CF’s work in education focuses on promoting opportunity and improving children’s lives though incentive-based reforms. Instead of repeating the failed attempts to reform education through new rules or additional funding, such reforms use competition to improve education. Incentive-based reforms include providing choice within the public school system through charter schools and cyber schools, providing families with private school options through vouchers or tax credit-funded scholarships, and measuring and rewarding success in education for both schools and teachers. Only when parents are able to choose the best school for their child, have an abundance of educational choices and ample information, and schools are forced to compete for students will we provide the best education to Pennsylvania’s youth.
If Pennsylvania students miss three days of school without an excuse, the law says they must be reported. But across the commonwealth, certain teachers have been absent for years—without consequences
A Montgomery County judge recently ruled that Lower Merion School District misled taxpayers by stashing huge cash reserves while repeatedly hiking taxes on township residents. Could 8 other Pennsylvania school districts be doing the same thing?
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Pennsylvania’s primary tool for grading schools –the School Performance Profile (SPP)—is being overhauled. The current SPP is not particularly straightforward, but it’s based mainly on test scores and academic growth. At the direction of Gov. Tom Wolf, the revised SPP will become more complicated, less reliant on tests, and more reliant on “holistic” measures of school success.
According to the Department of Education, here’s what we can expect from a more holistic SPP:
- Increasing the weighting of value-added measures
- Measuring English language acquisition among non-native speakers, not simply performance on a test of grade level standards
- Incentivizing career awareness instruction beginning at the elementary level
- Increasing the weighting of rigorous course offerings such as AP, IB, and “dual enrollment”
- Allowing districts to include locally-selected reading assessments and math as additional snapshots of student progress
- Awarding extra credit to schools graduating students with at least one industry recognized credential
It’s too early to know exactly how this will change the SPP’s 0-100 scale used to compare performance in buildings across the state. While some of these items may be worthwhile, the overall trend is to de-emphasize test scores, lower standards, and award credit for course offerings and credentials (to say nothing of their impact on achievement).
Wolf’s administration is following through on an earlier promise to weaken the SPP. While this may result in higher scores for Pennsylvania schools, it will do little to boost performance in the classroom.
Standardized testing is a contentious topic among parents and educators. Are tests useful? Which test should we use? How often should we test? These questions are fair game for debate and deserve thoughtful consideration. But it’s hard to imagine eliminating testing as the solution to Pennsylvania’s educational problems.
Tests provide a valuable benchmark to measure student proficiency. They provide parents with important information, and they underscore gaps in achievement between different groups of children. [Of course, to the maximum extent possible: the form, frequency, and style of testing should be determined by schools and localities—not Harrisburg or Washington.]
A better approach than Wolf’s would move Pennsylvania to an A-F school grading system. This would be easier to understand than a convoluted SPP. Already employed by over a dozen states, A-F ratings would deliver transparency and accountability—inspiring all public schools in the commonwealth to make the grade.
Bethlehem School District employs private investigators to track down students with fraudulent home addresses. According to The Morning Call, DBM Investigations and Consulting has identified 35 students fraudulently enrolled in Bethlehem schools who will now be expelled:
Superintendent Joseph Roy told the board that DBM used multiple methods to determine whether students and their families actually live in the district, such as looking at public records and knocking on doors. In some cases, an investigator staked out houses to see who came and went, Roy said.
"For people who are purposefully misleading us and lying about their address, that requires more intensive investigation," Roy said. "But we're very, very pleased with the result at a really small cost to the district."
Roy said the district is not pursuing any financial compensation or criminal penalties against the offending families, though it legally could have.
Why is this happening? Two reasons.
First: Nearby Allentown School District limits the number of Allentown students permitted to enroll in charter schools. In so doing, Allentown owes less money to charters and forces the charters to enroll students from other districts.
This doesn’t change the fact that parents in Allentown are desperate for charter schools. So they submit paperwork with phony Bethlehem residences—thereby requiring the charter school to bill Bethlehem instead of Allentown.
Secondly, The Morning Call explains that some of the fraudulent addresses are from parents who want to enroll in Bethlehem public schools but do not live within district boundaries.
To be clear: families should not be celebrated for knowingly submitting false paperwork. But stories such as these demonstrate the lengths parents will go when they are denied educational choice.
Further, they underscore the need to free children from arbitrary school district boundaries. Whether that means expanding access to charter schools, increasing the caps on Pennsylvania’s private scholarship programs, or enacting education savings accounts—all families deserve multiple educational options.
