More on Philadelphia School Trends

AUGUST 15, 2014  | by JAMES PAUL

Philadelphia-based Research for Action (RFA) took issue with CF’s Policy Points on spending, enrollment, and staffing trends in the School District of Philadelphia. The RFA rebuttal intended to provide “a more complete grasp of the situation.” Yet they don’t dispute any of the facts we provided in the Policy Points, which offer broader perspective on what has happened in Philadelphia over the past decade. Instead of “informing this important dialogue,” RFA only has spin to contribute.  

The following will respond to their criticism, point by point.

Why did CF examine the ten year window between 2002-2003 and 2012-2013?

By not including statistics from the 2013-2014 school year, RFA accuses CF of using “selective data points to build a case.” Our Policy Points relied on data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) Annual Financial Reports, Public School Enrollment Reports, and Professional Personnel Reports. For each set of reports, the most recent year of available data is 2012-2013, so naturally, this is where we concluded our analysis. PDE statistics from 2013-2014 were not available. Far from using “selective data points,” the CF analysis draws on the most recent available information on the preceding decade.

Given the high levels of poverty in Philadelphia, shouldn’t low test scores be expected?

RFA notes that “nobody should satisfied with academic performance among city students.” The authors then qualify this statement by adding that Philadelphia’s poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation and “its [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores on most categories are comparable to cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago with significantly lower poverty rates.” In other words: Philadelphia scores are lousy, but they are similar to the scores of other cities with high levels of poverty. RFA provides the chart below, which does very little to support their claims.


Philadelphia may have a slightly higher poverty rate than Los Angeles, but it also has lower test scores in three of the four categories. Compared to Chicago, Philadelphia scores are lower in all four categories. RFA is thus being rather liberal with the word “comparable.” Also of note: the only listed district with a higher poverty rate—Dallas—has higher average test scores than Philadelphia in all four categories. In this case, even the “selective data points” chosen by RFA do not support their arguments.

RFA claims the CF analysis of academic achievement “rests solely…on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” This is false, as the CF report also compares how charter schools stack up against district schools on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles (SPP). Charters significantly outperform district schools in Philadelphia on this metric, which is noteworthy, since they both operate in similar environments of poverty. 

When it comes to SPP scores, we agree with RFA that cyber charters have been underwhelming. Of course, cyber schools have the ultimate incentives to succeed and improve: they will be shut down if they persistently fail, and they only receive funding when parents choose these schools as the best place to educate their children. 

Throughout their rebuttal, RFA insists on singling out poverty as an explanation of poor academic performance. It is dangerous to get caught up in this “myth of helplessness”—a phrase coined by education policy expert Dr. Jay P. Green. Although many students face serious social problems outside the control of local school districts, is this reason enough to oppose school reforms that expand choice, opportunity, and accountability? Poverty must not become an excuse that prevents schools from improving their services to children and families.

Are charter schools contributing to growing costs for the district?

RFA claims that because “charters assume 30 percent of the district’s budget” they “undeniably contribute to the district’s rising costs.” This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of charter school financing.

For each student attending a charter, the child's home school district sends a payment to the charter equaling the district’s per-student spending, excluding all expenditures for adult education programs, community/junior college programs, student transportation, facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services, debt payments, and federal funds received.

The bottom line? Charters schools spend and receive less funding per student than district schools. In Pennsylvania, this discrepancy amounts to an average $1500 per student, money that school districts retain for students they no longer educate. Accordingly, it is wrong to argue that charter schools add additional costs beyond those of traditional public schools. 

Charters should not be criticized or punished for attracting new students. It is incumbent on district schools to compete, innovate, and improve in order to win back the lost enrollment, as well as the payments that are sent to charter schools.

What is happening with district enrollment? What implications does it have for spending trends?

Over the last decade, district schools have seen a 25 percent decline in enrollment, while charter schools have seen a three-fold increase. This is where spending per Average Daily Membership (ADM) is helpful, because it includes charter enrollment and provides a complete look at district-wide trends.

Curiously, the RFA report did not address CF’s analysis of spending per ADM—which has unquestionably increased in Philadelphia. This is true over both the 5 year and 10 year snapshot, with an inflation-adjusted 8 percent increase since 2008-2009, and a 21 percent increase since 2002-2003. 

philly schools spending per adm

Keep in mind, these figures actually underestimate spending in district-run schools, because they include charter enrollment. As mentioned above, charters spend and receive less funding than traditional public schools.

The RFA authors also claim that “districts cannot pare personnel, building, and services costs proportionately” to offset enrollment declines. This fixed costs argument is a classic red herring in the case against school choice.

What about the bond sale?

RFA seems to view a recent Philadelphia bond issue as a smoking gun in the case for increased state and federal funding for district schools. Of course, borrowing the revenue is not a policy supported by CF either then or now. It will amount to more costs over the long term, and it is yet another temporary solution to a long-term problem. If anything, this type of action underscores the urgent need for better financial management. The bond issue does not change the fact that district spending has increased substantially, which is a key finding of CF’s decade-long analysis.

What is happening to class sizes?

The original CF Policy Points was careful not to make any specific claims about average class sizes in Philadelphia. Our report merely presents the facts: the student-to-teacher ratio has declined over the last ten years. In 2012-2013, this ratio was 15.6 to 1. Nowhere did we claim that the average class size is 15 or 16 students. Average class sizes tend to be somewhat larger than the student-to-teacher ratio. But the ratio remains useful information in the context of claims that classrooms are on the verge of skyrocketing to 40 children or more. In light of a declining student-to teacher trend, it’s fair to say such claims are exaggerated and misleading.

Are school districts struggling to meet their obligations for pensions and debt/construction costs?

