Last month, families from across Pennsylvania waited anxiously to hear if they had finally won the lottery. But these hopeful parents weren’t looking to win the MegaMillions—they were hoping for the chance at enrolling their children in a better and safer school.
The major problems we need to address with charter school funding aren’t specific to charter schools but are inherent in our system of education funding and spending. I suggest that instead of singling out charter schools we reexamine our entire system of funding public education.
Given our still-sputtering economy, Americans have grown used to their public schools facing tight budgets. This fiscal squeeze has drawn out a hidden crisis in public education: How do we keep our best teachers in the classroom? The short answer is, we don't.
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Pennsylvania education spending is at at all-time high and ranks near the top in dollars spent per student among the states. But all of that extra spending isn't helping kids succeed.
In fact, SAT scores have declined while spending has soared. According to a new Cato Institute analysis, Pennsylvania students perform worse, on average, on the SATs now compared to 1972, despite an almost 120 percent increase—adjusted for inflation—in spending per student. See the chart below.
How are we spending so much more without improving education outcomes? The answer is simple: There is no correlation between spending and achievement. How the money is spent is more important than how much money there is to spend. The Cato analysis finds the correlation between state spending and academic achievement is not significant:
Correlations are measured on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 represents absolutely no correlation
between two data series and 1 represents a perfect correlation. Anything below 0.3 or 0.4 is
considered a weak correlation. The 0.075 figure reported here suggests that there is essentially no link between state education spending (which has exploded) and the performance of students at the end of high school (which has generally stagnated or declined).
The answer to our education woes is not more spending, but smarter spending. Education reform should also mean protecting high performing teachers, embracing different education models (themed public charter schools or public cyber charter schools) to serve different learning styles, and reforming the archaic student funding formula.
School choice and competition is the key to saving students, not never-ending spending increases.
The bipartisan education reform group, StudentsFirst, released its annual State Policy Report Card grading each state's education policies and demonstrating the need for more student-centered reforms.
How did Pennsylvania fare? Well, we got a D+.
However, other states didn't fare much better as “D+” was the national average. StudentsFirst assessed each state’s education policies on three criteria: elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents, and whether or not a state spends wisely and governs well. Pennsylvania did not score above a “C” in any of these categories.
Why did Pennsylvania score so low, and how can it improve?
Elevate the Teaching Profession (C-): Pennsylvania made progress in this pillar by instituting a new teacher evaluation system, called the Teacher Effectiveness System. The profile is designed to effectively identify teachers who are excelling, while providing support to those teachers who need improvement. To improve, StudentsFirst suggests ending the practice of making employment decisions based only on seniority, which harms both teachers and students.
Empower Parents (D-): Pennsylvania has not done enough to empower parents to make informed educational choices for their children. The state should implement an A-F grading system, building on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, to provide parents with an easy-to-understand way to assess each school, and hold schools more accountable. Supporting the growth of high-performing public charter schools would also go a long way in empowering parents.
If policymakers are looking for the most effective way to empower parents, they should consider expanding educational tax credits and scholarships, which would rescue children from violent and failing schools. Not only would an expansion empower parents, but it would save taxpayers money and improve educational outcomes.
Spend Wisely and Govern Well (C): While Pennsylvania spends more than $14,000 per student, we have not seen the kind of positive results expected from such a large investment. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), more than half of 4th and 8th grade students are not proficient in reading and math. In order to make more effective use of taxpayer resources, StudentsFirst suggests linking spending to student outcomes, creating a statewide recovery district for low-performing schools and providing teachers with a portable retirement plan.
Despite the nation's "D+" grade, progress is being made, as StudentFirst notes:
The second takeaway is that change is still happening much too slowly. Instead of passing a comprehensive set of education policies, far too many states are taking a piecemeal approach. Other states appear to employ an on-again, off-again approach to education, focusing heavily on education reform one year, then taking a pass on putting any complementary policies into place the next year.
Any progress is welcome, but states need to pick up the pace on reform. The longer reform is put off, the more children will suffer from sub-par education in failing schools. Their future depends on education reform.
Philadelphia schools have long battled declining student achievement, sky-rocketing violence, and unsustainable spending levels. Yet, several turn-around schools have managed to overcome this bleak educational trajectory and should serve as a model for further reforms.
Pennsylvania Independent’s Maura Pennington examines the striking consequences of Philadelphia School District’s 2010 experiment in reforming its lowest performing schools. The district employed two models: district-managed Promise Academies and privately-operated Renaissance Charter Schools.
The outcome? In short, things worsened for district-run schools, but the Renaissance Charter alternatives are showing improvement.
The latest report shows that the district’s Promise Academies lacked proper oversight and clarity as they sought to hire new staff and enforce a uniform dress code. One major hurdle they could not overcome was seniority requirements, which led to major staffing problems. And the district’s fiscal mismanagement led to funding decreases that severed the cornerstone of the reform—greater student instruction time.
At this point, three district-run Promise Academy high schools have closed, and in those that remain, academic performance sits below the district average.
Renaissance Charter Schools—free from seniority requirements and other bureaucratic restrictions—managed to surmount the same obstacles and forge a path to success. When implementing new policies and procedures, they were governed by specific missions and goals and, consequently, achieved, according to one Renaissance Charter parent, “more order, organization, safer learning environment and a mutually agreed upon commitment from the staff at all levels.”
The benefits are tangible:
- Decreased violence. At Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, serious safety incidents plummeted from 23.86 per 100 students in 2008-09 to .61 in 2010.
- Increased academic achievement: Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School gained 10 percentage points in reading and math proficiency one year after the change.
With such stark results and parental support, Philadelphia should look to the charter model of reform to take its failing schools to the next level.
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Happy Tax Freedom Day! It took from January 1 until today for Pennsylvanians to have earned enough income to pay off their federal, state, and local taxes for the year. This year, Pennsylvania’s Tax Freedom Day falls on the same day as the national average, April 21. In 2011, Pennsylvania marked ...