Be thankful if you live in a district with a high quality public school—or have the means to afford private or homeschooling alternatives. Beyond that? Think about supporting school choice for all children in Pennsylvania. Where you live should never determine the quality of your education.
That's a wrap.
The 2015-16 legislative session is officially in the history books. Despite a $650 million tax hike, Pennsylvanians have a lot to celebrate from the past two years. From elimination of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax to wine modernization, recent events signal Pennsylvania’s political leaders may be ready to start tackling the broken systems that are driving state spending far faster than Pennsylvania’s economy.
Here are the top seven taxpayer victories from the 2015-16 legislative session:
- Five tax hike proposals defeated in 2015. During his first year in office, Gov. Wolf proposed five different broad-based tax hike plans, including higher personal income, sales, and tobacco taxes; a natural gas severance tax; and more. The first proposal would have increased a family of four's tax burden by $1,450. Ultimately, the governor allowed a no-tax-hike 2015-16 budget to become law.
- Capital Stock and Franchise Tax elimination. Originally set to expire in 2011, this business tax, combined with the 2nd-highest corporate net income tax rate in the nation, discouraged job creation and contributed to PA’s poorly ranked business climate.
- No broad based tax hikes in 2016. The legislature refused to entertain sales or income tax increases. Unfortunately, lawmakers implemented $650 million in narrow-based tax hikes.
- Increased labor union accountability. Until last year, union leaders and members could legally stalk, harass, and threaten to use weapons of mass destruction when involved in a “labor dispute.” Act 59 of 2015 closed this loophole. In early 2016, Act 15 of 2016 gave taxpayers the ability to see the costs of government union contracts before they go into effect.
- Funding students, not systems. The 2016-17 budget increased the Educational Improvement Tax Credit by $25 million, giving more students the opportunity to escape violent and failing schools. The budget also includes a student-based funding formula, directing any funds above 2014-15 levels to schools based on current enrollment.
- Liquor modernization. In a small step forward, restaurants and grocery stores can now sell wine, and beer distributors gained additional freedoms, like the ability to sell six-packs.
- Honorary mention: Uber and Lyft legalization. Despite a contentious relationship with the Public Utility Commission, lawmakers finally made the ridesharing services Uber and Lyft permanently legal in Philadelphia and across the commonwealth.
The last two years also saw some missed opportunities:
- An unbalanced 2016-17 budget. Lawmakers passed—and Gov. Wolf let become law—a spending bill without revenue to pay for it. Despite $650 million in tax hikes, spending will still exceed revenue projections, according to the Independent Fiscal Office.
- Pension reform. In June 2015, lawmakers passed landmark legislation to place new state employees and public schoolteachers in a defined-contribution retirement plan, similar to a 401(k). Gov. Wolf vetoed the legislation.
- Liquor privatization. Both chambers passed complete liquor privatization, which Gov. Wolf promptly vetoed.
- Paycheck protection. In October of 2015, the state Senate passed SB 501 to ban the use of public resources to collect political union dues and campaign contributions. The legislation stalled in the House.
- Medicaid expansion. Despite opposition from the legislature in 2014, Gov. Wolf rewrote a federal waiver to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act with little opposition in 2015. At the time, officials predicted about 500,000 new enrollees and an infusion of federal cash that would stimulate the economy. To date, rolls have grown by more than 670,000, while the commonwealth spent $500 million last year and $240 million this fiscal year.
- Seniority reform. Gov. Wolf vetoed legislation to protect great teachers by ensuring that during furloughs, teachers are retained based on effectiveness, not simply seniority.
- Corporate welfare reductions. Pennsylvania spends more than $800 million per year on myriad tax credits, grants, and special loans to private corporations. Yet, we continually rank near the bottom in economic growth. While a few bills to reduce these loans made progress, the legislature has, by and large, failed to recognize these programs don't work.
The commonwealth's financial troubles are serious and systematic. In the new year, lawmakers will have another chance to tackle the broken systems that harm Pennsylvanians by pursuing true pension reform, welfare reform and expanded educational choice for families.
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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.
Pennsylvania’s primary tool for grading schools –the School Performance Profile (SPP)—is being overhauled. The current SPP is not particularly straightforward, but it’s based mainly on test scores and academic growth. At the direction of Gov. Tom Wolf, the revised SPP will become ...