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.
For the Hispanic community, education is the key to making the American Dream a reality. Yet far too many Latinos remain victims of their ZIP code and socio-economic status when it comes to quality schooling.
With Halloween quickly approaching, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh students won’t have to go far to get their scares—dozens of ghost teachers haunt their halls, some for as many as 30 years.
For Pennsylvania teachers and other public employees forced to fund union interests, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could be a game-changer.
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How would you feel if your employer took funds meant for your health insurance and spent them on partisan politics? Sadly, this is a reality for thousands of teachers in Philadelphia.
Evan Grossman of Watchdog.org has the story:
Every year, the [School District of Philadelphia] is bound by its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to pay more than $69 million for employee health care benefits.
The payments come in increments of $167.41 per teacher every two weeks during the school year, adding up to some $4,352 annually for each of the PFT’s 16,000 members. Those funds come from a pool of state and local taxes. The PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund receives a chunk of that money, which is earmarked for supplemental benefits, such as dental and vision, along with other programs like life insurance and its annual educational conference, which will be held in March 2016.
The Watchdog investigation found that more than $6 million from that fund was loaned, interest-free, to the union’s bleeding building fund, where it appears to have been spent on building maintenance and upgrades. According to Internal Revenue Service filings completed by the union, that money may never be paid back.
Part of the cash, loaned in five separate installments, was also used to subsidize the rent of the Jewish Labor Committee.
While teachers are working hard in the classroom, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) is secretly draining their insurance fund to subsidize politics and facilities upgrades.
Philadelphia is one of only two school districts in the state where teachers enjoy no-cost health insurance—generous benefits unheard of in the private sector. When Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission attempted to restore fiscal sanity to the money-bleeding district by asking for modest health cost sharing, the union responded with a lawsuit. The union’s refusal to accept even minor health care concessions is more remarkable given that millions of dollars from the Health and Welfare Fund are not even spent on health insurance.
As long as the Health and Welfare Fund serves as a slush fund for political activity, union leaders will fight tooth and nail to retain their unique taxpayer-funded health care privileges.
Of course, this isn’t the first time PFT leadership has used students and teachers as pawns in a larger political game. And it likely won’t be last—at least until government unions are more transparent in their operations and more accountable to their membership.
Should voters have the right to approve property tax increases? This is a central point of contention within a rumored budget framework that purports to provide Pennsylvanians with property tax relief.
In exchange for increasing the state sales tax to 7.25 percent—with higher amounts in in Allegheny County (8.25 percent) and Philadelphia (9.25 percent)—Pennsylvanians are promised significant property tax reductions, to tune of $1.5 billion.
Unless taxpayers are given proper control over property tax rates, however, nothing would stop school boards from large tax increases in future years. This could completely negate any tax relief doled out by the rumored budget agreement.
Thankfully, Sen. Don White's SB 909 would protect taxpayers from this scenario by requiring voter referenda when a school board requests higher taxes. This commonsense legislation makes school boards accountable to the residents in their districts. Could property taxes increase under SB 909? Yes, but school boards would have to make a compelling case to raise taxes—and voters would be given the opportunity to vote yes or no.
Act 1 in 2006 promised Pennsylvania voters access to tax hike referenda. However, Gov. Rendell pushed for nearly a dozen exceptions which excused school boards from actually facing voter approval. Since then, the Department of Education has approved 1,428 school districts for waivers from referenda, including 172 in 2015-16. It is common, too, for districts to receive multiple exceptions in the same year (pension obligations and special education costs are the most common).
Number of Districts Approved for Exceptions
SB 909 eliminates these exceptions and empowers taxpayers with control over local taxes. Currently, 34 other states require a school district to hold a referendum vote in order to approve the levy of school taxes or an increase in the tax rate.
Predictably, the requirement for voter referenda has been met with fierce resistance the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) and other staunch defenders of the educational status quo. PSBA executive direction Nathan Mains recently penned this piece, foreshadowing the dystopian world in which SB 909 passes and taxpayers are given a voice:
Scenario 1: In five years or less, school facilities will start to see the effects of no investment in their upkeep. Roofs start leaking because there is no money to fix them, buildings are overrun with weeds because maintenance staff were let go. Students are injured as ceiling tiles and drywall start to crumble.
Scenario 2: Pennsylvania student achievement rates over the next decade are compared to the results of Third World countries because the state has opted not to meet its financial obligation of funding public education and has instead left each community to its own devices.
Needless to say, the hysteria is reaching fever pitch. The central claim from the PSBA is that voters will always reject potential tax increases, forcing school districts to make draconian cuts. However, this flies in the face of the experience of other states which employ voter referenda.
Consider Ohio, where voters approved 85 of 101 potential increases to school taxes in 2015. Older data from New York, New Jersey, and Michigan tells the same story: Taxpayers approved more than half of all school budgets, tax increases, or bond issues.
Here’s the bottom line: Taxpayers are willing to raise their own taxes when districts demonstrate the need for additional revenue and a plan for responsible spending.
A budget agreement that shifts taxes without providing local control is a bad deal for taxpayers, who deserve a voice—especially given the astounding growth in property taxes since 2004. Even including the "relief" from slot machine revenue, passed in 2004, property taxes have grown by 34 percent.
In light of stagnating achievement among K-12 students, the last thing Pennsylvania should do is crack down on alternative educational options. Yet a growing chorus says 35,000 students enrolled in Pennsylvania's innovative cyber charter schools should be denied the educational experience that best suits their needs.
I recently submitted a letter to the editor to the Easton Express-Times on this subject:
A Stanford University study is the most recent catalyst for cyber school criticism, but the online education frontier is perpetually under fire in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, proposed massive cuts to online schools in his March budget address.
Remembering a few key points is critical when analyzing cyber school performance. First, there is no typical cyber charter student. Many children enroll in cyber schools after enduring bullying or unsafe conditions in a traditional school. Online education is often the only feasible alternative for students in a persistently failing district. What's more, cyber students typically enroll with substantial learning gaps that cannot be rectified in a single school year.
Just as traditional public schools vary, the online education network is diverse in course offerings and academic achievement. It would be a mistake to paint the entire sector with a broad brush.
A charter reform bill, HB 530, currently awaits action in the state Senate. Notably, many cyber charter leaders are supportive of the legislation. Increased accountability for public schools—all public schools, not merely cyber—is a reasonable policy goal with bipartisan support.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the crucial void filled by Pennsylvania’s cyber schools. Singling out cyber schools with Wolf's punitive cuts—and treating these students as second-class citizens—does not serve the best interests of Pennsylvania families desperate for choice and opportunity.