Is the Allure of the Pittsburgh Promise Not Enough?

Begun six years ago with great fanfare and grandiose goals, the Pittsburgh Promise seems to be falling well short of its primary objectives to improve the quality of education and raise high school enrollment at City schools.   


And the even more lofty ambitions to grow the City’s population, boost regional economic development and transform the lives of students and families in Southwest Pennsylvania that rest heavily on achieving the primary objectives are a long way from fulfillment.  No doubt some of the students getting the program’s scholarship money have benefited from those funds.  But if the program was ever going to be successful in its basic stated purpose, there should be convincing evidence by now.


The Promise program offers scholarship funds to students who have been in Pittsburgh Public Schools for at least the four years of senior high, i.e., grades 9 through 12.  Those students who attend only senior high will receive 75 percent of the maximum award of $10,000 per year for four years. Students attending kindergarten through 12th grade will be eligible for the full $40,000 over four years. There is a schedule of amounts for intermediate years of attendance.  To complete the eligibility requirements, graduating seniors must have maintained a 2.5 Grade Point Average (GPA) and had 90 percent attendance, with accommodation for excused absences.


Obviously, for serious students who want to go on to post-secondary education, the prospect of the scholarship will be enticing, especially those who started attending Pittsburgh schools in the 9th grade or earlier. Students transferring to a Pittsburgh school in 10th grade or later would not be attracted by the program.


How’s the enrollment objective going? From school year 2006-2007 total Pittsburgh Public School enrollment tumbled from 28,265 to 24,849 in 2011-2012 and fell again in 2012-2013-a decline of over 12 percent. Meanwhile, the number of 12th graders has decreased from 1,965 in school year 2006-07 to 1,635 in 2012-13, a 17 percent slide. There is little that is reassuring for the Promise program to take away from these data.        


According to recent accounts, the number of scholarship recipients has been declining over the period since the Promise was created and with declining high school enrollment that is entirely understandable.  What’s worse, in the schools with 6th through 12th grades, only 34 percent of the graduating class qualified for the Promise scholarships in 2012. At Westinghouse only 17 percent qualified.  In the schools that have 9th through 12th grades, 52 percent of seniors qualified for the Promise scholarships. A serious problem standing in the way of qualifying recipients is the stunning 47 percent of students in high schools with 9th to 12th grades who are chronically absent, i.e., more than 10 percent of the days in a given school year.     


And then there is the academic improvement goal.  Based on the number of earlier Policy Briefs in which the poor academic performance of many of the City’s high schools has been lamented, it seems redundant to bring the issue up again. But here’s the problem in a nutshell. Between 2007-the year before the Promise plan went into effect-and 2012, the latest results available, SAT scores for Pittsburgh public school students became almost uniformly worse. Of the nine schools in existence in both years, two schools (CAPA and Allderdice) posted marginal improvements, Langley results held fairly close to 2007 numbers while all others recorded declines. Some of the schools suffered dramatic slides in SAT scores. Especially noteworthy was the 50 point dip in the verbal test results at Brashear along with an accompanying 44 point drop in the math score.    


Only two Pittsburgh high schools, Allderdice and CAPA, had combined reading and math SAT scores above the state average of 990.  Combined SAT scores at most schools were well under 900 and five were at 820 or below.  And if that is not bad enough, the 2012 PSSA math scores in the high schools also took a dip from 2011 levels. Only one school with 11th graders saw its math score improve. The number of Westinghouse 11th graders scoring at proficient or better levels in math nudged up from an abysmally low 6.9 percent to an also abysmally low 7.5 percent.


In short, it is hard to see how the Promise program scholarship has led to any improvement in academic performance. In fact, if anything, the results are worse than they were at the beginning of the Promise program.  


The Pittsburgh Promise does not provide the statistics necessary to determine how many scholarship recipients have earned a four year degree, a two year degree or some other certification of completing requirement degree. Nor do they estimate how much of the money provided to graduates ends up being spent to no effect.


