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.
The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC) offers businesses the chance to be more involved in their communities by offering tax credits in exhange for sholarship funding. This program allows students in failing or dangerous districts to attend thriving educational organizations like Logos Academy in York.
Matt Brouillette, CF’s president & CEO, and James Paul, a CF senior policy analyst, recently sat down with David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, to discuss the EITC program and the opportunities it affords students who are trying to flee failing school districts.
These scholarships help students who want a better quality education, but lack the resources to obtain one. As Matt describes, these businesses “are either going to pay that money to Harrisburg or give it to a scholarship organization that is rescuing kids and families” from dangerous and violent school districts. Seems like an easy choice, doesn’t it?
Both the continual growth and increasing political support of the EITC program show how beneficial educational choice can be for students. James describes the program’s success by pointing out that “since the implementation of the EITC program in 2001, Pennsylvania has seen nearly 500,000 scholarships awarded”—scholarships targeted at students in the lowest performing school districts.
Aaron Anderson, CEO of Logos Academy, calls programs like EITC a “no brainer” since they provide businesses the opportunity to give a student who is in a struggling school district a real opportunity and a real alternative to get a world class education. EITC is ensuring that every child in Pennsylvania has access to a quality, safe school of their choice.
For another example of the benefit tax credit scholarship programs bring to Pennsylvania families, read James Paul's commentary Scholarships Offer Lifeline to PA Students.
Frank is a high school teacher in Lackawanna County who has been frustrated with the NEA’s support of abortion for a long time: “I just don’t want to see any of my money going to support abortion in any way.” Unfortunately, Frank’s desire has been ignored.
According to the NEA’s financial report disclosed to the U.S. Department of Labor, $1.15 million in donations went to the AFL-CIO and another $15,333 went to the SEIU, both of which donate to Planned Parenthood.
As a member of the NEA, Frank’s dues are spent on many political causes that violate his moral beliefs. “The union does not represent or even respect my deeply held convictions. It forces me to violate them,” he explains.
So when Frank learned he could resign his union membership and donate his fair share fee to a charity, he knew he was morally obligated to do so. “I have been in the union for 28 years. I never knew that I had a religious objection option. Had I known that earlier, I would have taken action.”
But there was a problem. Frank’s current contract prohibits him from resigning from the union until June 2017, after he’s eligible for retirement. “I haven’t made any decisions yet [about retirement], but it doesn’t appear that there is any way for me to stop funding the pro-abortion movement short of leaving my job.”
Frank’s experience isn’t uncommon. Contracts give educators little opportunity to opt-out or resign their union membership. Pennsylvania’s regulations are especially restrictive.
If a school district collective bargaining agreement contains a maintenance of membership provision, teachers have a very brief window to resign their membership. This is frequently an annual 10-day or two-week period, or a 15-day period right before a contract expires.
In rare cases, a teacher could be denied the right to leave their union for decades. If a union and employer agree to a new contract before the opt-out window, the window is vacated and employees operating under the contract cannot leave their union.
Additionally, no teacher has successfully challenged a valid maintenance of membership provision in Pennsylvania, despite the constitutional concerns presented by such a provision.
Frank hopes his story will help other educators become aware of their opt-out options and that lawmakers will take notice to of these oppressive regulations that limit the freedom to teach.
As odd as it might sound, some rural schools could actually be harmed by Gov. Wolf’s efforts to increase education funding by imposing a severance tax on natural gas.
At least one school superintendent sees Wolf's Education Reinvestment Act as more of a threat than a help.
Dr. Kenneth Cuomo, superintendent of the Elk Lake School District in Susquehanna County, says, “The concern is that the tax could be passed on to landowners in the form of post-production fees that are assessed against royalties paid by gas companies”
To address such fears, Wolf’s legislation does include a prohibition on directly passing on the tax to landowners or leaseholders. But Bill desRosiers, a spokesman for Cabot Oil & Gas, notes the prohibition would be contrary to the practices of other states. In the end, simple economics indicates companies will find other ways of passing along the cost of the severance tax.
