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.
Academic failure, school violence, and financial mismanagement have been the dubious hallmarks of the School District of Philadelphia for decades. In that time, there has been one constant actor fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain the unacceptable status quo in Philadelphia’s education system: the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
In a blow to education reform in Philadelphia, the Commonwealth Court ruled that Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission did not have the power to cancel the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract last year, preventing an estimated $200 million from reaching classrooms over the next four years. About the ruling PFT Presiden
As a teacher, a father of kids in public schools, and a taxpayer, I urge all our elected officials to join me in standing up for what’s right. Pass a paycheck protection law and restore fairness and transparency to the collective bargaining table, and do it now.
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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.
Michigan teacher Jim Perialas has an unusual story. In 2012 his school, Roscommon Area School District, became the first in decades to decertify (or leave) the state-wide Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the National Education Association (NEA) to form a local-only, independent union.
Jim readily admits he’s not anti-union, “unions do good and bad things . . . but I still think they should play a role in the workplace.” So, why did teachers at Roscommon want to leave the MEA? They were simply frustrated by the undemocratic, expensive, and secretive state union. “We talk about the lack of a voice . . . there is a so-called democratic process, but really it’s not,” explains Jim.
And as Nathan Benefield blogged on this date last year, most teachers’ union members never hear from state and national union officials. It’s no wonder teachers are looking for better options.
Going local wasn’t easy. Jim warns that any district considering the local option needs to be united and prepared to withstand immense pressure from the state union, but the rewards can be worth it.
Today, members of the independent Roscommon Teachers Association have seen their dues decrease from $980 to $600 a year and members still have access to grievance support and other services. Most importantly, members have local control and can clearly see how their money is being spent.
Hear about the challenges Jim and his fellow teachers faced during the decertification process in our latest podcast.
The school district of Philadelphia saw a $1 billion increase in revenue over the past decade, even as enrollment declined. Yet many claim there isn't enough funding for basic classrooms supplies. The question is: Where is the money going if not into the classroom?
1. Union Leader Salaries
The PFT forces teachers to pay more than $700 for the average teacher each year in dues (or more than $500 in fair share fees to keep their jobs). Teachers never see that money as it is deducted from their paycheck just like taxes.
At the same time, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, makes an astounding $550,000 a year off of teachers' dues. In fact, AFT has more than 200 staffers making more than $100,000 in compensation, according to the Center for Union Facts.
Without such high dues, teachers could keep more of their salary and higher take home pay would help attract high quality teachers.
2. Political Spending
Philadelphia teacher union dues are being spent on political ads at the rate of $70,000 per minute. PFT ran two 30-second TV ads during an Eagles football game attacking Governor Corbett and select lawmakers. The cost of those two ads alone were $35,000 each, according to records filed with the FCC.
Nationally, the AFT spent more money on elections this year than ever before, including a gift of $500,000 from teachers’ union dues to fund attack ads via a “SuperPAC.” This money could buy countless classroom supplies the union claims Philadelphia schools lack. The teacher’s union’s actions indicate leadership is more concerned with playing politics than providing resources to struggling teachers and students.
3. Administrative Costs
The School District of Philadelphia has among the highest administrative costs in the state. In 2012-13, Philadelphia had a higher administrator to student ratio than the average Pennsylvania school district. In addition, the average administrator salary is $129,573, which ranks in the top 25 most generous school districts in Pennsylvania. These high overhead costs focus resources on adults instead of kids.
4. Health Care Costs
This past fall, for the first time, Philadelphia teachers were asked to contribute a portion of their salary towards health care premiums, a request made of teachers in every other Pennsylvania school district save one. With this change, approximately $54 million could go directly to classrooms if teachers begin to contribute just a percentage of their own health care costs. The School Reform Commission proposed teachers pay between 5 and 13 percent of their health care costs. That is about half of the 23 percent the average Pennsylvanian pays towards employer sponsored family coverage.
Former Governor Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board all agree with the necessity for reasonable concessions—but the PFT refuses to compromise. Without these savings, more teacher layoffs will be necessary.
5. PFT Health and Welfare Fund
Apart from health insurance, the school district contributes to the PFT Health and Welfare Fund. This entity, controlled by the PFT, provides supplemental benefits, such as dental and vision, along with a wide variety of other programs, such as term life insurance and an annual educational conference.
By simply ending the PFT’s monopoly control over these benefits, and selecting a high-quality benefit provider in the marketplace, the school district would save an estimated $22.4 million. Teachers will still receive these benefits with the savings would being directed back into the classroom for the benefit of students.
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.