LNP/LancasterOnline. July 23, 2023

Editorial: Accountability needed before spending millions in taxpayer money on private-school tuition vouchers in Pennsylvania

This is what we don’t understand: Republicans often refer to low-achieving public schools.

But they continue to resist funding public schools equitably, even after Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer — who ran for the bench as a Republican — ruled in a landmark case earlier this year that students in “economically disadvantaged” schools were being deprived of the “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” education guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Republicans often pontificate about the need for government to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly. But they seem eager to pour vast sums into private education without demanding accountability from private schools.

The Pennsylvania Award for Student Success program’s price tag is lofty. What would we get for that money?

We don’t know. Because Republicans don’t seem interested in building transparency requirements into proposals that boost school choice. Consider the contentious and continuing debate in Harrisburg over enacting stricter accountability standards for cybercharter schools.

This private-school tuition voucher program would be new. But the commonwealth’s existing educational tax credit program serves to illustrate the problem with funneling taxpayer dollars to private education.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit provide tax breaks — capped at $280 million annually — to businesses that contribute to nonprofits offering private-school tuition scholarships.

These educational tax credits are championed by school choice supporters as helping students in low-achieving school districts — though only the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit has that specific aim.

Last year, the nonpartisan newsroom Spotlight PA reported that the commonwealth’s educational tax credit program “operates with little accountability and lacks even the most basic data to determine if it’s actually effective.”

Spotlight PA continued: “The failures are not the result of poor oversight but rather an explicit effort by lawmakers to limit the information that is collected about the tax credit program.”

report from the state’s Independent Fiscal Office found that among the 19 states that operate similar programs, Pennsylvania offered one of the largest tax credits, but collected the least number of data on outcomes.

Additionally, that fiscal watchdog found that the educational tax credit program’s qualifying income limitations for scholarship recipients were higher than all other states with such limitations.

And compared to other states, the Independent Fiscal Office found, Pennsylvania had “the highest allowance for administrative and other costs. This reduces the number of scholarships available to students.”

The watchdog noted that due to “the statutory limits on data that may be collected” related to the educational tax credits, it was unable to determine if they “substantially” enhance educational opportunities for Pennsylvania students. And it was “not possible to comment on whether state funds have been used effectively due to lack of general and specific outcome data.”

Despite these issues, the educational tax credit program — enthusiastically supported by Republican legislative leaders — has grown to more than nine times its original size in its two decades of existence, Spotlight PA noted.

So much for small government.

And months after that 2022 report was issued, the Republican-led state Legislature approved an additional $125 million for the program — the largest one-time funding increase since the program’s inception in 2001.

For so-called fiscal conservatives, Pennsylvania GOP legislative leaders seem pretty lax when it comes to programs promoted by school choice advocates.

Which doesn’t bode well for taxpayers’ interests should yet another gift to the school choice movement be signed into state law.

We must ask: Where are the audits of the effectiveness of these programs? How do we know if the students given scholarships to attend private schools saw improved educational outcomes?

School choice advocate Libby Sternberg writes in today’s Perspective section that private schools lose students or even shut down if they fail. But that’s not a true measure of accountability. We should have some idea of what our taxpayer money will get us before lawmakers spend it.

And here’s the thing about private schools: Unlike public schools, they can be choosy about the students they accept — and retain.

As retired Hempfield School District superintendent Brenda J. Smoker wrote in a Sunday LNP ‘ LancasterOnline column last year, “Public schools are the only educational institutions that are charged with providing services to all students. Whether a student has multiple, significant disabilities, or is an English language learner, or depends on school nursing services to clear out feeding tubes, public schools must be responsible. No private or religious school is held to this same requirement.”

What happens when a student fails to thrive educationally at a private school? Is it back to public school for that student? Because the private school isn’t required to keep that student enrolled.

Wouldn’t ensuring that public schools can serve all students effectively be the better option? Because right now, we’re gambling — with taxpayer money — on school choice programs that we don’t even know are working.

Show us evidence — statistical, not anecdotal, evidence — that children in “low-achieving” public school districts have been helped by these existing programs before spending $100 million on a new school voucher program.

