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

Sep 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.

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Breaking: Charters Receive Funding to Educate Students

Advocacy group Education Voters of PA—notorious critics of parental choice and defenders of a one-size-fits-all education system—made a few headlines recently by selecting two columns of data from the Department of Education and using them to create a skewed narrative on charter schools.

It takes two points to form a straight line, but the group took one point alone—school district spending on charter school tuition—and neglected the second critical point: charter school enrollment.

Some news outlets picked up on this research and concluded that charter schools are disproportionately draining funds from school districts.

Charter schools, particularly online “cyber charters” have increasingly been blamed for school district financial woes, with administrators contending charters siphon much-needed money from district coffers.

Does this conclusion have merit? In short, no.

Education Voters rightly notes that charter school payments increased by $680 million, or 85 percent, between 2009 and 2015. You may be thinking, “680 million? That sounds like a lot!”

Yet, over the same six-year period, charter enrollment across Pennsylvania increased by 78 percent—from 72,000 students to nearly 130,000. In other words, districts are sending more money to charters because charters are attracting more students from districts. This is not groundbreaking. And it shouldn’t be alarming that charter payments increased by 85 percent when charter enrollment increased by 78 percent.

But don’t assume public schools receive less money as a result. First of all, charters receive roughly 20 percent less per-student funding than traditional district schools. And secondly, despite the Education Voters' website propagating the debunked myth that $1 billion in education funding was cut in 2011, total revenue in Pennsylvania’s school districts increased by nearly $3 billion between 2009 and 2015. 

Advocates of the educational status-quo are prone to scapegoat charter schools as the cause of their troubles, but the truth is the biggest cost driver for school districts isn’t charters but pension payments— which increased by $1.8 billion, or 337 percent over the six-year window. 

Pension reform is the best way to alleviate financial pressure on school districts. Additionally, school board members must rely on prudent budgeting and fiscal responsibility at the bargaining table.

We can improve our public school system only by tackling real reforms, not by targeting charter schools using selective data. Shoddy attacks on charters only punish the children and families who have discovered the school that best fits their needs

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posted by James Paul | 10:00 AM

Education Savings Accounts Across the Country

The movement to provide children with better education is building momentum in 2017 as education savings accounts (ESA) advance in nearly a dozen states. Legislation has been filed in Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Texas to empower families by providing them with access to this groundbreaking school choice policy.  

ESAs take various forms, yet share the same solid principle – parents should have more freedom to choose the best education for their children.

ESA programs operate by placing most or all of the state’s per-pupil cost into a fund or on a debit card. Parents can use these ESA dollars on the school they choose (private, home, cyber, etc.), educational materials, tutoring, and transportation. Any remaining ESA funds are carried over to the next school year, incentivizing responsible use. These programs, often specifically designed for students with special needs, can prove life-changing and enjoy significant support among Americans.

In 2011, Arizona became the first state with an ESA program when it started its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Students can receive up to 90% of their state education funds, but eligibility has remained restricted and primarily serves students with special needs, those from military families, and those attending the worst-performing schools. However, this year Arizona’s state legislature has introduced a bill that would make eligibility universal, creating new opportunities for every student.

In Arkansas, called “school choice country” by lieutenant governor Tim Griffin, lawmakers are considering a bill which would create an ESA program funded entirely by tax-exempt private donations. Though governor Asa Hutchinson has not yet signaled support for the pro-student legislation, reports show that it would be an affordable way to provide school choice to thousands of Arkansas students.

Finally, Iowa’s new legislative majority and governor are optimistic about achieving greater educational opportunity and freedom, including through ESAs, which are strongly supported by pro-school choice Iowans. New ESA legislation is in the works to benefit Iowa students, including those from low-income families.

Across America, the movement for better education continues to gain ground, build support, and improve lives. Pennsylvania has long been a leader in providing school choice options to families, but initiatives across the country should inspire the commonwealth to do more to provide ESAs to students in need.

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posted by Kris Malysz, James Paul | 01:00 PM

Crucial School Choice Expansion Passes Committee

In a bipartisan vote, the House Education Committee advanced legislation to boost Pennsylvania’s crucial private school scholarship programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). HB 250, sponsored by Speaker Mike Turzai, increases the EITC by $50 million and the OSTC by $25 million.

