How will more than 35,000 cyber school students be affected by legislation pending in the state Senate this week? There’s both good and bad news on the horizon and your voice is critical.
The good: Senate Bill 1085 fixes the “pension double dip” for cyber schools in an equitable manner—an improvement on the bill passed by the House that cut funding more severely. SB 1085 would also institute necessary accountability and oversight measures, which would give cyber and charter schools more fiscal transparency. The bill would also allow universities to authorize new charter schools, lessening school districts' ability to squelch their own competition.
The bad: SB 1085 threatens an arbitrary 5 percent funding reduction for cyber schools. This “ready, fire, aim” approach cuts funding for cybers before a commissioned study on charter school funding has time to make a reasoned report.
What would school districts “save” from this arbitrary cut? Not much, a 5 percent cut to cybers would fund a mere 57 minutes of school district class time statewide. For cybers, though, it amounts to about one-third of teacher salaries, and could effectively shut the door on many families’ educational choices.
Why should cyber school students have to do with even less, especially when they already account for just one percent of state and local education spending? Cyber and charter schools already receive only about 80 percent of the per-student funding that traditional public schools get.
Tell the state Senate how you feel about keeping educational choice alive for tens of thousands of families across the state!
RELATED : SCHOOL CHOICE, CYBER SCHOOLS, EDUCATION SPENDING, EDUCATION
Last year, Pennsylvania's main government unions spent nearly $5 million of their members' union dues on political activities that workers don't get to approve. In 2011-12, these unions also spent close to $4 million in PAC contributions on electing candidates to political office.
Such spending shows that government unions are a major political player in Pennsylvania politics. But here's the kicker: Taxpayers are helping to pay for unions' politics.
How is this possible? Across Pennsylvania, school districts and other state and local government agencies act as collection agents for unions, collecting union dues and PAC contributions via payroll and sending them off in lump sums to unions.
By using these taxpayer-funded systems, government unions receive an unfair political advantage no other private organization enjoys. And this power cycle of automatic dues deductions has allowed unions to lock in unprecedented influence over the political system in Pennsylvania, hurting students, taxpayers and even the very workers they're supposed to help.
For more on Government Unions' Unfair Political Advantage, see our Policy Points on the issue.
RELATED : TEACHER UNIONS, UNIONS & LABOR POLICY, UNION DUES AND POLITICS
Yesterday, the federal government revealed that shockingly low numbers of Americans are purchasing health insurance on the dysfunctional Obamacare exchange.
In Pennsylvania, it’s clear the law is doing more harm than good. Only 2,207 have signed up for plans on the exchange—less than 1% of what was predicted. In contrast, upwards of 250,000 Pennsylvanians have had their plans canceled thanks to Obamacare.
This spells trouble for Obamacare. The few who have enrolled have already seen massive premium increases, but it could get worse. If not enough young and healthy people participate, premiums on the federal exchange will become even more unaffordable.
Last month at the state level, nearly twice as many individuals signed up for Medicaid and CHIP than for private insurance—even without Medicaid expansion! Thousands of Pennsylvanians are signing up for inferior health insurance that will cost Pennsylvania’s taxpayers billions more. No one wins under this system.
Obamacare is hurting families, destroying jobs, driving up taxes, and undermining quality and affordable health care. A small administrative fix won’t cut it. We need to start over and adopt real health care reforms both at the national and state levels.
RELATED : HEALTH CARE, MEDICAID
Cancelled health care plans, an unusable exchange website—do we still trust the federal government to deliver on its health care promises?
In what could be a sign of what's to come, the federal government looks likely to give less funding to Pennsylvania for matching welfare costs. Department of Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth estimates a formula change would result in a $325 million reduction in Medicaid funding for Pennsylvania next year. Medicaid is jointly funded by the state and the federal taxpayers, with the federal government chipping in more than half of the costs.
While Medicaid spending is already out of control, these cuts don’t come along with the flexibility Pennsylvania needs to revamp its program to save costs and provide better care to low-income families.
This could become new normal if Pennsylvania accepts federal Medicaid expansion funds to purchase insurance for low-income individuals on the exchange boondoggle. President Obama has already twice proposed reducing the matching rates for Medicaid expansion.
The federal reductions should serve as a warning to resist any form of "free federal money."
RELATED : PENNSYLVANIA STATE BUDGET, HEALTH CARE, MEDICAID
A change has come to Pennsylvania's state-controlled liquor monopoly that will improve the customer experience, according to the PLCB. Are we finally going to get liquor privatization after eight decades? No. According to the Times-Tribune:
Companies that sell liquor and wine to the LCB like Diageo, a British-based liquor supplier, now retain ownership of that liquor while it's stored at the warehouse. The LCB takes ownership of the inventory when it ships from the warehouse, a departure from past practice where the agency owned the liquor while in the warehouse.
The new arrangement is said to improve costs and efficiencies because companies now have the ability to ensure high in-stock levels at state stores, which will lead to more sales. But this improvement is like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg.
