Pennsylvania school districts spent $27.4 billion in 2014-15, an all-time high, according to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This represents a $1.3 billion increase from 2013-14.
Districts spent nearly $16,000 per student in 2014-15, up from $15,019 in 2013-14. Total education spending steadily increased over the last five years, save for 2011-12 upon the expiration of temporary federal stimulus dollars.
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?
As the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court hears a challenge to the state’s school funding formula today, at issue is the power of the judiciary as well as the truth about Pennsylvania’s education funding.
School district reserves total $4.3 billion statewide. When cries for more school funding—and property tax increases—are constant, how much is too much to hold in reserve?
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Intrepid reporter Kristen Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer unearthed several details from contract negotiations between the school district of Philadelphia and the local teachers’ union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). Currently, the district is operating under the most recent labor contract, which expired three years ago. Per Graham, the district proposed a $100 million offer—despite facing a $500 million shortfall by 2021:
The deal would include restoration of "step" increases, or pay bumps for years of experience. It would also include incentive bonuses over the life of the four-year pact for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, and it would give raises to teachers now at the top of the pay scale, according to sources familiar with the talks.
For union leaders, health care concessions have long been a sticking point:
The deal on the table would also require teachers to begin contributing toward their health-care costs. They do not currently pay toward those premiums.
That the district insists on teachers paying something toward health premiums is promising. These contributions are commonplace in the private sector and among public employees.
Notably, the district prefers to fill teacher vacancies with the best available candidates, not simply the teacher with the most seniority. This irks PFT President Jerry Jordan:
All future teacher vacancies would be filled by "site selection" rather than seniority, giving principals and school communities the power to hire candidates based on fit rather than be forced to accept them based just on experience.
Jordan called that proposal "very disrespectful to members." Now, principals can remove teachers from buildings not for performance, but for "compelling reasons," a practice he said sometimes results in unfair treatment.
Hite said that universal site selection has generated real improvements in schools and that it would be better to put processes in place to deal with potential unfair treatment than to scrap the system.
How strange that an organization billing itself as serving students’ best interests would defy reforms that staff classrooms with the most qualified candidates. Nevertheless, the union is not responding warmly to the district’s offer. Jordan says he will not even take it to his members for consideration.
Where do negotiations go from here? It’s difficult to predict. Graham quotes a source who described the union’s counter-offer as “fiscally irresponsible and completely unworkable,” which doesn’t instill confidence in a quick resolution.
It would be illuminating to know more about the terms of each side’s proposal, but unfortunately these negotiations take place behind closed doors, without taxpayer input. All the more reason for enhanced contract transparency at the local level.
The moral argument for school choice is irrefutable: Every child deserves access to a first-rate education. Families should not be limited by the supply of public schools within artificially-drawn district boundaries. This is why Pennsylvania’s private scholarship programs, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), are so important. They empower thousands of children each year to break free of the education-by-zip code injustice and instead attend a school that best fits their unique needs.
It is not just scholarship recipients, however, who benefit from tax credit programs. Taxpayers, too, realize massive savings thanks to school choice. This according to The Tax-Credit Scholarship Audit, an essential new report from the team at EdChoice.
Author Marty Lueken’s analysis of Pennsylvania’s EITC program finds roughly $1.3 billion in taxpayer savings between 2002 and 2014. The report, which does not examine the OSTC, compares the cost of an EITC scholarship with the variable costs of each student enrolled in traditional public schools.
Crucially, Lueken estimates and accounts for students who switch from public to private schools as a result of the scholarship program. These are the students who generate the highest savings to taxpayers. The report estimates between 26 and 45 percent of scholarship recipients must have switched from public schools in order for the program to be fiscally neutral—certainly a reasonable and achievable projection.
What’s the bottom line? Say you’re pleased with your local public school. Perhaps you never thought twice about the state’s scholarship program, and you don’t have strong feelings about school choice one way or another. If you’re a Pennsylvania taxpayer, you have still benefited from the EITC.
All the more reason to increase the program and provide more scholarships to families.
Pennsylvania’s private school scholarship programs account for less than 2 percent of the $11 billion in state funds allocated for public schools. Yet it is impossible to overstate the significance of these programs for children and families.
Kevin McCorry of Newsworks tells the story of Thomas Short, a parent in South Philadelphia, who can send his sons to private school thanks to the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs:
The only way he's able to afford Catholic school tuition is because he takes advantage of a scholarship program that's funded by state tax credits. Tuition for two children normally runs north of $9,000 per year.
With the scholarship, he pays just $1,500.
"Without this, [they're] not going here," he said.
According to Mr. Short, St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary is a better option than the traditional district school:
Short's perception of the nearby neighborhood public schools is low.
"They're not trying to develop the person as much as just trying to get them through to the next grade," he said. "I don't know why I'm saying that. It's just my opinion. Maybe that's how the public schools used to be back in the day when I went."
If House Speaker Mike Turzai has his way, the EITC and OSTC will see a sizable boost during the next fiscal year. Speaker Turzai recently released a co-sponsorship memo for legislation increasing the caps on how much businesses may donate to both programs—up from $175 million to $250 million.
This, on the heels of a $25 million EITC increase last July, would be welcome news for families and schoolchildren across the commonwealth.
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