Needless to say, on its two major objectives the Promise program is struggling mightily to find something useful to say. If those goals are languishing, how is the boosting of regional economic development going? Perhaps some scaling back on grand plans is in order.


At some point, it would be very useful for the Promise program to hire an independent consultant to study whether or not the guarantee of money for students who make it through high school in a Pittsburgh school and qualify for a generous four year scholarship is having a positive or negative effect on work effort of students. In this era of grade inflation-as shown by the SAT scores of graduates-any easily obtainable “free” benefit could reduce the need for some students to work as hard as they might otherwise.  


As we have noted before, and it bears repeating, a more powerful and effective education enhancing way to employ the scholarship dollars would be to create scholarships for elementary and secondary students to get out of Pittsburgh schools and attend private or parochial schools. Provide $10,000 a year to students who want an alternative to the academic failures masquerading as schools in Pittsburgh.  The impact would be salutary in creating pressure on City schools to either improve or watch their enrollment leave. Perhaps such a plan would serve as a demonstration program with the potential to convince the Legislature to enact-at long last and way overdue-a well-funded universal voucher system for Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh Schools Staring at Huge Deficits

In its recent proposed budget document for fiscal 2013 and the outlook through 2016, the Pittsburgh School District reveals rapidly expanding deficits over the next four years. Spending is projected to rise from $516.5 million in 2013 to $561.9 million in 2016, while revenue edges up a slim $6 million from $512 million to $518 million.

Causes for the $35 million jump in spending are listed as; salary increases, swelling pension payments, and expanding health care costs. Much of the rising costs is locked in by labor contracts and long term obligations entered into years ago. Realistically, significant savings can be achieved only through more personnel cuts or a large turnover in staff in which senior, high paid employees are replaced by entry level and lower compensated workers.

Layoffs of teachers can occur for only two reasons: one, declining enrollment and two, elimination of programs or some combination of the two. Thus, it is difficult to project declining employee compensation through layoffs. Eliminating entire programs is possible, but at some point program cuts can reduce the quality of the educational experience and make the District even less attractive. The state law that imposes the idiotic set of requirements needs to be addressed. It is far better to add a couple of kids to each class rather than eliminate a science program or foreign language courses.

But be that as it may, Pittsburgh schools are looking at serious financial trouble. There is one path to lower spending still open although it is not a desirable one. Note that enrollment continues to slide, dropping below 25,000 in the last school year. The decline in student count has been falling at a rate of over 1,000 per year for many years. The latest census shows a significant drop in the population in the numbers of children who will be of school age in the next years. There was also a big decline in the numbers of adults in the child rearing age groups suggesting that the Pittsburgh Schools are a major factor in outmigration.

Ironically, the District can cut spending growth only by continuous downsizing its operations. The tragedy is that spending per student is holding above $21,000 and will rise even further as enrollment drops. Expenditure cuts cannot match enrollment reductions because of the pension and health care commitments and the increases in costs they will entail.

The answer for education in Pittsburgh is-as it has always been-to adopt a voucher program and allow children and parents to attend schools of their choice. Maintaining the government monopoly schools to protect the teacher unions and the educrats who benefit from the state run monopoly that fails in its moral obligation to prepare students for life after school is disgraceful. The never ending string of excuses will continue unless or until Pittsburgh parents and residents demand change. The state could help with a voucher law, but the state has shown itself to be content to live with the status quo. As a result thousands of Pennsylvania children are being denied the opportunity to participate fully in the American dream.

Retired Prof Illustrates the Perils Academe Creates for the Economy

One Charles McCollester, retired professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, writing in the P-G letters column reveals for all to see which side of Industrial and Labor Relations he shows solidarity with.

In the letter the retired prof launches a withering attack against Governor Corbett saying he is the most anti-labor governor since the late 1920s. And what does he base this on? First, he berates the Governor’s refusal to turn over more state dollars to the Port Authority unless there are substantial union concessions. This is an Authority that is in financial chaos owing to overly generous labor contracts in the past that have created legacy and compensation costs the Authority cannot afford absent the state taxpayers heaping more dollars onto a system that cannot be saved short of bankruptcy. The professor should do modicum of research before weighing in on a situation he knows precious little about.

