Pittsburgh Schools Head Asks For Ideas

Staring at a nightmare of intertwined problems seemingly of Gordian Knot proportions, Pittsburgh’s Superintendent issued a plaintive call for help in the form of ideas about how to solve the conundrum. Joining in a non-helpful way, the Post-Gazette weighed in editorially praising the school for not raising tax rates for twelve years, ignoring entirely the tremendous ongoing decline in enrollment over the period and the increases in other revenue that have allowed the schools to keep spending well above $500 million.

Here’s an idea for the Superintendent. Send to the Board a proposal to set aside $10 million to create a thousand $10,000 scholarships that can be used by parents who wish to send their children to non-public alternatives. With the current spending of over $21,000 per student that would represent a savings for taxpayers. And if the recipient students perform better academically, which most probably will, it is a win-win for taxpayers and students. If demand for scholarships is greater than a thousand, arrange to expand the program year after year.

But here’s the problem that will have to be confronted. With declining enrollment, school employment, including teachers, would be reduced. No doubt there will a lot of screaming by the unions and their supporters about the cuts. If that happens, the parents of school children in the City will be able to see what is really important to the Board-their kids’ education or kowtowing to unions.

The Board will be under intense pressure from unions and the indefatigable defenders of the public education monopoly who have long since forfeited any moral claim to their anti-choice positions. Years after year and decade after decade miserable academic performance and wasted potential of so many students lives. Where do they go to get back the opportunity derived from a good education?

The truly remarkable part of the story is that the union and the defenders of public monopoly education apparently feel no responsibility or remorse. For the unions, it is understandable if not defensible. They are about their members and their power. Students are and have always been secondary. Maybe some individual teachers would like to put students first but they toe the union line when they have to choose between the students and union loyalty.

Bottom line, the Superintendent should make this such an important priority that she will threaten to resign if the Board refuses to consider the idea.

A+ Gets a C-

A+ Schools, a group ostensibly concerned with improving education in Pittsburgh public schools, is very disturbed by the high turnover rate of teachers in the "most vulnerable" schools in the City. Having discovered the turnover is significantly higher than in the less vulnerable schools, A+ recommends the District take steps to make the more vulnerable schools places where teachers would like to be.

What does that mean? Does it mean, in large part, having safe schools with manageable discipline problems where there is at least a chance of instruction taking place? If that is the case then we would suggest the A+ group rethink their recommendation. If history is any guide trying to deliver the desired school environment is almost certainly a futile undertaking. Why not another approach? Why not recommend providing students and parents who want to use them a scholarship or voucher to attend a non-public school of their choice? Schools where discipline can be enforced as opposed to public schools where excessive political considerations prevent principals and teachers from creating an environment conducive to learning.

If the A+ is truly concerned about the quality of education, they should quit playing enabler for the public school system. If they want to spend a lifetime pretending they can push the schools in the right direction while wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and denying a large share of Pittsburgh’s children a chance to get a good education all they need do is keep issuing studies and recommendations like the one discussed above.

Promise Program as Tax Preparation Instructor

Now that the Promise program has had a couple of years of operational experience, they have seemingly encountered a problem. Perhaps they have made a bigger promise than they can keep. So they are requiring students applying for Promise money to fill out the "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" (FAFSA) in order to leverage government assistance as much possible before receiving Promise funds. What’s up with that? We were led to believe from the announcement of the Promise that money would be there for the asking for all graduating seniors who met the grade and attendance requirement. Now they have to jump through the FAFSA hoop before their scholarship is granted.

What’s worse, evidently a lot of students who can graduate from high school and presumably are ready for college cannot fill out the requisite forms so their families will need assistance in filling them out. But wait. The FAFSA forms rely heavily on tax returns which, according to the Promise’s executive director, many families have not done and are scared of the prospect. Little wonder. That will raise questions the IRS might be interested in getting answers to. In any event, the Promise program, in cooperation with the United Way, will offer tax preparation instruction to student families.

But it gets worse. The tax preparation course will be open to the 3,700 student families who make up to $52,000. One would have thought people making, say, $35,000 or more per year, would know about tax returns and would have done their own or had a tax preparation professional prepare their returns.

And, why aren’t guidance counselors and other school professionals helping students fill out scholarship applications if they need it? That’s what they are paid for. Using limited Promise funds seems like an egregious duplication. Unless of course the real reason is that with the big jump in funding to $10,000 per year for students graduating in 2012, the program managers are starting to feel the need to direct students to other sources so as to reduce the amount the fund will have to provide.

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?