If you have been following our work on the PLCB, you'd be rightly skeptical of inventory system improvements. The PLCB has already had its fair share of inventory problems. Not long ago, they poured $66 million in taxpayer money—nearly two-and-a-half times the estimated cost—into a "state of the art" inventory system that failed to allocate adequate product levels, causing widespread shortages at retail outlets.
Regardless, a simple inventory improvement doesn’t change the fact that the current system still cannot adequately serve the business community or consumers. The PLCB doesn't deliver to restaurants, bars and taverns. And it contracts with private companies for warehousing and even delivery to their own state stores. One of those companies is Kane Warehouse, Inc., owned by the husband of Attorney General Kathleen Kane, which received more than $12 million in payments from the PLCB last year. And the PLCB's economies of scale, which are greatly exaggerated, have not been effective at holding down prices, as compared to other states.
PLCB officials announced, “The goal of the distribution system is to get the right product to the right store at the right time so customer needs are satisfied.” If that is truly the goal of the PLCB, then privatization is the real solution. Entrepreneurs—not a mismanaged government agency—can better serve consumers in their communities.
RELATED : PRIVATIZATION, LIQUOR STORE PRIVATIZATION
Thousands of school teachers in Philadelphia will see their retirement plans switched to 401(k)-type plans next year—and the union representing those teachers is okay with the reform.
I should have noted this is happening in Catholic schools.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is transitioning employees (including parochial school teachers and church employees) into a 401(k) plan going forward, which will match employee contributions with a 4.5 percent employer contribution. The reform will allow the Archdiocese to pay off its unfunded liability over 30 years (with no mention of the transition cost myth that has been used to undermine public pension reform).
The union representing some of the teachers affected thinks employees should be okay with the move, as Harold Brubaker at the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:
Rita C. Schwartz, president of the labor union that represents 650 teachers in archdiocesan high schools, said the move was not surprising, given the financial restructuring underway at the archdiocese in the last year.
"My concern is that our teachers don't panic," Schwartz said. "The pension's not gone. It's there."
Why did the private sector union take a different tact from the PSEA's misinformation campaign slogans like "Your pension is under attack" and "Keep the promise"?
Simply put, private unions recognize that employers need to have sustainable retirement plans or they may go out of business—costing union members their jobs. In government, the assumption is taxpayers can just keep paying more (though in reality, higher pension costs result in teacher layoffs too).
Lawmakers should take a lesson from the private sector in adopting meaningful pension reform.
RELATED : PUBLIC EMPLOYEE PENSIONS AND BENEFITS
This perspective on union spending by Pennsylvania public school teacher Rob Brough originally appeared at Free to Teach, a project of the Commonwealth Foundation.
I left my teachers union because I was against the forced funding of political groups that go against my personal beliefs.
The NEA/PSEA’s agendas and political ideals are counter to what I believe, and it is a kick in the teeth every time my dues are withdrawn from my hard-earned paycheck and handed off to some organization that I would never contribute to of my own free will.
For example, ACORN and Planned Parenthood both received NEA money, which comes from teachers’ union dues. Both of these groups are what I consider to be unacceptable recipients of my money. I would never support a group that engaged in voter registration fraud and pushed for housing loans to under-qualified borrowers as ACORN was proved to have done.
I also have no desire to fund Planned Parenthood, a group that provides abortion. I have a three month old premature grand-daughter who was a candidate for abortion, but we did not give in and she is the apple of our eye.
It is a recorded fact that the NEA did in fact send money to both of these groups. This misuse of my dues money finally made me look for a way to get out of the union.
Now don’t get me wrong: I like my local and the people who make it up. I have no problem having my dues money going to support them and their efforts on my behalf. I like having them there to answer questions and to take care of negotiating a contract. Heck, I was on the negotiations team for three contracts.
However, when my dues keep rising and I see the NEA spending my money on ridiculous recipients, that is where I draw the line. The straw that broke the camel's back was when I received an email telling (not asking) me not to read any emails from the Commonwealth Foundation, which runs Free to Teach.
The union claimed they were a union-busting organization and the email should not be read but deleted from our inbox as soon as possible. So much for presenting both sides and allowing people to make their own choices.
I chose to take a look since I was looking to get out and wanted to be educated on what my options were. The information I was able to absorb allowed me to make an informed decision to resign from my union and become a fee payer instead.
Public School History and Reading Teacher
Lawrence County, Pennsylvania
RELATED : TEACHER UNIONS, UNIONS & LABOR POLICY, EDUCATION, UNION DUES AND POLITICS
The Education Law Center has issued an attack on legislation to allow universities to approve new charter schools. In a single paragraph, a spokesman for the group makes makes three false claims in trying to demonize charter schools.
"School districts are, you know, they’re charged exactly with that under the law that their job is to ensure that all students receive a quality education," Lapp said. "When charters expand without any management, it concentrates those student groups more heavily in school districts and gives them less funding and less ability to adequately serve them."
Myth #1: The public school monopoly ensures that all students receive a quality education. According to the Nation's Report Card released last week, nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania's 8th grade students did not make proficiency in reading or math.
The only real accountability in education occurs when parents can choose the best school for their children. Charter schools don't get a single dime in funding unless parents choose that particular school for their child.
