Educational Détente

The superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools wants to move relations with the charter schools in the City from what it is now, which she described as "certainly not a happy, collaborative one" to something else, where perhaps the PPS can learn by talking. About 10% of the PPS’ $520 million budget goes to pay for students living in the District but attending brick and mortar or cyber charter schools. The most recent audited financial statement on PPS’ website (for fiscal year 2009) showed that the ratio of PPS students to all charter students was 9.5 to 1. In 2002 the ratio was 36.6 to 1-slipping enrollment in the PPS (down 25% over that time frame) and a large boost in charter school enrollment will have that effect.

That is for total (brick and mortar and cyber) but from the article it does not appear that the superintendent is going to seek out the leadership of cyber charters, so a deeper look at the charter schools with a physical presence in the City of Pittsburgh is warranted. From the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s institution search within the Pittsburgh-Mt. Oliver intermediate unit it is shown that nine charter schools are in the City. Several CEOs of these schools were mentioned in the article, including one that has been around since 1998 and commented that relations in the beginning were "very adversarial…very tense".

Five charters in the City-Academy, Career Connections, City High, Manchester, and Urban League-reported total enrollment of 1,342 in the 2006-07 school year. With 30,885 students enrolled in PPS that year, the ratio of PPS students to students in those charters was 23 to 1. In 2011-12, those same five charters had boosted enrollment to 1,511 (up 13%) while PPS enrollment fell to 26,653 (down 14%). The ratio stood at 17 PPS to 1 charter student. It is important to note that two additional charters opened since 2008 and there are additional applications pending. In 2011-12 the nine charters in the City had a total enrollment of 2,284.

Has the passage of time and seeing the staying power of several charters led to the change in attitude on the part of PPS in seeking the meeting? Or is it simply different people in positions of power who may not be as openly hostile to charters? Is PPS trying to get some "trade secrets" on what the charters are doing well in order to emulate them and head off future enrollment and financial losses?

A Closer Look at PPS Enrollment

Our recent Brief on the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program and its effects on enrollment and achievement can be expanded upon with the arrival of new enrollment numbers for the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 school years. Total K-12 enrollment (measured by the number of students enrolled on the last day of school) fell slightly from 25,042 to 24,624, about 418 students.

Recall that one of the stated goals of the Promise is to "mitigate and reverse…enrollment declines in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS)". Taken at face value, the Promise is not looking to grow charter school enrollment, even though those students meeting performance, residency, and attendance benchmarks qualify for Promise funds. The goal is to entice students to remain or attract new ones to the PPS.

RAND performed the first large scale evaluation of the Promise and focused on enrollment in grades 5-12 two years before the Promise first awarded scholarships (2005-06 and 2006-07) and three years of awarding scholarships (2007-08, 2008-09, and 2009-10) "…in order to gauge whether any ‘trickle down’ effects on enrollment may occur as those students and their parents began to prepare for high school". In actual numbers for grades 5-12 for those five years, enrollment trended this way (in 000s): 17, 17, 15.9, 15.0, 14.5.

Adding in the two new years since the report (10-11 and 11-12) for those grades showed enrollment at 14.8 and 14.6. Slightly higher than 09-10, but lower than the pre-Promise years covered by the evaluation. Boosters could argue that as a percentage of school-age youth in the City PPS enrollment has been steady, but that’s not reversing the trend of falling enrollment. They could say that students are staying in City-based charters, but that’s not stated in the goal, either.

Does PA Have any Cities on a Hill?

Is there a conservative urban agenda? If so, what does it look like? Even more to the point, are there any cities in Pennsylvania exhibiting the traits if such an agenda existed?

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Examiner outlined "a conservative agenda for cities". Most of the components of the urban agenda of the last half of the 20th century did not work, as the author argued, or "Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit would all be booming".

The components ofa new strategy would include:

  • Crime-prevention oriented policing based on the New York City experience
  • Reform of public sector pensions toward 401k type plans and away from defined benefit plans
  • Private financing of infrastructure
  • A continued push for competition in public education from charter schools

One could see that there might be pieces of this strategy in some cities around the Commonwealth, but there likely is not any one municipality that encompasses them all. Of course, moving toward some of the reforms would have to come from Harrisburg, which could add revisions of binding arbitration and outlawing public sector strikes to help cultivate this agenda.

School Bored?

The advocacy group A+ Schools has produced its annual report card on how well the Pittsburgh Public Schools leadership-the nine member elected school board-handles itself. Overall, the board got a B-: on components of the grade they received a B- for conduct (down from a B last year), a C+ for clarity, B- for competency, and B+ for transparency. These last three grades were unchanged from last year.

Perhaps the most eye-opening grade was a C for time management, a downgrade from last year’s B- which was due partially to "The ‘excessively long" meetings’-some lasting more than four hours" according to the group’s director.

If the board was spending hours on end trying to figure out how to improve performance, encourage competitive options for parents seeking to better their child’s education, or how to reduce the massive per-pupil expenditures, then excessively long meetings might be in order.

