Wilkinsburg: Poster Child for Failures of the PA Education System

Last November the superintendent of the Wilkinsburg School District was complaining that poor education performance was closely tied to a lack of resources (see Policy Brief, Volume 14, Number 56). This argument has been made by so many defenders of poorly performing school districts that it has become a mantra despite the fact that in the case of Wilkinsburg, as well as other underperforming districts, it is simply not true.


In a recent news report concerning the Wilkinsburg superintendent’s effort to get another school district to take his 7-12th grade students, it was revealed that the Wilkinsburg District spends $27 million per year. Of that, $5.3 million goes to cover the 343 students who are attending charter schools and the rest to cover the 835 students in the District run schools. That means the charter students cost the district $15,450 per pupil while the students in the District managed schools cost $26,000 per pupil. Yet some still argue the charters are crippling the District financially. In either case, the cost per pupil should be more than enough to educate the children.


However, the School Performance Profile data reveal an unmitigated disaster is occurring as far as educational achievement is concerned.   The latest scores for Wilkinsburg high school students show only 8.6 percent to be proficient in math, 13.3 percent proficient in reading and none proficient in science. Notwithstanding these deplorable figures, 62 percent of the cohort who started 9th grade together will graduate.


Is the dreadful academic performance due to having poor quality teachers?  Not according to the PA Education Department’s evaluation procedure that shows 93.5 percent of classes are being taught by highly qualified teachers. Of course, this is the same Education Department that says 56 percent of the 11th grade students were making progress in science (in the Department’s terminology, “meeting annual growth expectations”).


In the Education Department’s academic scoring scheme, the “meeting expectations” metric accounts for the bulk of the school’s academic score points. Sadly, this is just one example of how the education establishment has tried to mislead the public about how bad things really are and, in so doing, has made itself an accomplice in the ongoing education debacle that characterizes far too many school districts across the state.


In the middle school achievement test scores were slightly above the high school results but with just 24 percent proficient in math, 34 percent proficient in reading and 15 percent in science, the middle school must also be considered a horrendous failure. This despite all the money that is being spent and having just under 99 percent of classes taught by highly qualified teachers—according to the standards used by the PA Education Department to measure qualifications.   The two elementary schools fared somewhat better but fewer than 40 percent were proficient in reading in the third grade at either school. Regrettably, this disappointing statistic means the prospects for improved educational achievement in later grades are doubtful at best.  This unpleasant truth is borne out quite clearly by what should be totally unacceptable middle and high school scores. The longer the kids are in these public schools the farther they fall behind academically.


The most recently published official data (2012-2013 school year) shows that 58 percent of Wilkinsburg funding came from other than local taxpayers. That means non-local tax base sources were providing $15,073 per pupil enrolled in Wilkinsburg public schools, while municipal taxpayers were providing almost $11,000.   For those levels of funding, taxpayers ought to be able to expect a far better academic performance than they are getting.


Trying to get other school districts to take students who are so poorly prepared is not the answer. These other districts have enough problems of their own already. What the State and the District should be doing is offering all the students who truly want to get a good education and their parents a voucher worth up to  $15,000 per year to attend the school of their choice, whether it be private or parochial. The number of school options will expand to meet the demand, especially when the student can bring $15,000 a year.


Interestingly, at the school meeting where the farming out of the students was being discussed, a young woman stood up and complained of having to pay for her son to attend a non-public school so he could receive a decent education.  This is the exactly the person the State and the School District should be listening to when trying to figure out what to do to improve education.  Parents with that much dedication to their children’s future should be rewarded with real help in getting their child into a decent school where learning is actually taking place on a consistent and disciplined basis. Many such parents want a lot more from schools than experience tells them they can expect from the failing public schools. Unfortunately, they are not in a position to afford the better alternatives.


It is far past the time for the education establishment and the pro-public school lobby that defends even the most abject failures to recognize the damage that is being done to society and the lives of thousands of children who are being denied a respectable K-12 education.  Granted, there are societal and cultural problems at play in the poor educational performance at many public schools. But that cannot be used as an excuse to deny children and parents, who value a good education as the best chance for success in life as well as personal accomplishment and self-worth, a real opportunity for an education.