According to Dr. Cuomo, that's bad news for Elk Lake, because royalties the district receives from three wells—nearly $2 million thus far—could decrease:
That’s revenue for the district and losing it would require us to increase taxes to keep our buildings afloat.
Most of the people who make these proposals don’t live north of Interstate 80 (where much of the state’s gas is produced) and don’t understand their impact.
Apart from skimming royalties from landowners and the school district, the severance tax proposal would diminish the ability of companies to support schools in other ways—such as $50,000 worth of pipe Cabot Oil & Gas contributed to the Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center.
“The pipe was enough to supply our welding program for three years,” reports Dr. Alice Davis, administrative director of the center, which serves up to 500 pupils from seven school districts, along with 200-300 adult students. “Without that contribution, our taxpayers would have had to pay for the pipe.”
Schools being harmed by a natural gas tax is just one of the many unintended consequences of the governor’s education proposals. His approach takes more from the pockets of Pennsylvanians without addressing reforms that can impact the classroom performance far more than money ever could.
Spending more wisely, not just spending more, is the real solution.
What are some solutions to fixing the environment in failing school districts? Providing families with the flexibility in choosing where their children go to school, rewarding the best—not just the most senior—teachers, and allocating funding based on student need would be a great start.
But with his recent budget proposal, Gov. Wolf has shown that he favors spending more, not spending more wisely, on struggling schools.
James Paul, a CF senior policy analyst, compares this strategy to buying a new car and taking it home, only to realize it needs numerous repairs. After demanding answers from the car dealer, would you agree to buy the same exact car—but for even more money?
Listen to James’ interview with WSBA’s Gary Sutton to hear more about the benefits of school choice.
The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.
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There’s a reason why Philadelphia families endure charter school lotteries in which less than two percent of 5,000 applicants win seats. These schools are producing terrific results in the classroom—and a new study from Stanford confirms it.
Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) compared the performance of urban charter schools to traditional public schools (TPS) in the same neighborhood. After analyzing 41 urban areas in 22 states over a five-year period, CREDO found that charter students receive 40 additional learning days per year in math and 28 additional learning days per year in reading. The results are just as impressive in Philadelphia, where charter students receive the equivalent of an additional 40 days of reading and math compared to TPS students.
What is the CREDO methodology for comparing performance between sectors? The authors match charter students with a “virtual twin” in TPS and track academic achievement over time. Each set of twins have the same (or similar) grade, race, gender, socio-economic status, special education status, and English language learner status.
Strong charter school performance is mainly attributable to high achievement among low-income students, Black and Hispanic students, and English language learners. Across the country—and particularly in Philadelphia—charter schools are excelling at educating students who typically lag behind their peers.
CREDO's authors have found that learning gains increase for charter students as they remain in the charter sector for multiple years. And the benefits of charter schools span from the elementary to middle to high school level. Most importantly, the CREDO findings reject the tired narrative that certain groups of students are incapable of achieving in the classroom.
There is no charter school “secret sauce.” Successful operators in Philadelphia prove that with a few important changes—and a new set of incentives—all students can learn, grow, and achieve. The only thing holding back more students from recognizing their maximum potential is an under-provision of charter schools.
The first Winter Concert was the turning point. That’s when students at The Philadelphia Charter School for Arts & Sciences—formerly known as H.R. Edmunds—began believing in themselves.
“Our kids learned they had something to be proud of. They started to take classes more seriously. It was amazing to see,” said Judith Taggart, Dean of Students for grades K-2.
By all accounts, the concert was a resounding success. But things weren’t always so rosy at the Northeast Philadelphia school.
Prior to 2012, H.R. Edmunds was a traditional public school known for violence and dismal academic performance. The situation became so dire that the district brought in an independent operator to run the school and assume management. Edmunds was awarded to String Theory Charter Schools as part of Philadelphia’s renaissance schools initiative.
The new leadership team decided to kick off the year with a musical performance from an established performing arts school in downtown Philadelphia. The administration intended to show their new charter students what they should aspire to achieve.
