The second lowest-performing school district in Pennsylvania is asking for more time to improve but refusing recommended reforms. Unfortunately, more time is not something students and families in York City can afford.
October 13, 2014, HARRISBURG, Pa.—New research from the Commonwealth Foundation reveals that for years York City students have suffered in some of Pennsylvania’s worst-achieving public schools—second to last in the state to be exact. That’s despite a steady rise in funding amounting to a 33 percent increase over ten years.
October 6, 2014, HARRISBURG, Pa.—Today, the state House will consider strengthening educational choice and opportunity for Pennsylvania students. Pending legislation would make it easier for businesses to contribute to two tax credit programs, making highly sought after scholarships more readily available for families across the state.
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In many respects, Pennsylvania is a pioneer of school choice. With 173 charter schools—14 of which are cyber charters—and two scholarship tax credit programs, the commonwealth is the envy of choice advocates across the country. But as we recognize and celebrate National School Choice Week, more can be done to ensure that each Pennsylvania child has the opportunity to reach her full potential.
As Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) weighs the application of 40 charter schools—many of which have an impressive track record of serving city students—House speaker Mike Turzai is optimistic that multiple new charters will be granted permission to open in Philadelphia:
We are very hopeful that when the final decisions get made that a significant number of the charter applicants are approved.
During the most recent school year, the average Philadelphia charter school outperformed traditional public schools on the Pennsylvania State Performance Profile. What makes this even more impressive is that charter schools spend and receive fewer dollars per student than their district counterparts. Given the academic success of the charter sector, as well as the sizeable demand for schools of choice, the SRC should approve the highest-performing applicants and allow more Philadelphia families to reap the benefits of choice.
In Pennsylvania, school districts are tasked with authorizing new charter applications. This arrangement makes it difficult for even the highest quality charter schools to open new buildings. School districts are fully aware that by approving a new charter school they are essentially approving a new competitor. In order to realign incentives to promote great schools, lawmakers should pursue statewide or university authorizers for charters.
The commonwealth is the first state in the country to enact an education scholarship tax credit aimed at corporations. Thanks to the passage of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program in 2001, more than 430,000 scholarships have been awarded to students from low- and middle-income families seeking better, safer schools.
Scholarship tax credit programs exist in a dozen states, and Pennsylvania is one of only three states to have multiple programs. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted its second tax credit program—the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). This program is reserved for low-income students residing in the geographic boundaries of the lowest-achieving public schools in Pennsylvania.
In 2013-14, the OSTC provided more than 7,000 scholarships. Legislation passed late last fall streamlined and simplified the application process for both tax credit programs, which should lead to even greater participation in coming years.
The EITC is capped at $100 million—with $60 million reserved specifically for K-12 scholarships—while the OSTC is capped at $50 million. Lawmakers should look to increase these caps and provide more scholarships—at a savings for taxpayers—to students in need.
Education savings accounts (ESA) are another innovative policy for Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider as a complement to the tax credit programs. ESAs, which have been implemented in Arizona and Florida, could allow parents to deposit their tax credit scholarship funds into a savings account that can be spent with more flexibility.
Instead of reserving the funds strictly for scholarships, ESAs allow parents to purchase textbooks, tutoring services, online courses, curriculum materials, standardized tests, educational therapies, and other approved items. Unspent ESA funds roll over from one year to the next and can be eventually used to pay for college tuition. Lawmakers supportive of the EITC and OSTC should look at ESAs as the logical next step for school choice in Pennsylvania.
Of the 40 applications for new charter schools in Philadelphia, surely a few should not be approved by the School Reform Commission (SRC). Each individual applicant has its own strengths, weaknesses, and visions for expanding educational opportunity. It seems reasonable that some schools receive a green-light while others are turned away.
According to a report from Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), however, all 40 charter applicants should be flatly rejected. Why? Because they will be too popular and attract too many students.
The charter slots requested could grow total charter enrollment to 104,642 students or approximately 51 percent of the District’s total enrollment. Nationally, Philadelphia ranks 3rd highest for percentage of students who are enrolled in charter schools, trailing only New Orleans and Detroit.
Clearly there is a reason why so many students are fleeing the traditional schooling model in Philadelphia. Yet defenders of the education status-quo want to force these families to remain trapped in an unsatisfactory system.
