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 have 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.
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.
August 26, 2014, HARRISBURG, Pa.—Nearly three-quarters of Pennsylvania voters underestimate the amount the state spends on education, according to a poll released today by the Commonwealth Foundation. And, in a stinging rebuke to the status quo, 53 percent of those polled grade Pennsylvania’s public school system a D or F overall when informed of student achievement levels.
Like any other group of professionals, teachers are a diverse lot, holding vastly differing social, cultural, and political views. So why is it that they’re lumped together and forced to join state and national teachers’ unions that often don’t reflect local teachers’ concerns?
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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.
Yesterday, we released a new poll showing just how confused voters are about state education spending levels and the results that money is buying.
When 54% of voters say they would not be personally willing to pay higher taxes to increase education funding, other solutions like pension reform and school choice must be considered.
To discuss the poll details and what can be done to improve our public education system—without raising taxes—CF's Matt Brouillette joined WSBA's The Gary Sutton Show.
The Gary Sutton Show airs daily on WSBA 910AM in the York area.
Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.
Yet another common refrain—even among those who admit state spending has increased, which it certainly has—is that new expenditures are not "showing up in the classroom." In other words, school districts are hamstrung by pension costs and have to make cuts in other areas.
This point does indeed carry water.
Take a look at how Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) contributions have skyrocketed over the last five years in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state's two largest districts. We can also project the coming costs for 2013-14 and 2014-15 using the mandated contribution rates for those respective years.
In Pittsburgh, pension payments rose from $11 million in 2008-09 to $26 million in 2012-13, and an estimated $45 million in 2014-15. In Philadelphia, payments rose from $42 million to more than $101 million, and will reach $175 million this coming school year.
The statewide retirement contribution trend tells the same story. From 2008-09 to 2012-13—a span of just five years—statewide PSERS costs nearly tripled. Estimated payments for this year are about 5 times what they were in 2008-09.
With contribution rates continuing to rise, the fiscal outlook only grows more ominous in the years ahead.
To put this in perspective, consider how these costs compare to teachers' salaries. Pension costs from all public schools will have risen by approximately $1.9 billion from 2008-09 to 2014-15. Given that the average teacher salary is $63,500, that increase in pension payments equals the salary of 30,400 public school teachers.
The bottom line is that Pennsylvania faces a genuine pension crisis. School districts are simply running out of options. Even increased education revenue will not be able to offset the growing retirement costs.
Responsible pension reform is the best way to ensure that future education funding truly finds its way into the classroom.
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.