Agreed: Public Resources Should not be used for Politics

AUGUST 6, 2014  | by NATHAN BENEFIELD

"Public resources are not supposed to be used for partisan political purposes."

So says Barry Kauffman of Common Cause PA in a Tribune Review article. What Mr. Kauffman and other critics were referring to was allowing campaign staff to participate in a meeting held in the state capitol. They are seemingly concerned about the blurred lines between government roles and election activities.

What is odd is that the critics have been silent about, or even supportive of, the practice of using taxpayer resources to collect campaign contributions in that same state capitol. 

As we've noted before, public resources—including staff time and payroll systems—are used to collect Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions that can be given directly to candidates. The state Treasurer alone collects and transmits more than $700,000 each year to union PACs, while school districts and local governments collect millions more.

This is on top of the hundreds of millions collected in government union dues, at taxpayer expense, that are given to "SuperPACs" to fund election ads.

These services offered to union leaders to collect their political money have real and measureable costs. While the marginal costs of payroll deduction for union PACs may be small, it is infinitely more than the nonexistent cost of a campaign staffer sitting in a taxpayer-funded chair for a meeting.

Public resources shouldn't be used for partisan political purposes? We agree. That's why we hope Common Cause and other so-called "good government" reformers will support us in fighting for paycheck protection.


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Seniority Reform is Pro-Child, not Anti-Teacher

AUGUST 6, 2014  | by JAMES PAUL

It seems clear that there is widespread agreement—across party lines and ideological barriers—that we must address school seniority rules and tenure reform.

Check out this stunning video from MSNBC's Morning Joe and take note of who is sitting around the table: liberals, conservatives, moderates, and independents. Everyone seems to agree that all children deserve access to the highest quality teachers.

Everyone, that is, except the teacher union leaders—who fight tooth and nail to retain inflexible seniority rules and status quo tenure policies.

As mentioned in the clip, teachers are not interchangeable parts. They should be treated, evaluated, and compensated like any other professionals, which is based on performance. 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.

There is a solution to this problem in the commonwealth. HB 1722, sponsored by Rep. Tim Krieger, would ensure that furlough decisions are based on actual job-performance, as well as increase the benchmark for tenure from three to five years.

This important legislation would dramatically improve the quality of education throughout Pennsylvania.

Who could possibly stand in the way of such sensible reforms?


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Protecting Children Should Trump Politics

AUGUST 5, 2014  | by JAMES PAUL

A harrowing study shows that sexual misconduct by teachers is becoming more prevalent in the commonwealth. Since January, there have been 24 reported cases of sexual abuse by Pennsylvania teachers. Only one state has seen more incidents than Pennsylvania in 2014, according to the Houston-based Drive West Communications.

Megan Harris of TribLive.com has more appalling details of misconduct and abuse.

A Tribune-Review analysis of disciplinary actions from 2004 to 2014 found they more than quadrupled in 10 years. At least one-third of all cases resulted in quiet resignations not immediately reported to the public. Since 2004, at least 332 teachers voluntarily surrendered teaching licenses before a state commission could pursue disciplinary action.

Of course, the vast majority of teachers are committed to the well-being of their students. 

But these findings are alarming—especially when coupled with an outrageous loophole in state law allowing accused teachers to quietly resign and relocate without having to inform their new district of the alleged abuse. Within the education community, this is known as "passing the trash"—moving staff to a different city in order to avoid lawsuits, criticism, and above all else, justice.

Take a moment to consider what this means. Teachers who sexually abuse or have been otherwise accused of harming children are permitted to resign or temporarily walk away from the classroom. In some cases, these individuals eventually reclaim a teaching position.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously passed SB 46, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia, to address this unconscionable oversight, but the bill awaits action in the House. The legislation would provide for more thorough background checks and put an end to "confidentiality agreements" that prevent school districts from disclosing whether an applicant was previously investigated for wrongdoing.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania cosponsored similar legislation at the federal level.

If you thought this could be a rare issue where unions, taxpayers, and families can agree, you’d be wrong. As of late 2013, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) were neutral on SB 46. Neutral.

For the PSEA, "neutral" is actually an improvement from a 2012 hearing on similar legislation, where they testified in opposition to the bill.

On most political issues, there are reasonable arguments to be made for either side.

But this is not any political issue. This is about keeping child predators out of schools. It should be a no-brainer for lawmakers in Harrisburg.


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Audio: Will a Cigarette Tax Really Save Philly Schools?

AUGUST 5, 2014  | by JOHN BOUDER

School Choice Pennsylvania

Yesterday, radio talk show host Dom Giordano talked to CF’s Nathan Benefield about the proposed cigarette tax to fund Philadelphia schools.

Dom asked why we care so much about whether another tax is piled on Philadelphia residents. Nate responded, “It’s a very temporary solution … that doesn’t solve the long-term crisis in Philadelphia.” Indeed, another $80 million won’t solve the problems that still exist even after the School District of Philadelphia added more than $1 billion in revenue in the last ten years.