The legislation paves the way for more success stories like Hudson, whose OSTC scholarship allows him to attend and excel at Philadelphia Classical School, and Kaiden Myers, who attended the Westwood School in Philadelphia with the help of the EITC. 

The EITC and OSTC serve more than 50,000 students—larger than the school district of Pittsburgh—with scholarships of roughly $2,000 per student. A recent study by EdChoice estimates the EITC saved Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $1 billion from 2002 to 2014. Private scholarship programs are truly a win-win proposition.

Why are scholarship tax credits different from other state tax credits, such as those for filmmakers? In short, because scholarship tax credits are not corporate welfare.

  1. EITC & OSTC do not pick winners through loosely-defined “economic development." Hundreds of scholarship organizations may receive donations, and hundreds of thousands of students are eligible to benefit from a scholarship.
  2. EITC & OSTC provide a high quality education for students, while saving taxpayer funds, since the variable costs of students who withdraw from public schools greatly exceeds the cost of tax credits awarded to participating businesses.
  3. Businesses who give via the EITC and OSTC are still contributing to education of Pennsylvania children—but these funds are available for private schools, private pre-k, and various educational improvement organizations.

HB 250 deserves the support of lawmakers who believe in high quality educational options for all Pennsylvania children.

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posted by James Paul | 11:00 AM

Q&A: Education Savings Accounts

Could Education Savings Accounts change public education in Pennsylvania?

We asked Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute in Arizona and nationally-known expert on ESAs, for his expertise on this cutting edge school choice policy.

[Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

CF: What are Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), and from where did the idea originate?

Jonathan Butcher: Well, most families—and those in state legislature—are familiar with the idea of a scholarship. You provide public funds to a family in the form of a voucher scholarship to send a child to a new school. And that’s the extent of that choice, which is a great one. For thousands of children across the U.S., these scholarships have provided tremendous opportunity to fund a quality education.

But we took the idea one step further. We said, “what if families had a flexible use account?” With an ESA, the state deposits a portion of a child’s part of the funding formula in a private account that families use to buy educational products and services for their children. In the state of Arizona, it comes in the form of a flexible-use debit card. In other states, like Nevada and Florida, as it’s currently underway, it’s actually a reimbursable set of educational purchases. It’s a flexible way to customize a child’s education.

CF: Which states have ESAs in place already?

JB: There are five states. Arizona was the first; Florida followed in 2014, and then three states in 2015: Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada.

CF: When public funds become part of an ESA, do they remain public funds or do they become the property of the parent?

JB: That’s a terrific question and a great distinction. These funds become private funds. Parents are effectively contractors for their child’s education. It’s something that a recent court ruling in Nevada made quite clear that the court recognized these funds do become private funds for families.

CF: Critics might ask: Will ESAs undermine the traditional school system model?

JB: Every child deserves a chance of quality education, without a doubt. The fact is that there are public schools / traditional district schools serving families well across the country—and that’s great. So no one is going to stop them or take that away from them. But there’s also the truth that every child is different. They have unique needs; maybe there’s a child that has special needs or maybe is bullied in school. It may just be a child that wants to do advanced Russian and it’s not offered at the public school.

What we need to provide for them is a way to go and find those educational services. That’s what the accounts do. They allow families to go and seek out opportunities for their children to meet their needs, or help them get ahead, or to help them catch up.

CF: Who are the opponents of ESAs?

JB:  They’re pretty familiar: the same groups that have sued to stop private school choice, and even charter schools around the country: teachers’ unions, the school board association in Arizona, superintendents’ associations, and other education associations. Groups that are lobbying against families—that’s really what they do. They want to require that children attend their assigned school and we direct as much taxpayer money to that school as possible irrespective of the achievement and whether those children are being served.

That’s what we want to change—what we need to change. Every parent should have access to something that gives their child a chance at the American Dream. 

CF: What's happening in Nevada and what does it mean for the future of ESAs in that state—and beyond?