Second, he caterwauls about trying the Governor’s attempt to break the teachers’ unions by slashing school spending and recommending vouchers. Apparently, the well- publicized huge budget deficit facing the Governor last year and the need to cut spending did not reach Indiana. Or if it did, the professor chose to ignore or believed it was all a Republican trick. Perhaps the professor does not believe that school employees should share in the financial hardship so many Pennsylvania taxpayers were going through during the economic downturn. And, it is also apparent that the refusal of teachers to make voluntary small sacrifices such as deferring pay increases in cash strapped school districts was entirely justified. Stick it to hard pressed taxpayers-that’s the ticket according to those who share the world view of the professor.

Vouchers for kids in grossly inadequate public schools? No way say opponents. That would undermine the wonderful public school monopoly the teachers and other members of the educational establishment enjoy and benefit so handsomely from.

And the professor wraps up his know-nothing screed by attacking the foundation community in Pittsburgh for asking the financially distressed Pittsburgh school district to consider the quality of teachers to be let go as opposed to following strict seniority rules. His argument-stop the cost cutting in the first place. Clearly, the professor has not followed the many reports of the excessive cost structure in Pittsburgh schools where spending tops $21,000 per student and academic performance in many school buildings is below miserable. The legacy of refusal to even nod in the direction of real reforms and the damage done to the cost structure by unions and do-gooder educrats have essentially ruined what was great school system. Time to pay the piper has arrived and all the professor can do is cry about the attack on seniority rules that are one of the biggest factors creating the long slide to a sub-mediocre school district.

How many Indiana University students have had their view of the world hopelessly distorted by the professor and the legions of other faculty members like him?

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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PSBA—Impediment to Education Improvement

If a legislator or Governor proposes vouchers, depend on the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) to find fault. Charter school expansion?-no support from the PSBA. This group has long since abandoned or subordinated its two primary responsibilities, i.e., quality education for students and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

As evidence, on October 12, the PSBA once again decried the Governor’s recently announced proposal to launch a voucher system for poor students attending failing schools. The PSBA response: only a few kids would benefit while others would be stuck in failing schools that would be underfunded because of the loss of state money going to the vouchers. There is no evidence the schools would be underfunded. There is reason to believe the schools would be under pressure to improve.

Instead, they trot out another cliché filled set of proposals to improve education. These proposals fall into three categories; recruiting and improving teachers, preparing students for success, and providing schools with tools for success. Any informed observer would be quick to ask: What? Are we not spending billions trying to do those things already? How many teacher improvement programs are in place already that are getting rave reviews from thePSBA regarding their effectiveness?

Preparing students for success? That is so lame. This is simply education establishment rhetoric that we have heard for decades. Now we are supposed to trust a group that has a vested interest in maintaining its views of what education should look like. For many poorly performing school districts around the state, the PSBA has done nothing but prolong the agony of students who leave with a diploma but who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Opposition to real reform such as widespread use of vouchers is the predictable and unfortunate battle cry of the PSBA.

And finally, the PSBA plan to provide schools with tools for success rings completely hollow. The most important ingredients in creating a learning environment are not gadgets and highfaluting educationese. What must be present are dedicated, excited teachers and a disciplined classroom environment. Political correctness and progressivism have not and cannot be the principal components of a quality education.

The problem with the PSBA is that it has forgotten the Constitutional language providing for public education. It is more interested in protecting the monopoly of public schools than it is ensuring that students are receiving a quality and efficiently delivered education. Thus, the PSBA stands in the way of allowing students who want an education to escape the failing schools they are stuck in. How many lives have been set on a dead end track because of decades of lousy education that could have been substantially much better if vouchers had been available?

One would hope the PSBA would be willing to give other ideas a chance.