The real victims of this crisis—school kids and their families—won’t be helped by another year of stop-gap measures as costs continue to skyrocket and performance keeps plummeting.

Listen to the conversation here:

See our policy points Philadelphia School Trends, 2002-03 to 2012-13 for more details.

The Dom Giordano Show can be streamed live daily here.


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A Note on Philadelphia School Spending

AUGUST 4, 2014  | by NATHAN BENEFIELD

Last week, we released a summary of spending, enrollment and staffing trends in the Philadelphia School District over the past decade.

After this release, school officials and advocates have claimed our data is misleading because total spending and revenue numbers include funding for charter schools, whereas enrollment figures represent only the district. 

But our analysis is not comparing total spending to enrollment, which measures the number of students in a school district as of October every school year. Rather, we look at total spending per "Average Daily Membership," which measures instead the average number of students enrolled over the course of the year, in both district and charter schools.

The spending per ADM comes directly from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. As total spending is up, even as the ADM declined over the past decade, spending per ADM increased from $9,299 to $14,361. This is a 21 percent jump, even after adjusting for inflation.

And while ADM does include charter school students, charter schools actually get less per student than the district-run schools.

To illustrate this we can estimate how much we spend in Philadelphia's district schools alone. To do so, we can look at the "tuition schedule", which calculates payments to charter and other schools. Using this, we can approximate that the Philadelphia school district spent more than $15,300 per student in district schools in 2012-13.

School District of Philadelphia Spending Data

 

2002-03

2012-13

Total Expenditures

$1,974,165,479

$2,902,872,781

Average Daily Membership (ADM, includes charters)

212,299

202,134

Spending Per ADM

$9,299

$14,361

Payments to Charters and Others Schools

N/A

$693,719,650

District Direct Spending 

N/A

$2,209,153,131

District Enrollment

192,683

143,898

District Spending Per Student

N/A

$15,352

Source: PA Department of Education

Unfortunately, the state data on "tuition payments" does not go back to 2002-03 as the rest of our analysis did. But the data from 2006-07 through last year also shows an increase in direct spending on district students, excluding charter school payment. 

As the chart below illustrates, Philadelphia spending per district student has risen over the past 7 years, despite a dip in 2011-12, by almost $4,000 per student.

Philadelphia school spending per student 


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Teacher Evaluation System to Continue in Pittsburgh

JULY 30, 2014  | by JAMES PAUL

Good news from the Pittsburgh School District, where the Pennsylvania Department of Education granted three year approval of Pittsburgh’s new teacher evaluation system. This despite the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers’ efforts to undermine and weaken the standards it originally helped craft.

As we've noted before, the evaluation model identifies both successful teachers and those who need to improve. In the 2013-14 school year, 28 teachers were evaluated as unsatisfactory by the new system. A second straight year of unsatisfactory performance could lead to dismissal. The district will provide teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations with extra support in order to develop their skills. 

Previously, Pittsburgh teachers were evaluated solely on classroom observation. The new system maintains a strong observation component, but it also accounts for student performance. Accurate, reliable, and meaningful feedback is the only way to ensure that teachers—or any other professionals—have the necessary tools to grow and improve.

Sophisticated teacher evaluation models are an important reform for school districts seeking to retain their best talent and move away from inflexible seniority rules like "Last-in, First-out" (LIFO). In the event of layoffs, LIFO puts up-and-coming teachers at greatest risk—regardless of job performance. And since schools in poorer districts have large numbers of new teachers, LIFO disproportionately affects schools in low-income areas.

If a school is in the unfortunate position of needing to reduce staff, it must be able to make decisions based on the specific needs of its student population. A longer-tenured teacher is not necessarily a more effective teacher, and it is precisely the most effective teachers who should be protected and rewarded—be they young or old.

Thankfully, the approved Pittsburgh evaluation system offers a robust measurement of teachers' classroom performance. 


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New Evidence: Taxes Stunt Economic Growth

JULY 30, 2014  | by MICHAEL HOGG

Pennsylvania Economy

A recent Mercatus Center study provides new evidence that higher state taxes correlate with reduced state economic growth. 

Pavel A. Yakovlev, a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and member of the Commonwealth Foundation Council of Scholars, found higher taxes lead to reduced gross state product (GSP), reduced per-capita income, fewer new businesses, and less immigration.

A one percent average tax rate increase correlates with a 1.9 percent decrease in the GSP growth rate. When states have high taxes and more spending, they experience slower economic growth. This is no secret in Pennsylvania. As the Commonwealth’s taxing and spending increased from 1970 to 2012, economic growth lagged behind the national average.  

A one percent increase in a state’s average tax rate correlates with a .07 percent decrease in per capita income. When taxes increase, extra costs are incurred, leading to layoffs and pay cuts. 

