million. The only education line item reduced is school construction reimbursement. This is not being cut, however. Instead, it’s being funded with state bonds, and school districts will actually get more in construction reimbursements.
This cynical negotiation ploy—intended to force House and Senate leaders to return to the bargaining table—shows Wolf's primary motivation is higher taxes, not higher education spending. By only releasing six months worth of school funding, the administration refuses to fully free the state's budget hostages.
The chart below illustrates Wolf's education cut and how much money he withheld from local districts. (All figures from the Department of Education.)
In America’s high schools, test scores are stagnant while graduation rates are soaring. How can both be true? A December press release from the Department of Education may have the answer [emphasis mine]:
U.S. students are graduating from high school at a higher rate than ever before, according to data released today by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. The nation's high school graduation rate hit 82 percent in 2013-14, the highest level since states adopted a new uniform way of calculating graduation rates five years ago.
Sadly, rising graduation rates do not necessarily indicate improved academic achievement. They simply signal a lower threshold for graduation. This trend is evident in Pennsylvania, where statewide graduation rates are slightly higher than the national average despite poor performance on several measures of academic progress.
Robert Pondisco, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, weighed in on the disconnect between graduation and attainment:
Regarding the recent spike in graduation rates, good luck figuring out what it stands for. Not improved student proficiency, certainly. There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with tracking graduation rates, but it would be foolish to ignore classroom outcomes and blindly conclude that public schools are moving in the right direction. Policymakers, school boards, and school administrators must dig deeper—especially in the commonwealth, where lawmakers are poised to delay more challenging graduation requirements.
Tom Wolf finally admitted he held school children hostage in hopes of higher taxes: “We're now at a point where I don't want to hold the children of Pennsylvania hostage.” But the governor’s six month crusade for tax hikes hurts more than children. His refusal to sign earlier emergency funding measures resulted in unnecessary pain and worry for countless Pennsylvanians.
Here are ten of Wolf's budget hostages from 2015:
- Children on the brink of returning to failing or violent schools: The governor waited until Christmas Eve to release authorization letters that allow businesses to donate private school scholarships, even though these programs are part of the tax code and have nothing to do with the budget. This resulted in confusion, and possibly fewer donations, which could disrupt the education for thousands of low- and middle-income students.
- Human service employees: Delayed funding to human services agencies caused more than 700 furloughs, according to a United Way survey. Others employees lost benefits or took salary reductions.
- Pre-kindergarteners: At the start of December, 15 early childhood centers were closed, according to the state Department of Education, affecting about 540 children from low-income families.
- Domestic abuse victims: Wolf cut off all funding—including federal—for domestic violence programs, forcing workers at shelters like Survivors Inc. in Adams County to turn away pregnant women and over 100 children. At the beginning of December, Wolf released some federal funds for these victims.
- Charter school students: Across Pennsylvania, charter schools were forced to reach into rainy day funds in order to remain open. Since charters are viewed as riskier investments than traditional school districts, it is more challenging for charters to borrow money. Pennsylvania charters were also denied revenue from the state Treasury when local districts were unwilling or unable to contribute per-student payments.
- Senior citizens: Senior centers around the state closed during the impasse. All four senior centers in Mercer County closed and laid off 50 percent of their employees.
- The hungry: Food banks across the commonwealth struggled throughout the impasse and some dipped into their reserve funds to keep putting food on the table.
- Local taxpayers: Interest payments for schools borrowing money to stay open have reached nearly $1 billion
- Local taxpayers II: Municipalities and counties have skimped on payments and considered borrowing funds to remain afloat. These measures resulted in tax increases or even bond rating downgrades.
- College students: State and federal grants for college students were on hold, as well. East Stroudsburg University offered bookstore credit to PHEAA grantees beginning in November and Penn State added the grants as a credit to bills even though the money hadn't yet come through.
When Gov. Wolf finally agreed to sign the majority of an emergency funding bill, it remained unclear how his administration would distribute the increased education funding approved by the legislature. Without passage of an Education Code—legislation typically enacted in conjunction with an appropriation bill—the governor had no specific instructions for doling out education dollars.