JB: The significance for the entire country with what’s going on in Nevada is that the lawmakers made every public school child in the state of Nevada eligible for an education savings account. That’s never been done before, both for ESAs as well as for nearly every private school choice opportunity.

There are 450,000 children assigned to public schools in the state of Nevada, and this law that they passed last year made every one of them eligible to apply. It didn’t compel them to leave or force them to do anything. But for those families that are looking for other solutions, this law gave every child the same opportunity.

CF: Was this a big change from other states that focused ESAs on children with special needs?

JB: That’s right. In Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi, which have excellent, very strong laws—their laws are directed to help children with special needs specifically, like children on the autism spectrum, or children with hearing or vision impairments. But Nevada said, “You know what? We’re going to give every child the same chance to succeed.”

CF: And what did the courts say of this?

JB: The ACLU in Nevada sued shortly after the law was signed in 2015, and the state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that ESAs do not violate provisions in the Nevada state constitution against providing money to religious or private purposes. They’re otherwise known as Blaine amendments; thirty-eight states have these.

What the court said was that ESAs do not violate these provisions—they are in fact constitutional. And that’s significant, because now there are two states, Arizona and Nevada, where the highest court in those states have said that ESAs are in fact constitutional under these otherwise discriminatory provisions.

CF: What are some ways states can fund ESAs?

JB: With ESAs, the money flows from the general fund to the family who can then spend it on a variety of products and services. But as people in Pennsylvania well know, and many other states that have tax credit scholarships, donors can contribute funds to organizations that will then award scholarships to families to use for their child’s education.

The same idea can be applied to ESAs. There are states like Missouri, Virginia, perhaps even Pennsylvania, where the constitutional provisions might be such that funding it using general fund dollars may not fit with the way the constitution or state laws are already arranged. And so you could take a tax credit funded model and give families instead of one choice, for say, a scholarship, you could give them multiple choices with a restricted-use account.

The critical thing to remember with these accounts is that families can make multiple purchases simultaneously. So if a family finds a tutor, for example, that they think is excellent for their child, they can look at both what that tutor will provide for that child, and at what else they may want to spend on the child’s education. Whether they save some of the money for the future for college, or spend the money, say, on an online class that the child does at home. Parents can be cost-conscious about those services.

What we want to do is we don’t want there to be any barriers between children, families, income, race, whatever. We don’t want there to be something else to divide families and students. We want them to all have great opportunities. Let’s start there and say, “look, we want every child to have a quality option.” So let’s push to get every child an option. And if there is opposition and compromises that must follow, then inevitably, that’s what happens. But I still think that is where our goal needs to be. It needs to be that every child, no matter where they live, what their zip code is, around the country—eventually, we want the day to come where they can choose how and where and when they learn.

CF: What makes you so confident that choice will lead to improvement in education outcomes?

JB: We find in the research that in most of the random assignment studies, the highest quality studies we have, it’s true that when parents do have options, there are positive outcomes both in terms of achievement as well as persistence in school and in college. The more choices we can give families, the better outcomes will be on the horizon for students.

CF: How optimistic are you about school choice reforms being enacted in the near future?

JB: I think we have school choice successes all around us. Whether it’s a new charter school law in Washington state to the states that are just starting off with ESAs like Tennessee and Nevada. There is a lot to be excited about. Lawmakers around the country are considering education savings accounts. There’s at least two dozen states that have been working hard over the past two years alone to bring these accounts to families within their borders. So we are very excited about what lies in the future.

Visit goldwaterinstitute.org for more of Jonathan Butcher’s work and follow him on Twitter @JM_Butcher.

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posted by John Bouder | 09:01 AM

Budget Solution of the Week: School Choice

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. 

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posted by Bob Dick | 10:13 AM

The Student Debt Threat

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

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posted by Andrew J. Becker, James Paul | 10:41 AM

School Choice: Helping One Student at a Time

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.

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posted by Ben Byler | 09:21 AM

Will Lower Standards Help School Performance?

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.  

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posted by James Paul | 03:01 PM

Magnum, P.I. Comes to Bethlehem

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.

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posted by James Paul | 05:15 PM

Hits and Misses from the 2015-16 Legislative Session

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.

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posted by Elizabeth Stelle | 09:47 AM

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