It should be absolutely clear by now that the downward spiral of educational attainment, with its accompanying lack of skills and lowered self-esteem and motivation, are closely bound together with the other social pathologies that are truly crippling communities. It is not, as the apologists always cry, due to a lack of funding.  If money was the answer, the problems would have been solved long ago.


How long will Pennsylvania taxpayers tolerate this inexcusable money wasting and life ruining education- in- name- only system that continues to become worse and more intractable before they demand legislative action? Sadly, the political dynamics do not favor any significant or meaningful reform. The education establishment, including the teachers unions (with all the retirees), the principals, the superintendents, many school boards and all the lobbyists who work for them have an enormous vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. And they also have sufficient clout and political influence with enough elected officials to forestall any of the real reforms so desperately needed.  So the horror stories never get fixed, they just get worse and the taxpayers keep getting handed the bill for an intolerably poor product at the failing schools.

Analyzing Teacher Strikes in Pennsylvania


Believe it or not, for the first time since the 1970s-as far back as reliable data is available-Pennsylvania might have just had its first school year without a teacher strike. 


There was an impasse in the Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County in the school year that concluded in June, but it is going to take the determination of some outside party to rule whether the work stoppage was a strike or a lockout.


We have written for many years as to how Pennsylvania is one of a small handful of states that permit teacher strikes. It allows collective bargaining for school employees along with 34 other states, but 22 of those forbid strikes as a way to settle bargaining disputes.  And among the states in the “strikes allowed” category Pennsylvania in most years led the nation in strikes, even though there are states with more school districts and, presumably, more opportunities for strikes.


Our most recent full-length report looks at strike data from 1997-98 through 2012-13 in Pennsylvania.  After eliminating strikes that occurred at technical/career centers and intermediate units, as well as those carried out by support staff, we found that there were 115 teacher strikes over the period. The high point was 2006-07 with 14 strikes while 2002-03 and 2005-06 each had more than a dozen strikes.  All strikes over the time period occurred in 80 of the state’s 500 districts in 33 of the state’s 67 counties.  


The data show district enrollment where the strikes took place.  By taking that enrollment and multiplying it by the length of the strike, we were able to tally a measurement of “student days out of class”.  For example, a ten day strike in a district with 1,000 pupils would result in 10,000 student days out of class.  In districts with more than one strike over the time frame (either in the same year or separate years) we totaled the number of strike days and averaged enrollment counts to arrive at the student days out of class.


In cumulative terms, between 1997-98 and 2012-13 the total number of strike days was 1,177 and affected 311,674 pupils, resulting in 3,835,856 student days out of class due to strikes.


Moving from the big picture level to a more detailed analysis, we found that seven districts had strikes resulting in more than 100,000 student days out of class.  The district of Pennsbury (Bucks) had a 22 day strike in a district with more than 11,000 pupils totaling 253,924 student days out of class.  Strikes in Bethel Park (Allegheny), Seneca Valley (Butler), and Central Dauphin (Dauphin) had between 170,000 and 199,999 student days out of class. 


Twenty three districts had multiple strikes with the districts of Abington Heights and Old Forge (both in Lackawanna) having four strikes apiece.  Eight others had three teacher strikes each and the remainder had two strikes each.  The student days out of class ranged from 199,720 in Bethel Park (it had two strikes in the 16 year period lasting a total of 40 days and affecting close to 5,000 students) to 17,319 in Weatherly Area (Carbon).  This latter district had three strikes: in total, the number of strike days was 23 and the average enrollment was 753. 


We did further examination of the data based on regions of the state, dividing counties into six separate areas to focus on the data.  Only one region-north central Pennsylvania-was spared a teacher strike over the time period.


We could not account for all the impacts from teacher strikes, from parents having to arrange for childcare and effects on education from loss of continuity to changes to plans families must make when a strike necessitates extending the school year well beyond the scheduled end date.


Taxpayers, students and parents might be unaware that this strike free year (if the Old Forge dispute is ruled a lockout) occurred even though the Legislature has not enacted a statute outlawing teacher strikes. There have been many attempts to take away the right to strike; none have come close to being successful. And that means the 2012-13 year was almost certainly an anomaly and probably won’t be repeated. But it would be nice to think a new, strike free era has started.   



Predictable Knee Jerk Reaction to Governor’s Voucher Plan

Hot on the heels of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s attack on Governor Corbett’s plan to improve educational opportunities for poor students in the state’s weakest performing districts comes a negative editorial in a Pittsburgh newspaper.  The op-ed demonstrates the thinking of those who remain stubbornly committed to the status quo public monopoly schools regardless of massive failures in many districts across the state.