PCCY also bemoans that only 40 percent of the schools currently operated by applicants for new charters exceeded a score 70 on the 2013 Department of Education State Performance Profile (SPP). The report fails to mention that the 2013 average district SPP score was 57.5. This means that roughly 70 percent of the schools currently operated by new charter applicants exceed the district’s average SPP score.
The SRC is tasked with selecting the best applicants in a city desperate for more choice and better options. Rather than following PCCY's lead and stubbornly lumping all charter schools into the same group, each applicant should be evaluated on its own merit.
Policymakers made significant strides over the past legislative session to increase school choice, save taxpayers from waste and abuse in unemployment compensation, and protect students. While critical reforms remain, it's worth celebrating these policy victories from the past legislative session.
Six Policy Victories in the 2013-2014 Legislative Session
1. Banned the practice of "passing the trash." Act 168 of 2014 prevents teachers accused of abuse from quietly resigning and relocating to a new school without having to inform that new school of their alleged misconduct. The law also strengthens the background check process and prohibits school districts from entering into "confidentiality agreements" that suppress abuse allegations. Commonwealth Foundation supported ending this disturbing practice while government unions took a neutral position.
2. Reduced the state debt ceiling. In 2013, lawmakers reduced the total amount of debt allowed under RACP (Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program) by $600 million. Act 77 of 2013 also provides greater accountability, oversight and transparency regarding how RACP grants are awarded.
RACP uses borrowed money—paid back by taxpayers with interest—for "economic development" projects, or corporate welfare. We’ve regularly exposed the most controversial uses of RACP funds, such as the Arlen Specter Library, Tastykake's corporate headquarters, numerous sports stadiums, and a $3 million grant to the Second Mile, the charity founded by convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky. An effort to further reduce the RACP debt limit to $2.95 billion passed the state House in 2014, but stalled in the Senate.
3. Strengthened school choice for children and their parents. Lawmakers consolidated the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) into one statute, while simplifying and streamlining the application process. This also allows unused credits to be shifted from one scholarship program to another. Thanks to Act 194 of 2014, more credits will be utilized and thousands more scholarships can serve as a lifeline to students trapped in failing schools. Commonwealth Foundation has consistently pushed for greater school choice options, including the creation of the OSTC.
4. Reformed taxes for small businesses and more. Lawmakers enacted some tax reform last session with Act 52 of 2013. Lawmakers increased the Net Operating Loss (NOL) Cap, created a new deduction for small start-up businesses, and exempted family-owned businesses from the inheritance tax. While Commonwealth Foundation has advocated for broad-based tax reform, these measures are a step in the right direction towards lessening the tax burden on job creators.
5. Protected jobs for Pennsylvanians in the energy field. New EPA regulations require expensive, unproven technologies that would kill jobs and bankrupt companies. Commonwealth Foundation has documented how destructive these new regulations are to existing PA jobs. Act 175 of 2014 preserves state control of the energy industry by allowing the state legislature to publicly reject a state carbon emissions plan.
6. Ended "triple-dipping" for government employees. Act 75 of 2013 stops former state employees from receiving both retirement and unemployment benefits. The law ends "triple-dipping," where an individual retires and collects a public pension or private retirement benefit and then temporarily returns to work, only to collect unemployment compensation when leaving the job. This one change will reap an estimated million dollars in savings this fiscal year.
Milestones of Note
Liquor Privatization Progress. Three Pennsylvania governors have attempted to privatize the liquor store system. In 2013, for the first time in state history, the PA House passed a bill that would end the government liquor store monopoly. Commonwealth Foundation has pushed for full liquor privatization by exposing the contradictory mission and gross carelessness of the PLCB. Lawmakers can build upon this historic accomplishment in the new session.
Awareness and Advocacy for Paycheck Protection. In 2014, thanks to lawmakers and teachers speaking out through CF's Free to Teach project, a version of paycheck protection passed committees in both the House and Senate. In the new session, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to finish what they started and pass paycheck protection, now known as Mary’s law.
Pension Reform Progress. Legislation to put new state employees and school teachers into a defined-contribution retirement plan (like a 401k) passed committees in both the state House and Senate. Government union leaders, defending the status quo, prevented these bills from coming up for a vote. For years the Commonwealth Foundation touted the merits of defined contribution retirement plans and warned about the impending crisis in public pensions—that crisis is now reality.
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.