Ultimately, the best barometer for the board’s performance could be tied to one indicator: enrollment in the District. And on that measure (enrollment has fallen from 32% since the start of the decade and significantly outpaces the overall decline in City population) there can be no above-average grade.

A New Approach for City School Property

Late last week the Pittsburgh Board of Education approved a new set of guidelines on how to dispose of surplus property. With declining enrollment and some buildings not fit for rehabilitation, the District will now have a clear way of proceeding with the sale of property.

Key in this set of guidelines is the fact that charter schools will not be discriminated against buying District-owned property that is for sale. As the solicitor for the District noted the policy "removes the apparent bias against charter schools" who felt that they were not getting a fair shot at buying property. For instance, the URA-which is marketing some closed school buildings-had a note on its website that "the district prefers not to ‘encourage’ competing schools." That language is supposed to be removed as a result of the guidelines.

That does nothing to guarantee that the District won’t continue to stifle actual charter school competition by denying charters (two were turned down last month) but it might give parents who want choice some hope. Consider that the Center of Education Reform’s latest "Survey of America’s Charter Schools" found that 65% of all charter schools have a waiting list, which is up from 58% in 2008. On average, 239 children are waiting to enter a charter school.

If Pittsburgh Public Schools are confident in their product, then they should welcome all competition, especially those willing to take some property off of the District’s hands.

A Better Use for $200k

According to published reports several anonymous foundations have decided to offer $200k over the next five years to the Pittsburgh Public Schools in order to pay taxes on a life insurance benefit to the current Superintendent. According to the District’s Solicitor the Federal tax code "requires the recipient to pay taxes on employer-paid life insurance premiums in the short term, even if the recipient won’t receive the benefits for years to come".

Consider that this past October, when the District extended a new contract with the Superintendent, a news article pointed out that the agreement included "An increase-from about $12,500 to about $28,700- [in] the district’s annual contribution to a life insurance policy of his choosing. As before, the district also will provide him a separate $400,000 term life insurance policy…[and] a one-time payment of $16,150. The agreement doesn’t explain that payment, but [the Superintendent] said it, too, is for life insurance".

Rather than extend $200k for taxes on top of what appear to be quite generous benefits, a better use of the money-certainly one that would deliver long term benefits-would be for the foundations to offer scholarships of $10k for four years for five students to attend the private or parochial school of their family’s choosing.

This would be a very targeted program and would certainly be criticized as leaving much of the district’s enrollment out, but what would be more preferable: giving some students choice, or helping to pay the taxes on a life insurance policy for the District’s highest official?

Pittsburgh School Board Chooses Self-Preservation over Education

In what has to be an action that completely captures all that is wrong with Pittsburgh Schools, the Board is refusing to sell an abandoned school building to a charter school organization. The reason? It will create competition and could further reduce the City Schools’ enrollment. Once again the Board has demonstrated what we have been saying for years. They care more about preserving a failed, outrageously expensive system than promoting the educational attainment of Pittsburgh’s children-something they are legally and constitutionally required to do.

The irony is this comes on the heels of receiving the Gates Foundation award with all the usual self-congratulations about how remarkably well the District is doing to foster better education approaches and the rise in academic achievement. Further, over the past three years, we have heard the Superintendent laud ad nausea the District’s achievements.

So why is the Board worried about competition siphoning off enrollment? The answer should be obvious. They know in their hearts that all the recent hoopla about Gates and the miniscule progress made by early grade students is a smokescreen covering up the abject failure that is Pittsburgh Schools and its near $20,000 per pupil annual expenditures. Almost any education option will be superior to what passes for schooling in the Pittsburgh schools and can probably be done in a safer more disciplined environment a la the Extra Mile Schools.

Too many years of protecting the status quo and allowing the teachers’ union and educrats manage and guide the District has produced the system that now exists. A system that hangs on by turning back every meaningful reform and proving perennially that self-preservation is more important than the futures of the children it is entrusted with. It is beyond disgraceful.

Pittsburgh Magnet Schools Educate Better

What an unsurprising report finding. Pittsburgh’s magnet schools show higher levels of achievement than non-magnet schools. An easily predicted result.

Can anyone with a modicum of common sense have any doubts as to why this happens? Magnet schools are schools of choice. Parents who care about their children’s education will make sacrifices to get their students into these schools. When parents care about education, children are more likely to place value on learning.

Too bad all schools in the City are not and cannot be magnet schools. But here is another way to offer choice to parents and students. Create a district voucher or scholarship program that will allow Pittsburgh’s parents to opt out of public schools in favor of a private school or home school. Second, allow and facilitate the creation of more charter schools that can serve as magnet schools.

Given the disaster that masquerades as education for far too many of Pittsburgh’s children, why not do something noble such as actually creating change that will improve learning instead of the endless series of dead end efforts to fix what cannot be fixed?