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.
This afternoon, Philadelphia families who have endured enrollment lotteries and thousand-student waiting lists may finally be granted more education options, as Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission will rule on 39 pending applications for new charter schools.
Pennsylvania ranks among the nation’s leaders in education spending per student. Although spending levels are high, the system for distributing state funding is outdated. Weighted student funding (WSF) is a method for distributing education dollars that promotes fairness and transparency.
Today, Governor Wolf unveiled his plan to impose a natural gas severance tax on Pennsylvania’s most promising industry to boost funding for public schools. He, unfortunately, rehashed disproven campaign rhetoric on a mythical $3 billion in education funding cuts under his predecessor Gov. Corbett to justify his plan.
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When you purchase a good or service—be it a cheeseburger, a pair of shoes, or a car wash—how do you evaluate its quality? Do you consider the outputs—whether the service lived up to its billing and satisfied your demand—or do you focus solely on inputs—how much money was spent to create the good?
In the realm of public education, inputs are king while outputs are largely ignored. Education advocates typically focus solely on dollars spent instead of academic progress. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that education spending continues to steadily increase while achievement stagnates.
Can you think of any other industry or enterprise that is judged on inputs, instead of results?
This singular emphasis on inputs is exemplified in a proposal from the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, which seeks an additional $3.6 billion in state education spending over the next eight years. Given the Commonwealth’s financial outlook, this proposal should be a non-starter.
A massive spending increase is not a means to improve educational quality; it is a means to boost educational inputs. Higher-quality schools require a different approach—one that expands choice, protects and rewards the best teachers, and empowers local school leaders.
The Campaign for Fair Education Funding—comprising a few dozen union, business, and issue advocacy groups—seeks to influence Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission, a body of lawmakers and state officials that will offer recommendations to the General Assembly in the next few months.
The purpose of the Funding Commission is to develop a more rational, equitable method to distribute current funding levels. It is not tasked with recommending higher funding levels—let alone a 63 percent increase in the Basic Education subsidy.
Commission member Rep. Donna Oberlander said as much last August:
This Commission’s charge is not to study so called adequate levels of basic education funding. The responsibility of determining a funding level belongs to the General Assembly and is based each year on overall state revenues. This Commission cannot tie the General Assembly to funding targets.
The Campaign for Fair Education Funding did embrace elements of weighted student funding (WSF), which, in a vaccuum, is a good thing. The Commonwealth Foundation has long advocated for WSF as a solution to Pennsylvania’s outdated education funding system—but WSF should be implemented in a revenue-neutral fashion. Instead of a $3.6 billion tax increase, pure WSF distributes current funding levels more equitably and transparently.
Above all else, WSF ensures that state dollars truly follow each student. Currently, if a Pennsylvania student moves from one district to another, state funding does not follow the child to her new school. This must change, if Pennsylvania is to begin to funding students instead of systems.
The plan was for Hudson to attend public school in Philadelphia—at least for one year. But after Andy, Hudson’s father, visited their neighborhood school, Horatio Hackett, he wanted something different for his soon-to-be kindergartner. Could classical school be a better fit for Hudson?
At first, a private classical education didn’t seem like the most practical option for a 5 year-old. As far as Andy knew, classical education entailed speaking Latin. Sure, he was intrigued by Philadelphia Classical School (PCS)—a small, private school on the corner of 11th and Vine Street in Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood. Andy heard good things about PCS, but would his family be able afford private school tuition?
Andy considered charter schools but found the enrollment process intimidating. Plus, he was concerned that Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission might crack down on charters in the coming years.
Thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), Andy and his wife learned they could enroll Hudson in PCS.
Reserved for students in Pennsylvania's lowest-performing public schools, the OSTC provides hope in largely hopeless situations. The program has helped thousands of students escape failing schools. Both the OSTC and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) allow businesses to contribute to private scholarships in exchange for tax credits, so students like Hudson can receive high quality education.
More than halfway through his first year at PCS, Hudson excels in the classroom. His favorite subject is “handwriting,” he’s becoming proficient at reading, and he regularly impresses his father with knowledge of history.
“How does a kindergartner know about Mesopotamia?” Andy asks incredulously. He’s also blown away that Hudson can recite all 44 U.S. presidents in chronological order.
PCS opened in the fall of 2013. It’s a small school—serving 38 students from 29 families—but plans to expand, according to Ross Hatton, Head of School, and Katharine Savage, founder, at PCS. While the school’s mission is Christ-centered, not all families share the same religious background. Some are non-religious, others are Mormon or follow orthodox traditions. Many students are second-generation immigrants, and the PCS student body speaks six different languages at home.