As the performance began, the Edmunds students laughed. They booed, hissed, and jeered. The children never before witnessed a live concert, and they never learned how to conduct themselves in an audience.
Fast-forward a brief four months later to the 2012 Winter Concert: The same students laughing and jeering in September were now up on stage themselves, playing instruments and performing. This was a 180-degree turnaround. The culture changed.
Michael Rocco, principal at Arts & Sciences and a three-decade veteran of Philadelphia public schools, is proud of the new culture emanating from his classrooms. He attributes much of the school’s success to its longer school day and unique curriculum. In addition to the core subjects, K-5 students try their hands at various musical instruments, ballet, creative writing, and foreign language. By 6th grade, each student declares a concentration and focuses exclusively on this subject for 90 minutes each morning.
Jaime Mong, Dean of Students for Grades 6-8, explains that when new management took over, “students were surprised their tests were actually being graded.” Prior to the charter school transition, Edmunds children had routinely submitted assignments and failed to receive a grade—let alone substantive feedback.
The structure and incentives at Arts & Sciences are unique from Philadelphia’s traditional public schools. Teachers are hired at will. “It’s essentially a one year contract for everyone,” Rocco explains.
It’s impossible to argue with the results in the classroom. Arts & Sciences’ School Performance Profile (SPP) score has dramatically improved every year. In 2013-14, the SPP score exceeded the district average by ten points.
School leaders anticipate even better results in the coming years. It all starts with the new culture of high expectations. “This is our family here at Arts & Sciences. We know these kids,” said Dean Taggart. “We care for them.”
Pennsylvania’s charter school law received its 2015 report card, and unfortunately it will not earn a place on the refrigerator. The commonwealth earned a “C” grade from the Center for Education Reform (CER), an organization that ranks charter laws across the country.
Each state is evaluated on the following criteria:
- The existence of independent and/or multiple authorizers
- The number of charter schools permitted
- Operational and fiscal autonomy from existing state and district mandates
- Equitable funding
Pennsylvania received 28.5 out of 55 points, which amounts to 18th place out of the 43 states that allow charter schools. Overall, the commonwealth’s charter law has room to improve.
According to CER, the lack of independent authorizers is Pennsylvania’s biggest shortcoming. A stronger law would allow universities or a statewide body to approve new brick-and-mortar charter schools. The Commonwealth also loses points for inadequate access to facilities funding. On the other hand, Pennsylvania performed fairly well when it comes to autonomy from regulations and mandates.
Policymakers should consider these findings as they consider reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law. Continuing to strengthen the charter sector will be an enormous benefit to thousands of students and families clamoring for expanded educational opportunity.
Shortly after graduation, Dominique took a job at one of Philadelphia’s most challenging turnaround high schools, University City. After one very successful year the district experienced significant layoffs and she saw many of her young colleagues—including one who had won a city distinguished teaching award—laid off. Dominique was so disheartened by the experience that she left University City.
Yesterday, Senator Ryan Aument and Representative Stephen Bloom introduced legislation to ensure that furlough decisions are based on actual job-performance, not simply years in the classroom.
Seniority rules mandate that teachers be placed and furloughed simply according to their years in the system, not how effective they are at instructing students. This results in the best teachers being left out in the cold, while those who are less effective, but longer tenured, are protected.
Rep. Bloom explains how seniority mandates are particularly harmful to low-income students:
Moreover, seniority-based layoffs disproportionately impact low-income and minority students. Schools serving primarily low-income and minority families often have higher concentrations of new teachers than more affluent schools. When seniority-based layoffs occur, these schools experience higher teacher turnover and lose many more faculty compared to other schools.
Favoring seniority over performance punishes the best teachers, not to mention the children in each classroom. Even one child deprived of a first-rate teacher is one child too many.
Much has been made of recent comments from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan regarding school funding in Pennsylvania. According to Duncan, Pennsylvania's families are “being shortchanged when it comes to state and local education funding.”