Wolf is taking full advantage of this opening to distribute funds in a highly political “formula” that ignores the recommendations of the bipartisan education funding commission. On Monday, the administration announced a “hybrid funding formula that would have been fully enacted as part of the bipartisan framework budget agreement.”
From the Department of Education, here’s what Wolf’s hybrid-formula essentially boils down to:
- Line item veto roughly $3 billion in education funding (continuing a political game of chicken and setting the stage for further student hostages)
- With the remaining funds: send each district the same amount it received in 2014-15.
- With the new, increased education funding (prorated over six months, thanks to Wolf’s veto):
- Send out $50 million based on the allocation of the previously eliminated Education Assistance Program
- Send $12 million to Chester-Upland School District
- Send $3 million to Wilkinsburg Borough School District
- The rest is distributed to districts on a pro-rated basis to restore federal stimulus dollars which expired 2010. Although the Department of Education intentionally mischaracterizes these funds as “cuts under the previous administration," the only true cut to state education funding occurred last week, when Wolf vetoed $3 billion.
- The governor uses a portion of the increased Ready to Learn block grant to subsidize districts with high levels of charter school enrollment
Wolf is distributing education dollars on a whim, on his decree. What is listed above is not a formula; it is a political scheme. If not for Wolf's $3 billion education funding veto, this highly-politicized formula would be unnecessary. Instead of providing dollars based on enrollment or student need, Wolf is creating winners and losers as he sees fit.
The School District of Philadelphia, for example, receives more than 36 percent of the new education funding. Wilkinsburg Borough SD receives a 46 percent increase over 2014-15 levels and Chester-Upland receives a 25 percent increase. The average district receives 2.76 percent more than last year’s appropriation.
Speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Republican staffers indicate that Wolf’s “formula” is not, in fact, related to any framework budget agreement:
At the state Capitol, legislative Republicans took issue with how the Wolf administration plans to distribute the money.
“We’re still reviewing the numbers at this point,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. “It doesn’t appear to adhere to anything that we had talked about in the framework, but this governor has certainly proven he wants to do things his own way.”
“He just chose to do it his own way,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans. “We’re still trying to determine exactly what type of formula he used to do it.”
Where do we go from here? The governor should release the billions of education dollars he’s currently withholding—providing the largest state support of public schools in Pennsylvania history—and the legislature should approve an Education Code that distributes those dollars based on the Basic Education Funding Commission’s student-based formula.
In a nutshell, Gov. Tom Wolf’s guiding philosophy on education reform is to spend more money on public schools.
Embracing the repeatedly-debunked myth of education cuts under the previous administration—and undeterred by the weak relationship between spending and academic outcomes—Wolf leans heavily on this slogan in speaking engagements and social media:
However, no one is proposing to “make Pennsylvania schools weaker.” Even if you accept the governor’s shaky premise that a school’s strength is solely measured by dollars spent, you’d be hard pressed to find lawmakers—Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal—arguing for less education spending.
Except, of course, when it comes to cyber charter students.
Since the governor’s March budget address, Pennsylvania’s cyber students have been under attack. Wolf initially proposed to slash cyber revenues to $5,950 per student—an arbitrary sum that would reduce per-student spending by one-third. (For the sake of comparison, traditional school districts spend over $15,000 per-student in Pennsylvania).
This radical proposal never gained traction, but late last week Wolf demanded the “budget framework” include a provision cutting cyber funding by an estimated $65 million over the next two years. At a time when the state is increasing aid to school districts by more than $350 million, cyber schools—which enroll a higher percentage of low-income and special education students than do district schools—are threatened with devastating cuts.
In June, many cyber leaders actually agreed to provisions in a House-passed charter reform bill that included, among other things, a significant reduction in per-student revenue. But the Wolf-approved Senate plan cuts cyber funding three times more than the original agreement.
Can Pennsylvania grow stronger if cyber schools are made weaker? Or is Wolf content to treat 36,000 cyber students like second-class citizens?
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.
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