In 2001, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to enact an education tax credit aimed at corporations. Since then, the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program has provided more than 430,000 scholarships to students from low- and middle-income families across the commonwealth seeking the right school for their child.
Nearly three-quarters of Pennsylvania voters underestimate the amount the state spends on education. And when informed of the facts, support for boosting education funding by hiking taxes dropped significantly.
The School District of Philadelphia is in desperate need of reform, but its many problems cannot be solved by simply raising taxes and increasing spending.
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Ed Rendell appears more interested in defending his tenure as governor than actually discussing the facts about Philadelphia. The Commonwealth Foundation’s analysis of school spending, enrollment, and staffing trends spanned several administrations. We present the facts—most notably that spending has dramatically increased—regardless of who resides in the governor’s mansion.
Despite that increased investment—more than $1 billion since 2002—Philadelphia public schools continue to leave children unprepared. Four in five students failed to meet proficiency in reading and math in 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card.
These results shouldn’t be surprising, however. A study conducted by the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement” in Pennsylvania.
Rendell goes on to blame Republicans for slashing state education funding. This claim is false. The loss of funding was due to the expiration of temporary federal stimulus money Rendell used to balance the state budget. Today, state education funding in Pennsylvania is at a record high.
The reality facing Philadelphia, though, is that pension costs are consuming more and more of the increase in spending—the result of legislation signed by Rendell and backed by teachers’ union lobbyists to underfund pensions and delay those cost increases until after he left office.
In Philadelphia alone, contributions to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) increased by $133 million over the last 5 years, which is equivalent to the salary of 2,000 school teachers.
The pension crisis is real, and its impact is handcuffing Philadelphia and school districts across the state.
Repeating the same lie over and over does not make it magically come true. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) leadership from an endless campaign of deception regarding education funding in the commonwealth.
A recent release from the PSEA claims that state funding cuts are causing disproportionately poor test scores for low-income students.
Unfortunately for the “research division” of the PSEA, the truth is state education spending has increased since 2010-2011 and is currently at a record high. What’s more, there is considerable evidence that increased spending has no relationship with improved academic performance.
When calculating education spending, the PSEA refuses to acknowledge rising pension costs, which are an enormous cost driver for districts across the state. You can’t have an honest discussion about education policy without talking about pension reform—unless you’ve buried your head in the sand. In fact, every governor since Milton Shapp in the early 1970s has included pension costs as funding for public schools.
Growing pension costs are directly responsible for layoffs and program cuts. By standing in the way of responsible pension reform, the PSEA holds much of the blame for the current pension crisis.
Since 2009, the state has seen a $1.9 billion increase in Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) payments. To put that increase in perspective: $1.9 billion is equivalent to the salary of 33,400 public school teachers.
The PSEA claims that Pennsylvania should “just let Act 120 work”—referring to legislation passed in 2010 that slightly reduced benefits for new employees and relied on unrealistic projections of future investment returns. But letting Act 120 "work" will result in pension costs continuing to skyrocket in coming years. School districts will thus have less money to spend in the classroom, and property taxes will sharply increase to keep pace with pensions.
Of course, higher property taxes are a desirable outcome for PSEA leaders. “Let Act 120 work” essentially means “let higher property taxes fund our retirement.” Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the average Pennsylvania household will pay nearly $900 in new taxes as a result of pension obligations.
The PSEA doubles down on faulty arguments by pointing the finger at imaginary spending cuts for low scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). A study conducted by The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, however, found “either no or very weak association between levels of education expenditures and student achievement.”
This is just another piece of the growing evidence that throwing more money at struggling schools will not improve student performance, but it will hurt property owners—particularly seniors on fixed incomes.
The PSEA is entitled to its own opinions, but not its own facts. Government union bosses should stop deliberately confusing Pennsylvanians with false and misleading claims.
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 are We?
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.