In her February ruling, Judge Jubelirer cited Benjamin Franklin, who observed that an “investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

But an investment needs to be sound. It needs to be made in an entity that is subject to public audits, scrutiny and oversight. It needs to hold the best chance of paying dividends to the greatest number of Pennsylvanians. Public schools — for all their flaws and challenges — remain the best bet.

Imagine how much better they’d be if Republican state lawmakers fought for them as hard as they fight for school choice.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 25, 2023

Editorial: Republicans, stop sulking and move the budget forward

We understand why Republicans are ticked off at Gov. Josh Shapiro for an awkward and uncharacteristic slip-up during negotiations on the state’s $46-billion budget. His pledge to line-item veto $100 million for a scholarship program for students to attend private schools, after agreeing to support it, left Republicans fuming. Making promises you can’t keep is no way to win friends in Harrisburg.

But it’s time for Senate Republicans to stop sulking and move a budget that both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House have passed. Before the spending bill can reach the governor’s desk, it must get a signature from the Senate, while it is in session, meaning Senate Republicans will have to reconvene in Harrisburg.

Without that signature, the state does not have an enacted budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which started July 1. That means the state cannot cut checks for vital services, including schools, county human services, drug and alcohol treatment, and kids in foster care.

Attempts by Senate Republicans to delay the budget by not completing a procedural step will gain them nothing, and it could hurt some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Special education money has already been held up.

Nor is there any chance Mr. Shapiro will change his mind again and not veto the scholarship fund money — a program he, unlike most Democrats, personally supports. Another flip-flop would just make him look weaker. Plus, his veto pledge was necessary to get the budget through the House.

Politically, the governor has already taken his lumps. His Superman’s cape has been torn. At this point, holding up the budget won’t make him look worse; it will only make Republicans look bad.

Negotiations on the so-called code bills, determining how the money is spent, could go on for months, especially for new state-funded programs such as indigent defense. But the state needs an enacted general appropriations bill now to cut the checks for programs the people of Pennsylvania depend on.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, a staunch supporter of the scholarship program, is the only person who can call the Senate back into session. She had said she has no plans to do so before Sept. 18, its next scheduled day.

On Sunday, however, she suggested, in an interview with abc27 news, that the Senate could reconvene in August. That’s an encouraging sign.

Make that very early August, Madame President. For the good of the people of Pennsylvania, it’s time to stop sulking and sign the budget.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. July 23, 2023

Editorial: Cyber charter reform needs to be about education, not politics

Education is a touchy subject in Pennsylvania.

There is the question of funding for state-related universities. There are the concerns about tuition; Penn State just opted to increase the cost of attending its main campus yet again. There are school vouchers. The tug of war over them is behind the state’s ongoing budget impasse.

And let’s not forget cyber charters.

These online institutions exist in an educational middle ground. They are public in the sense that any Pennsylvania child can enroll. They are operated by nonprofit organizations who come up with a plan and apply to a school district for approval. A student’s home district pays the school the cost of the education.

For parents who want different styles or focuses for education than they can get in their local district but can’t afford private schools, charters offer an affordable and sometimes innovative option. Cyber charters provide the added option of the flexibility and control of homeschooling with the structure of other teachers and supervision.

For those people who want school choice and vouchers, it’s a start. Others see dollars heading into non-district coffers as a loss to overall education in the state. Districts bristle at paying the bill; the 14 Pennsylvania cyber charters took about $1 billion in 2020-21, according to Spotlight PA.

A bill in the House is pushing to reform some of the ways cyber charters operate, including funding. Instead of a varying rate paid by each district, the proposed change would set a flat rate of $8,000 per student without special education needs. This makes sense as it shouldn’t cost the same cyber charter any more to provide an online education for a student from Franklin Regional than it does for one from New Kensington-Arnold.

The bill also addresses another sticking point: accountability. Where school boards are obligated to be open books with requirements for public meetings and transparency, cyber charters can be less straightforward. Cyber charters have recently come under fire for the amount of money spent not on teaching but on marketing and advertising.

It’s been 20 years since the rules that govern these schools were sketched out by the Legislature. Evaluating how the system works and what needs to be tweaked is smart.

