Week in review: Benefits costing big bucks in Philadelphia schools


By PA Independent Staff

This week, the Pennsylvania Independent took a look at the cost of benefits in Philadelphia schools and found that taxpayers are paying big money even as students struggle in class.

Elsewhere, lawmakers are again looking at allowing local police to use radar guns to stop speeders and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz touted her part in making the Affordable Care Act law.

Here’s a look back at the week’s coverage:

Benefits drive high personnel costs in Philadelphia schools

Elementary school teachers and librarians will pull in an average $112,000 in combined salary and benefits next year, according to the district’s Guide to School Budgets, which was released in advance of budget hearings this month and details expected costs for the 2014-15 school year.

LOOKING BACK: Taxpayers have put up big money for employee benefits in Philadelphia schools, and gubernatorial hopeful Allyson Schwartz touted her support of Obamacare on TV this week.

One in three students enrolled in the district will not graduate high school on time and only one out of every five students scored proficient or above in eighth grade math, according to the latest Nation’s Report Card. Yet the public is paying an average of more than $110,000 for each teacher’s total compensation package — and more than $7 million for salaries and benefits for the 56 employees in the Office of the Superintendent.

Read the full story here.

Bucking national trend, Schwartz bets big on her backing of Obamacare

In a new campaign ad, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz touts her role in passing the ACA and promises to accept federal cash for Medicaid expansion if she is elected Pennsylvania’s governor.

The ad, which began airing this week across Pennsylvania, bucks the national trend of Democrats running away from the health care law in ads and on the campaign trail. It’s already been called “the most pro-Obamacare ad of this election cycle” by some national pundits.

As the only member of Congress in the six-way Democratic primary field in Pennsylvania, Schwartz can set herself apart from the rest of the pack by talking about her work in Washington, which she seems willing to do, despite the potential liabilities it could cause in a general election.

But if she wins the primary, her support of Obamacare would be a major target for Republicans. Polls show most voters are skeptical that the ACA is delivering its promised benefits.

Lawmakers considering allowing local police to use radar guns

Pennsylvania motorists have long been able to set their cruise control a little bit faster if they know they’re driving on a road where local police enforce the speed limit.

That’s because Pennsylvania law only allows state police to use radar guns. Local police must rely on more primitive technology, such as using a stop watch to time cars traveling between two white lines painted on the street.

Given that radar technology has been around since World War II, state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, believes it’s time Pennsylvania ends its long run as the only state to prohibit local officers from using radar.

PA cyber charters schools could be funded by state, not districts

Instead of relying on payments from each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, one state lawmaker says cyber charter schools should be funded directly by the state.

State Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, says he wants to simplify the process of funding the state’s 14 cyber charter schools, which accept students from all corners of Pennsylvania, regardless of school district.

“The General Assembly has a choice. We can tinker with a broken funding mechanism or establish a long-term solution,” Christiana said.

The sticky statistic of statewide charter school performance in PA

Misleading statistics have a tendency to stick. And for education in Pennsylvania, it’s that charter schools underperform compared to district public schools.

The statewide average score for district public schools on the School Performance Profile issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education is 77.1 For charter schools, it’s 65.7.

However, there are 162 brick-and-mortar charter schools and the majority — 86 schools — are concentrated in Philadelphia. Twenty of those 86 are Renaissance Schools, which are district schools turned over to charter operators. Both traditional charter schools and Renaissance Schools have outperformed their district counterparts when put side-by-side with like demographics.

The average SPP Score for charter schools in Philadelphia is 66.9, while for district schools it’s 57.5.

Severance tax debate continues

Pennsylvania lawmakers from both parties have lobbied hard this spring for a severance tax on natural gas drilling, their voices growing louder as the state’s revenue numbers continue to flag.

On Tuesday, industry and business leaders pushed back against the proposal, calling it an unfair tax that could strangle production and derail economic progress in the Keystone State.

“Make no mistake, these short-sighted tax schemes are based on politics, not economics,” said Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania. “They would destroy job growth and stifle the type of capital investment that is helping our state to grow.”

Philadelphia flexes muscles over charter schools

The strained relationship between the School District of Philadelphia and the 86 public charter schools under its authority continues.

As part of a six-hour School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night, five charter schools came up for renewal and one — Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners — was singled out for suspension of its charter because of academic and financial concerns, a new preemptive move by the district.

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn outlined the Authorizing Quality Initiative, which includes such changes as moving the district’s charter office to report directly to the SRC and giving the commission the power to stop making payments to a charter school if a dispute arises.