A one percent increase in personal income tax progressivity correlates with a 1.2 percent decrease in the number of new firms in the state. Firms are more likely to leave or choose not to locate in a state where success dictates a higher tax burden.

As personal state income tax rates increase, immigration rates decrease. Income taxes—or lack thereof—play a role in where Americans choose to live. Four of the nine states with no income tax (Florida, Nevada, Tennessee, Washington) have the highest population growth rates in the nation.

Thanks to an unfriendly business climate, the 10th highest tax burden, and public sector unions calling for $1 billion in new taxes, it’s no wonder economic growth is stagnant in the Commonwealth.

Yakovlev's study certainly comes as sobering news to high tax states across the country, including Pennsylvania. But the upside is a low-tax policy agenda can jump-start economic growth. 


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PSEA Spokesman Wins the Pinocchio Award

JULY 29, 2014  | by NATHAN BENEFIELD

Rendell Pinocchio

Readers of PolicyBlog already know that Pennsylvania education spending is at a record high, that state funding to school districts for pension costs is skyrocketing, and that school district spending, revenues and reserve funds are at all-time highs.

That should be enough to stop government union leaders from repeating the $1 billion cut lie...but they're still at it. In fact, a new lie to defend the original lie has emerged.

Talking to Capitolwire (paywall), PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever claims, "No previous administration cited pension funding in order to boost their claims about K-12 funding." 

Lie! "School employees' retirement" has been counted as "Basic Education" by governors Rendell, Schweiker, Ridge, and Casey.

It is preposterous to think that the cost of teachers' pensions isn't part of the cost of education, or that state aid to school districts for pension costs isn't part of state aid to school districts.

State Education Subsidy 2-Color

Of course, this is far from the first lie Wythe Keever has been caught in.

As we recently wrote, Mr. Keever has denied that union dues are used for any sort of political activity—even as his employer, the PSEA, told its members (as required by law) that 12 percent of their dues go to politics.

Wythe Keever also once denied to a reporter that the PSEA was behind mysterious ads claiming school choice would require a tax hike. We later uncovered that the PSEA spent $575,000 from union dues to fund those ads.

That a spokeman for PSEA consistently resorts to outright, provable lies is a telling commentary on how far government union executives are willing to go to advance their policy agenda.


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Worker Choice Leads to Prosperity

JULY 29, 2014  | by EMMA CRISCI

Worker freedom leads to higher incomes. This according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which recently published a paper on the effects of right to work (RTW) laws in different states.

In their analysis, CEI found a substantial loss in per capita income for those states that lack a RTW law. Their results show that the total estimated income losses in 2012 amounted to $647.8 billion or “more than $2,000 for every American, including those in RTW states.”

Astoundingly enough, more than half of the economic damage occurred in just five non-RTW states, with Pennsylvania as one of the leaders. In fact, Pennsylvania ranked 13 out of 30 states in estimated income losses with a total of $3,373 lost per person. On a state-by-state level, RTW states’ growth was substantially higher (165 percent) than non-RTW states (99 percent).

Why do RTW laws increase income? The study explains labor unions raise labor costs, which reduces the capital resources available for workers to increase their productivity and their income.

CEI does take into account other factors that could affect economic growth. Using the example of New England, they show that states can prosper without a RTW law. Though their statistics show that these states could be doing even better if RTW legislation were in place. Overall, if non-RTW states had adopted RTW laws 35 years ago, “income levels would be on the order of $3,000 per person higher today,” according to the Institute.

The evidence provided by CEI’s report is an indicator of the major benefits of RTW laws. With states already experiencing a sharp decline in union membership, RTW legislation is a common sense way to bring prosperity to the states.


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Podcast: PA Teachers Talk Pension Reform

JULY 29, 2014  | by JOHN BOUDER

Often lost in the public pension reform debate raging across the state are the viewpoints of public school teachers themselves. That’s why our Senior Policy Analyst Priya Abraham recently interviewed two public school teachers at very different stages in their careers.

Bill Frye is a recently retired science teacher from Westmorland County and taught in Pennsylvania public schools for more than 20 years. He is currently collecting the defined benefit pension he earned.

But Bill is concerned about the more than $50 billion in public pension debt already on the books:

“Like any business, you have to be able to pay your bills now and in the future. When I hear of the huge debt, I think about everyone. The system as it is now won’t be able to support the current manner of payout.”

Steve Calabro is mid-career but is worried that teachers' pensions will be such a burden on taxpayers that his own son will effectively be paying Steve an allowance when he retires. He says action is needed now:

“Something has to be done. The sooner we get through all the rhetoric and all the talking points and actually do something, the better off we and our kids will be.”

How can lawmakers honor pension obligations while preventing future generations from being unfairly burdened by ever-growing pension debt?

Listen to the enlightening conversation here.

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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.