Absolutely this is the case, and we agree with RFA on this point. There is no disputing that these obligated costs will force a greater percentage of funds to be spent in areas other than classroom instruction. The key question now, however, is how to deal with such fiscal challenges. Do expensive bills for pensions and debt provide carte blanche to raise taxes? This has certainly been the preferred approach over the last decade, and it appears to remain the preferred approach for those in favor of an increased cigarette tax in Philadelphia.

What would a different approach look like? It would include reforms to public employee pensions, an issue we’ve been concerned about for quite some time. Prevailing wage reform is another step that would significantly lower school construction costs.

CF is hopeful that RFA will join us in support of these policy objectives, which would result in important savings to taxpayers, as well as increased flexibility for local school districts feeling the wrath of poor policy decisions from several years prior. 

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Booze Lose: PLCB Proposes Increased Mark-up Price

AUGUST 14, 2014  | by BOB DICK

Get ready to empty the piggy bank because soon you could be paying the government even more for your booze. At least, that's the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s (PLCB) latest idea to cover the growing costs of its operations.

According to the Tribune-Review, the PLCB circulated a memo suggesting a 16.6% increase (from 30% to 35%) in the mark-up price added to each wine and spirits product. The proposal is a response to the growing personnel costs and new costs of government mandates, which the agency projects will lead to a decline in its “profits” for next fiscal year. But as we pointed out in the past, the PLCB isn’t any more profitable than the IRS. Any additional revenue it collects above the cost of its operations is essentially a tax paid by consumers.

Supporters of our anachronistic system have long defended the PLCB as a "cash cow" for the state, but this has never been true. More than 80% of the revenue generated by the PLCB results from taxes, which would still be collected under a private system. The lack of profitablity is even more obvious now that the PLCB's costs are eating away at the small portion of "profits" it does transfer to the General Fund. 

In its memo, the PLCB points out the difficulty in assessing the effects of its proposal on prices, but no matter the outcome, people will be hurt if the PLCB moves forward with their plan. If vendors decide to lower the prices of their products to keep competitive, they will have to absorb the losses. If vendors don’t change what they charge the PLCB, consumers will feel the effects in the form of higher prices. "People that buy at the state stores are going to pay more. Period," says Dr. Antony Davies, associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. "The PLCB doesn't have any competition," Dr. Davies tells WTAE, "so you don't have those forces pushing costs down."

This isn’t the first time the PLCB has proposed a change in its pricing formula. A few years ago, the agency proposed and eventually adopted a shift to variable pricing in its handling fees. This decision currently empowers the PLCB to charge more for certain products if vendors increase their own prices.

Here's the problem: Pennsylvanians have no choice but to live with these decisions, unless residents break state law and buy their liquor in other states (which does occur). But it’s still not fair to penalize entrepreneurs and those who don’t live near the border with a system obviously failing residents.

If Pennsylvania were to end the booze monopoly, one of the benefits (and there are many!) would be more choice and convenience for consumers and entrepreneurs who would no longer be subjected to the decisions of a small group of people in Harrisburg. Revenue for the state would increase as more job creators could expand their businesses, and more Pennsylvanians would buy their booze within state borders.

The lives and decisions of those in the wine and spirits industry should not be tied to a system well past its expiration date.



Teachers Call for More Freedom, Choices


Heather Lister and Joe Connolly are both Pennsylvania educators, and they couldn’t be more different.  Heather is a 25-year-old library media specialist and a registered Democrat. Joe is a veteran high school guidance counselor and a proud conservative.

On the surface, the teachers are poles apart, but there is something they agree on: Lister and Connolly both believe that labor union membership should be voluntary.

You might wonder why that’s such a big deal—don’t teachers already have a choice? The short answer is no.

In the 26 states that are not “right to work,” most public school teachers who decide not to join a union must still pay union fees—whether they want union representation or not. That's why Commonwealth Foundation is participating in National Employee Freedom Week (August 10-16), a broad grassroots effort to inform teachers and other unionized workers of their labor rights.

We're highlighting the stories of teachers like Heather, Joe and many others, and providing an easy step-by-step guide for teachers on how to resign from their union.  Stay tuned for more this week!

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Study: Selective Carve-Outs Make Poor Tax Policy

AUGUST 7, 2014  | by EMMA CRISCI

Lawmakers across the country have promoted specific, targeted tax breaks that encourage businesses to invest in their state. According to a recent study, these incentive programs are ineffective at promoting widespread economic benefits, despite being advantageous for certain firms and industries. 

The study, published by The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), examines "the use of public policy to benefit a specific industry, firm, or individual, as opposed to setting broad and generally applicable rules and policies that apply to society as a whole." These include targeted tax breaks or cash subsidies for select firms, as well as preferential tax treatment for firms located in a given geographic area.

ALEC finds that while this type of tax favoritism is not illegal, these programs stunt a state’s potential growth. Tax carve outs, while helping ease the tax burden for select businesses, create an uneven playing field on the whole.

When select businesses are exempt from the standard tax rate, the tax base decreases. ALEC notes that "with a smaller revenue base, states must continually raise tax rates to get the desired amount of revenue." Overall, this results in most businesses paying higher taxes, as they are forced to subsidize the lower tax burden of firms receiving preferential treatment.

To achieve a state's greatest economic potential, carve-outs must be eliminated altogether. Tax policy should be competitive and equal for all businesses. 

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Agreed: Public Resources Should not be used for Politics


"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 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


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




Total Expenditures



Average Daily Membership (ADM, includes charters)



Spending Per ADM



Payments to Charters and Others Schools



District Direct Spending 



District Enrollment



District Spending Per Student



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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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.