But, like all those other education issues that are dividing Harrisburg, they need to be addressed with the best interests of the students and taxpayers in mind rather than the politics. There is too much of that in schools already.


Scranton Times-Tribune. July 22, 2023

Editorial: Legislative malpractice tolls for thee

Given the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s history of cost and corruption, it’s not easy for another government body to make it look good. But the state Legislature has risen to the challenge.

The commission announced this week that, in January, it will raise turnpike tolls for the 16th consecutive year. Due to the 5% increase, the most common auto toll will increase from $1.80 to $1.90 for drivers who use the E-ZPass system, and from $4.40 to $4.70 for others. (Increases round up to the nearest dime.)

But the commission has no choice due to legislative malpractice. Lawmakers in 2007 bungled an ill-advised effort to establish tolls on Interstate 80. Then, reasoning that massive toll increases that drivers would blame on the turnpike commission were better than tax increases that residents would blame on the Legislature, lawmakers required the turnpike to borrow $450 million a year for PennDOT and mass transit.

The commission’s debt is now about $17.2 billion, more than that for the rest of the state government. To pay it, the commission is committed to toll increases every year through 2057, even though the annual borrowing obligation has been reduced to $50 million.

Some lawmakers pay the tolls while driving to Harrisburg, but you pay those, too, through their expense reimbursements. They inflict toll pain without experiencing it.

Legislators should at least mitigate the blunder that their (mostly) predecessors made, to give a break to drivers and to keep the turnpike competitive.

They should find a dedicated funding source for mass transit, which receives the $50 million a year that the turnpike still must borrow. One potential source is gambling revenue, which has increased far faster than state projections due to massive growth in internet sports gambling. The state received $2.3 billion in gambling revenue in the recently ended fiscal year; some of that could go to transit.

Lawmakers also are in the process of devising a means of replacing fuel taxes with a per-mile tax to account for electric vehicles. They could calculate it to help diminish the turnpike debt.

Guaranteed annual 5% toll hikes are a surcharge on bad governance. The Legislature should stop ignoring the problem.


Uniontown Herald Standard. July 22, 2023

Editorial: Principal shortage signals another problem for education

The idea of being sent to the principal’s office has caused chills to go up the spine of many a student over the years. No one wants to go to there.

It turns out, according to a newly released Penn State study, that as much as students don’t want to be in the principal’s office, a number of principals aren’t exactly happy there either.

In the 2022-23 school year, 15.4% of principals in Pennsylvania schools left their jobs for other opportunities, according to the survey from the university’s Department of Education Policy Studies. That’s an increase of a little more than 4% over the 2021-22 academic year. It’s the highest rate of principal turnover in close to a decade, and matches the national rate. More principals are searching for the exits at the same time there’s been a much-publicized teacher exodus and a decreasing number of young people seeking to enter the profession.

And for those who believe charter schools are a cure-all for the ills of public schools, it’s worth noting that the rate of principal attrition at urban and suburban charter schools is even higher than at public schools, coming in at around 35% — that’s 1-in-3.

For all the fear principals can strike in the hearts of students, it’s easy to understand why many principals would want to seek out greener and less stressful pastures. Principals rise up through the ranks of educators, and they have to combine administrative acumen with classroom skills. Principals have to deal with personnel and students inside their buildings, parents and community members outside, and administrators above them. They attend school events, and work outside the office. With that kind of workload, who wouldn’t be tempted by the prospect of getting a job where the hours might be shorter and more predictable and the pay is better?

Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “It’s intensified to such a degree that it becomes not worth it for a lot of people. People are choosing their mental health, and when they can get out, they’re getting out.”

Ed Fuller, an associate professor in Penn State’s College of Education, told the Inquirer, “I would argue principal turnover is more important than teacher turnover. One of the really important ways to address teacher turnover is to have good quality leadership. If you have constant leader turnover, you can’t create a high-performing school.”

Like anyone, principals get better at their jobs the longer they are in them, acquiring more insight and skills as they go along. And no small number do go on to administrative positions, such as superintendent. But, as Fuller pointed out, we need to do more to keep the principals we have. Better salaries and lower stress would be places to start.

And probably a little appreciation, too. It’s a tough job and they deserve it.



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