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Public School Employment Up From a Year Ago

Notwithstanding the gnashing of teeth and doomsday prediction of diehard defenders of ever more spending on public schools, employment in the schools increased by 500 jobs in the Pittsburgh region from April 2010 to April 2011. While some reductions-or announced reductions are now in place-it is obvious that school districts have not been engaged in significant cutting.

The time of reckoning is at hand however as Federal stimulus funds have run out and state budget problems are likely to result in state spending cuts for education. As we have been warning for two years, the stimulus money was a trap. By allowing school districts to maintain spending levels rather forcing hard decisions, the state funding cuts will require much deeper reductions in staff and programs than would have otherwise been the case.

Our admonitions to have school boards ask teachers to take a pay freeze two years ago went unheeded, even derided. A pay freeze then would be worth several jobs now. But then greed by the unions and cowardice on the part of school boards is never a good combination for students or taxpayers.

Perfection as Enemy of Improvement?

In an April 17 editorial, the Post- Gazette chastised Pennsylvania’s voucher advocates as promising more than they can deliver. The editorial lists reasons why the voucher plan might not be as successful as advocates believe or suggest they will be. Okay, maybe vouchers are not the end all and be all answer to government funded education problems.

But good grief, look at the horrendous trail of broken promises brought to us by public schools. Many school districts across this Commonwealth are a disgrace when it comes to the academic achievement of students and the amount of money spent to accomplish their pathetic results. High dropout rates are common, which means huge amounts of money have been wasted trying to get people to the dropout age-people who, in many cases, are far below literacy and numeracy levels for their age. There is low achievement by vast numbers who do graduate but score far below the national averages on SAT tests and require remedial education of they pursue higher education.

And the editorial writer is concerned that vouchers won’t make everyone Phi Beta Kappa scholars? This is the clearest example of the true liberal mind. Claim to be for the little guy and the poor and the helpless and support wasteful, expensive government programs to solve the world’s perceived inequities. But the problem for them is that vouchers do work to improve educational opportunities and they do result in better outcomes. Besides they are used all over the world so as to allow parents and students to select schools that work best for them and their goals. It is a freedom issue and it is a moral issue. Letting people choose is always good. Keeping kids trapped in a failing school when there could be avenues to a better is a moral travesty that leads to wasted lives that need not have been wasted.

So for the liberal their true objectives are revealed when they fight vouchers or demean them. They do not put the interests of children first as they claim. They put the interests of big government and powerful groups who benefit from the status quo ahead of the children. Enough said.

Music City Turns to Pittsburgh for Fine Tuning

This weekend, a group of representatives from Nashville is coming to Pittsburgh to learn about, among other things, waterfront development, improving public schools, green building, and how Pittsburgh "…was able to generate public support while planning its transit system".

Hopefully they aren’t going to devote massive amounts of time on the last point to the North Shore Connector, because that process was massively lacking in public support. Recall that the Connector moved along because of the "use it or lose it" belief of officials that the Federal money would go away if not dumped into the Connector’s maw.

And improving public schools? If the visitors look at recent enrollment, expenditure, and performance statistics they might be too impressed.

What’s most surprising is that the delegation is coming to Pittsburgh instead of the other way around. Consider that Nashville and its parent county, Davidson, have been a merged entity since the early 1960s. Its metro government provides services through an urban services district (Nashville proper) and general services district (remainder of Davidson) much like the ill-fated Nordenberg panel proposed.

After merging, Nashville’s Census population ballooned from 170k in 1960 to 448 in 1970. Since that count the merged entity’s growth has remained positive (up 21% from 1970-2000). Maybe the delegation is mad that Pittsburgh officials visited new-kid-on-the-merger-block Louisville and did not venture further south to Nashville and is using the opportunity to bring its message to the City.

A 2008 PG op-ed even noted an opinion piece that appeared in a Nashville paper by an academic whose son moved to Pittsburgh and "…among the first things that he noticed was how uncoordinated its local governments were. Pittsburgh, with more than 30 governmental entities within Allegheny County, was simply a mess".

Whether the delegation will be singing Pittsburgh’s praises or giving the City the hook remains to be seen.