Myth #2: Charter schools drain resources from school districts. Actually, charter schools only receive about 80 percent of the funding that school districts spend per student. Districts keep the remaining 20 percent for children they no longer have to educate—allowing them to spend more per student for those who remain.
Myth #3: Charter schools "cream" the best students. In fact, charters disproportionately serve low-income, minority students who were struggling in traditional schools.
Requiring charter schools to get permission from school districts to compete for students is like requiring Wendy's to get approval from McDonald's to open a new restaurant. Allowing alternative authorizers, like universities, for charter schools, eliminates the flawed mechanism that incentivizes school districts to fight against new educational options—keeping thousands of families on waiting lists for charter schools.
This is a reform nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters support, and the time is ripe for lawmakers to make this positive change.
RELATED : SCHOOL CHOICE, EDUCATION
Pennsylvania earned a "C+" for providing citizens information on how public schools spend money, according to a recent report from the Cato Institute titled "Cracking the Books". While the report ranks Pennsylvania 9th among states, our mediocre grade and comparison to “A” states shows opportunity for improvement.
We should strive to provide the most comprehensive and user-friendly tool for parents, teachers, researchers, and taxpayers to know how public schools are spending money.
Legislation (HB 1411) pending in the General Assembly would do just that. In 2011, state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Corbett signed, legislation which put state spending—including budgets, payments to vendors, and employees' salaries— online. That website, PennWATCH, has already proven to be a useful tool for tracking state spending. HB 1411 would mirror this success, creating SchoolWATCH to put public school spending data (including charter schools) into a searchable website.
There are ways to improve SchoolWATCH from its present form. Because Commonwealth Foundation has run OpenPAGov.org—a transparency database letting users find school district spending, performance, tax, and salary data acquired from the Department of Education—for the past four years, we have some suggestions. Some of these have already been proposed as amendments to HB 1411.
- SchoolWATCH should include school performance data already being collected by the state Department of Education. Being able to link spending with performance is an important tool for parents and researchers. Such information will allow education advocates to identify successful schools and develop best practices for what works and is cost-effective.
- SchoolWATCH should include collective bargaining agreements. Putting these union contracts online provides a resource for teachers, parents, advocates, and members of the media—particularly during contract disputes and strike situations.
- SchoolWATCH should include individual salary information for all employees. Salary information is public record and is already collected (and provided on request) by the state Department of Education. Moreover, salary information for state workers is currently available on PennWATCH. It would be inconsistent to treat public school employees different than state workers.
Commonwealth Foundation already provides individual school employee salary information on OpenPAGov.org—in fact, that is our most popular search. Newspapers have also posted this information from state data. If SchoolWATCH is to be the most comprehensive tool for school financial information, it should include data already being provided on external databases like ours.
In the past, transparency has been a bi-partisan issue. Lawmakers should be able to work together once again to enhance our ability to get good information from state government.
RELATED : EDUCATION SPENDING, ACCOUNTABLE GOVERNMENT, TRANSPARENCY, EDUCATION
"Junk policies," "sub-standard plans," "policies not worth keeping" and "bad apple insurance companies" are just a few of the terms used by the President and advocates of the ACA to criticize insurance companies for plans that don't include the ACA’s 10 essential benefits. That’s ironic when you consider Obamacare has thus far sentenced 9 out of 10 enrollees on state exchanges to one of the most sub-standard plans of them all: Medicaid.
It sounds harsh, but it's Medicaid—not individual health care plans—that has a reputation for limited access to doctors and, in some cases, outcomes worse than the uninsured. If ever there was bad apple insurance company, Medicaid is it. The program boasts a wide variety of benefits including prescription coverage and transportation assistance, but provider payments are so low that enrollees often struggle to find a doctor that will accept their coverage.
In the last month, Medicaid enrollments in Maryland, Washington, Kentucky and Oregon have more than quadrupled the number of private insurance enrollments on the exchange. Oregon hasn’t enrolled a single customer for private coverage since their website is still down, but managed to add 62,000 dependent on the state’s Medicaid program because the state is pre-qualifying welfare beneficiaries for Medicaid.
The jump in Medicaid enrollment isn't just a bad deal for the newly insured. Higher Medicaid enrollment means that individuals purchasing plans on the exchange will have to pay more expensive premiums as Medicaid expansion shrinks the pool of as exchange shoppers. And state governments will be facing higher costs: In 2020, states will be responsible for at least 10 percent of Medicaid costs.
In the Washington Post, president of the Commonwealth Fund David Blumenthal, argued:
"The ultimate goal is to make insurance more affordable for Americans. I don’t think the program’s success should be judged by the ratio of private insurance to Medicaid."
But that’s just it, government-run health care like Medicaid is MORE expensive than private insurance and the program’s low doctor reimbursement rates drives up everyone’s premiums through cost-shifting.
Sub-standard Medicaid should be the first target of any health care reform effort. To promise affordable health care, but provide no way for patients to utilize their coverage fails to help anyone in need of health care.
RELATED : HEALTH CARE, MEDICAID
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The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.