Increased education spending has not led to improved academic performance. This is reflected in SAT scores and NAEP results, as well numerous studies at the state, national, and international level. To improve academic performance, policymakers should pursue a student-based funding formula, mandate relief, and expanded school choice.
Imagine writing a large check for a new car and finding out a year later that it fails safety tests, won’t pass inspection, and needs thousands in repairs. You’d probably be demanding answers from the dealership. If the only solution they offered was the exact same car but for more money—would you take it? That’s essentially the deal Pennsylvanians are being offered on public education—disappointing results from a broken system that they’re t
The second lowest-performing school district in Pennsylvania is asking for more time to improve but refusing recommended reforms. Unfortunately, more time is not something students and families in York City can afford.
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Seniority-based teacher furloughs may soon become a relic of the past for Pennsylvania public schools.
On Tuesday evening, the state House approved Rep. Stephen Bloom’s HB 805—the Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. The legislation ensures teachers are retained based on their effectiveness, not merely their seniority, in the unfortunate event of furloughs. Teacher quality is measured based on a statewide evaluation system—one endorsed by the teachers’ unions—that currently rates 98.2 percent of teachers as satisfactory.
HB 805 protects Pennsylvania’s “proficient” and “distinguished” teachers from being furloughed in favor of a teacher with more seniority who is rated “needs improvement” or “failing.” In the event two teachers have the same rating, seniority will still serve as the tiebreaker.
Rep. Bloom's legislation passed despite intense lobbying from government unions who placed the interests of 1.8 percent of non-proficient teachers over the needs of every other high-performing teacher in the state—and over the needs of students.
Attention now turns to the state Senate to approve HB 805. If the legislation passes the Senate, it will be up to Gov. Wolf to prioritize teachers over his biggest campaign contributors and sign the law.
Amidst a flurry of hearings on severance taxes, incomes taxes, and pension reform, a piece of legislation with less fanfare advanced with bipartisan support out of the Senate Education Committee. Senate Bill 6 has the potential to rescue thousands of students from persistently underperforming public schools.
Senator Smucker's SB 6 has two major components. First, it would enable school districts to utilize new powers to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent of statewide performance. These schools would be identified as "intervention schools," and local school boards would have enhanced staffing flexibility, as well as the ability to convert the school into a charter.
Most importantly, the legislation creates an Achievement School District (ASD), which could absorb schools in the bottom 1 percent of performance. This is the most transformative aspect of the law. Perpetually failing schools would transfer to the ASD, which has similar powers outlined above. However, the ASD is overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the governor and legislature. This unique management structure provides the right incentives to institute meaningful school reform for students who need it most.
Achievement school districts are gaining in popularity across the country as a means to turn around chronically underperforming schools. They are perhaps most famous in New Orleans, where a Recovery School District was scaled up after Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, some 93 percent of public school students attend charters. Only 7 percent of schools are currently designated as failing, compared to 62 percent less than a decade ago. And 62 percent of students test at grade level or above, up from 35 percent in 2006.
Similar turnaround school district initiatives exist in Tennessee and Michigan, and they have recently been enacted in Georgia and Nevada.
Education solutions must be more innovative and forward-looking than simply raising taxes—especially given that Pennsylvania education spending is currently at an all-time high. During Tuesday’s hearing on SB 6, Democratic Senator Anthony Williams explained tax hikes over the last fifteen years have not improved the quality of schools in his district.
"Pouring more water into a bucket that has holes in it doesn't put out the fire." Take a look at Sen. Williams' complete remarks:
As I pointed out yesterday in a chart and blog post, Pennsylvania spends significantly more per student on public schools than the national average. Moreover, increased spending has not resulted in improvement in academic performance.
Calls for increased education spending tend to ignore these basic facts. At the same time, many readers have asked about our position on a dollar-for-dollar tax shift, which would redistribute the school tax burden in Pennsylvania.
To be clear, CF opposes tax shifting schemes that result in net tax hikes, such as those found in Gov. Wolf's budget. Other tax shifting proposals are revenue neutral, or dollar-for-dollar. Typically, these proposals ask the state to contribute more, or all, to public school funding in exchange for property tax reduction or elimination.
We believe that tax shifting—even of the dollar-for-dollar variety—will not solve structural problems with school financing. Here are our primary concerns:
- Tax shifting does not address overspending in public schools, which is driven by pensions, mandates, union contracts and lobbying, and a government monopoly over the school system.
- Tax shifting creates winners and losers. This is true among individuals who would be forced to pay higher sales or income tax rates (and in the case of expansion, some families would face exorbitant increases on nursing care, day care, or other items). Indeed, while the property tax is highly unpopular, it is less detrimental toward state economic growth than is the income tax, which affects workers and small business owners.
- Winners and losers will also emerge at the school district level. Tax shifting effectively forces residents in District A to pay more in state taxes, while District B would get more in “relief.” Districts with high property taxes will get less relief than districts that have responsibly kept taxes low.
- Tax shifting fails to provide a student-based funding formula.
- Tax shifting does not necessary prevent property taxes from coming back, and it can become a vehicle for increasing our overall tax burden on families and businesses.
Without other reforms, tax shifting will not resolve the larger problem of overspending and unaffordable taxes. As I pointed out in my testimony on property tax reform, there are other solutions that address the spending problem in education, of which high property taxes are just a symptom. Here are five recommendations:
Weighted Student Funding
While Pennsylvania spends more per student than the rest of the country, and provides about the national average in state funding per student, that support isn’t driven out to schools that need it the most. A broken funding formula, in which school districts have been “held harmless” regardless of changes in enrollment for more than 20 years, fails our students.
Moving to a student-based funding system would ensure state dollars go to the schools that need it most—based on student enrollment and student need. We should fund children, not buildings. This reform would better allocate the $26 billion we already spend.
Collective Bargaining Reform
Employee benefit cost growth has greatly exceeded salary growth in public schools. These costs are driven by unaffordable union contracts.
Reforming the collective bargaining process—providing taxpayers and voters with more information about the terms and costs of contracts—could result in major savings for public schools, money that could go back into the classroom.
Mandate relief, including prevailing wage reform and seniority reform
School districts across the state have complained about unfunded and unaffordable mandates. Among the largest of these is the prevailing wage mandate, which requires school districts to pay more for construction projects than the private sector pays for the same work. Prevailing wage mandates increase the cost of construction by 10 to 30 percent, which for Pennsylvania school districts results in $160 to $480 million in additional annual costs.
Likewise, state law that limits when school districts furlough employees, and requires furloughs be done solely on the basis of seniority, deny schools the flexibility to manage costs. Reform that values teacher performance above seniority would improve the quality of education across Pennsylvania, while giving schools the tools they need.
Over the past six years, pension payments from school districts have increased by $2 billion. This amounts to a $600 tax increase per Pennsylvania homeowner, or the salary of 20,000 teachers. Rising pension costs were the justification for 98% of school districts recently seeking exemptions to raise property taxes above inflation.
We need pension reform that moves the state out of the defined benefit business. Establishing a defined contribution retirement plan for new hires provides costs that are predictable and affordable. Responsible pension reform removes politics from pension management and prevent future crises from threatening our public schools.
Lawmakers should expand school choice programs, such as the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). These programs allow low and middle income families to attend better, safer schools.
Moreover, the EITC and OSTC save Pennsylvania taxpayers money. The average EITC scholarship is less than $2,000, while the average OSTC scholarship is approximately $4,000. These scholarships are significantly less than the average per-pupil spending in traditional public schools.
Who are We?
The Commonwealth Foundation is Pennsylvania's free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation transforms free-market ideas into public policies so all Pennsylvanians can flourish.