The full cost of PCS tuition is $12,145, though most students pay significantly less. In fact, 40 percent of seats are reserved for low-income students, and the average cost for each family is $4,500. PCS provided over $250,000 in financial aid during the current school year, including nearly $30,000 through Pennsylvania’s EITC and OSTC programs.
PCS worked with Hudson’s family to find a suitable tuition arrangement. Hudson received an Opportunity Scholarship to cover 75 percent of the cost—and a private donor pitched in to pay the remaining balance.
Just as no parent is turned away for inability to pay, no prospective student is turned away for lack of academic ability. The current kindergarten class has a wide range of skills—some students could read before the first day of school, while others came to PCS without basic understanding of the alphabet.
PCS is not “skimming” from public schools; its mission is to be part of a revitalization of education in Philadelphia. Indeed the school is breaking down economic and social barriers to build a stronger community.
PCS regularly organizes family events, such as pot-luck dinners and ice skating. Parents even launched a Google Hangout Group where families can ask questions and discuss issues unrelated to school. Where’s the best place to buy children’s pants that won’t rip at the knees? Can anyone recommend a babysitter? These are all questions that families discuss online.
For Andy, “it was very important that PCS be a school for the city, not a fortress from the city.” He urges other parents to “be part of the solution” to public education and community involvement, “but don’t sacrifice your own kids to that solution.”
Jess Scott, mother of PCS second grader Maggie, shared Andy’s concerns about walling herself off from traditional public schools but wouldn't "sacrifice her kids to an ideology." According to Jess, “PCS saved our family” and is a “gift to our kids.” The Scotts live in University Place, but cannot afford typical private school tuition. Jess had to go back to work just to afford PCS’s discounted rate.
It’s obvious that families truly care for one another at PCS. There is no better example than one family who anonymously paid for another student’s school uniform. “I wanted to make Saniyah feel supported and encouraged,” the mom explained. The family purchased Saniyah’s uniforms for the current year and then made a pledge to continue this practice for the rest of Saniyah's career at PCS. Recently the family moved to New York, but they intend to keep their promise to Saniyah. “We’re always looking for ways to serve and this was something we could do. We made a commitment.”
Thanks to Hatton and Savage's vision, as well as the EITC and OSTC programs, PCS occupies a unique space in Philadelphia: A classical school that strengthens communities, brings families together, and offers hope for a brighter future.
The long, frustrating wait continues for Philadelphia families desperate for educational opportunity.
Last Wednesday, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) rejected 34 of 39 charter school applicants. Five charters were approved, albeit with substantial restrictions and conditions. Each approved school must enroll significantly fewer students than it requested, and each school received a three year charter instead of the customary five year agreement.
All of the approved applicants currently operate high performing charters in Philadelphia: Independence Charter School West, KIPP Dubois, MaST Community Roosevelt Campus, Mastery Gillespie Campus and TECH-Freire. Each operator runs a school with a School Performance Profile score exceeding 70 (the district average is 56.8) and substantial enrollment of low-income students. In other words, their students outperform Philadelphia's traditional public schools, even though they spend fewer dollars per-pupil.
These are exactly the type of innovative, successful models that district leaders should promote and encourage. Independence, KIPP, MaST and Mastery sought to open a combined nine new schools—yet only four were accepted, and each with strings attached. For example, MaST's Roosevelt application intended to enroll 1,575 students in the first year, but the SRC is limiting them to 400 seats.
These approved schools will provide life-changing opportunity for approximately 2,600 students over the next four years. Sadly, though, tens of thousands of other Philadelphia students remain trapped in schools they’re seeking to leave.
Opponents of expanded choice in Philadelphia decry “fixed costs” as the main reason to block new charters, but the district is already revising down the projected charter school price tag—despite continuing to use the disputed $7,000 per-pupil stranded costs estimate.
Jerry Jordan, president of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, criticized the SRC for approving any charters whatsoever. Jordan also thanked SRC member Marjorie Neff for voting against all 39 applicants.
What’s the next step for denied charter schools? Appeal. For the first time in 14 years denied applicants can petition the State Charter Appeal Board to reverse the SRC’s decision. According to Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, the seven-member Board may not consider the financial impact a proposed charter will have on the district, which should allow each school to be evaluated on the merits of its application alone.
Given the strength of many Philadelphia applicants, perhaps there is reason to be optimistic about a favorable appellate ruling. In the short term, however, school choice remains out of reach for far too many Philadelphia families.
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.