Time for the State to Terminate the Duquesne School District

Almost a decade ago, the Allegheny Institute reported on the dreadful SAT scores recorded by Duquesne High School students.  In 2003, we noted that Duquesne’s average combined 2001 SAT score-math and reading-was 693, one of the only schools in Pennsylvania showing a score below 700. 


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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.

Goodbye Superintendent, Better Luck at Your New Job

In a going away interview the Pittsburgh school superintendent regaled the interviewers with how hard he worked to make a difference. He declared success in improving teacher effectiveness and creating the Promise Scholarship Program. He was more modest in regretting that only modest improvement was achieved in the high schools.

Too bad he did not mention the Promise Program’s failure to keep or attract students as its advocates predicted excitedly it would. Enrollment continues to fall, especially in the high schools. Nor has the Program helped academic progress. Indeed, as we have suggested earlier, there is a very real possibility the Promise Program has reduced incentive of serious students to work hard.

After five years, per students costs have not been reduced despite school closings and fewer teachers employed. Meanwhile, non-teaching administrative jobs have jumped sharply. Moreover, the District has maintained its spending levels without raising tax rates because of a $40 million infusion of state money provided through the Federal stimulus program. The next budget cycle will look a lot different as the Federal money is no longer available. A tax increase is almost inevitable.

So here’s wishing the outgoing superintendent better luck at his new job. Resurrecting a bankrupt college might be a snap compared to making progress in an urban school district.

One wonders if in his heart of hearts he ever thought, "You know. There might be something to this school choice, voucher idea." That could keep a person awake nights for a long time.

Time to Give School Choice a Serious Look

Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court has ruled the law authorizing Duquesne high school students to be sent to neighboring districts is unconstitutional. They wrote in their opinion that the law was so narrowly constructed, applying only to the Duquesne School District, that it amounted to "special legislation" which violates the state constitution. They are remanding the matter back to Commonwealth Court. But the big question remains: what happens to these students?

During the debate to close Duquesne High School in 2007, state law was crafted which stipulated that the students’ options were constrained to districts within a three-mile radius of their home district. The end result had 160 students transfer to West Mifflin and 72 to East Allegheny. Attorneys argued at that time the law was so narrowly defined, that it would only apply to Duquesne and no other district across the state–and the Supreme Court upheld that argument three years later.

The legislators who constructed the law will attempt to come up with new language that will not run afoul of the Constitution. Here’s a better idea: vouchers. Craft a law that offers vouchers to these students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Their district has obviously failed them, so give them a chance to find one where they can achieve success. If they are happy in the new districts, let them stay. If not, give them a chance to find another opportunity. Vouchers have been successful in many places where they have been tried–usually the answer to failing schools like Duquesne–so why not give it a serious look?

Good Money after Bad?

According to a Tribune Review report this morning the Pittsburgh school district needs $44 million dollars in order to receive all of the $40 million in the Gates Foundation grant. All the money is to go to yet another remaking of education in the district.

Here’s the untold story. The Pittsburgh district spent $525 million in the last school year to educate 26,123 students. That amounts to over $20,000 per pupil. And that does not count all the money being doled out by the Promise Program to district graduates to help with college costs. Despite all the spending and programs, enrollment continues to plunge at the rate of a thousand students a year. Does anyone think this new effort and additional spending will succeed in the Pittsburgh environment?

Pittsburgh schools have engaged in countless reforms over the years and still have dismally performing high school students. One very important reform has never been tried nor is it likely to be-the establishment of a voucher program to allow students to opt out of poorly performing public schools. It is always the same argument: vouchers would allow the best students to escape and undermine the public schools. Never has it been considered that the public owes students the best opportunity to learn and it is morally reprehensible to force them to attend grotesquely inadequate public schools. Schools that administration after administration have failed to improve in any meaningful way.

Moreover, competition might actually force the worst schools to try to get better at delivering education. But the denial of opportunity of a good education to kids and parents who want and value quality education reflects a seriously distorted moral compass.