Several observers pounced on these remarks—particularly the notion that Pennsylvania per-pupil spending in low-income districts is one-third less than in wealthy districts—and used them as justification for higher taxes and greater school spending.
Is it true that Pennsylvania’s low-income students are underfunded? Let’s examine the facts.
Duncan’s comments are based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which organizes school districts into quartiles of family income: low poverty, low-middle poverty, high-middle poverty, and high poverty. (Note that NCES figures exclude costs for construction and debt, as well as federal funds).
In each quartile—even among high poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. Put another way: the vast majority of schools in the commonwealth are overfunded. It just so happens that Pennsylvania’s richest districts are particularly overfunded, while low-income districts are slightly overfunded.
Current Education Expenditures, Per-Pupil, 2011-12
The key takeaway from NCES is that affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their public schools. Hypothetically, the discrepancy in district level spending could be eliminated by capping the local effort in high-income districts. This would make Pennsylvania’s schools appear more “equal,” but it wouldn’t result in better academic performance—nor would it direct more funding to low-income districts.
As Jason Bedrick from the Cato Institute recently explained, the education-industrial complex incessantly lobbies for higher school taxes regardless of student outcomes or fiscal reality. Given that Pennsylvania's schools are better funded than the national average but produce middling achievement, perhaps it’s time to consider other education reforms.
At the state level, reform should include weighted student funding. This revenue neutral approach offers a more rational, transparent school funding mechanism. At the same time, Pennsylvania should protect and reward its most effective teachers, while expanding school choice for families trapped in persistently failing public schools.
Will’s family thought he was one of the chosen few: A Philadelphia student who managed to secure a seat at the high-performing Christopher Columbus Charter School. But something wasn’t right. He struggled with reading and did not enjoy school. With each passing day, it became clear to his mother, Elizabeth, that he needed a different approach to learning.
That’s where Philadelphia Classical School (PCS) fills a void. At PCS students are more than readers and writers. They are musicians and artists, too. The arts aren't merely enrichment; they are incorporated into the curriculum from the earliest grades. That’s not to say traditional learning is de-emphasized: For students in kindergarten through second grade, reading is emphasized above other homework assignments.
The classical approach is precisely what Will needed when he came to PCS as a second grader. The curriculum and support structure at PCS changed everything. After enrolling, Will’s reading level improved and he loves to write stories, according to Elizabeth.
The decision to enroll at PCS was not easy. Will’s father teaches at a public school and his family values the public education system, but Will needed a school suited to his individual needs. Elizabeth is thrilled with the quality at PCS. She explains, “PCS cares about life learning.” Elizabeth’s younger son, a kindergartner named Gavin, also enrolled at the school.
Although the classical approach is steeped in history and tradition, it represents a unique educational choice. PCS is the only classical school in Philadelphia, and it serves as a lifeline for dozens of families unsatisfied with their neighborhood options.
Jessica, mother of current PCS student Arabella, looked into private school because she was concerned about safety in their assigned public school, Alexander Adaire. “I wanted to be 100 percent comfortable with safety. I would be terrified to send Arabella to Adaire. It wasn’t an option.” Philadelphia District schools reported nearly 2,500 violent incidents in 2014.
Before learning about PCS, Arabella languished on the waiting list at eight different charter schools. Jessica explains, “Without PCS, we would have to move to the suburbs. Every year many of my friends move out and we did not want to be like that.”
Without the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, schools like PCS would be out of reach for Will, Gavin and Arabella. Each student benefits from the EITC, a linchpin of school choice in Pennsylvania which allows businesses to contribute private scholarships in exchange for tax credits.
Another unique characteristic of PCS? It leases space in a shared building with the Chinese Christian Church and Center. This means that on Friday afternoon, many classrooms are disassembled to make room for the church’s weekend activities. PCS intends to expand to its own space with the help of generous philanthropists. For the time being, though, the shared space suits PCS just fine—it stands as a testament to school’s entrepreneurial spirit, community focus, and the appetite for expanded choice in the city.
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