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Back to School Review: Five Days of Education Policy in Pennsylvania– Day 4 

By David Lapp, Director of Policy Research

Each day this week I’m highlighting one of the issues in Pennsylvania education policy that I’ll be following closely this year, with some editorializing for good measure.  Click here for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.  

Day 4. – Fair school funding

Pennsylvania operates one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the country, one that is particularly biased against students of color. This unfair funding creates large gaps in the educational opportunities available to Black students compared to White students in Pennsylvania schools and between students in poverty and students who are not in poverty. RFA’s Educational Opportunity Dashboard ranks all 50 states on 14 indicators of educational opportunity—including student access to experienced or certified teachers, access to a low student/teacher ratio; or access to schools that offer Calculus, Physics, and Advanced Placement courses; and access to schools with low suspension rates. While troubling race and income disparities in access to educational opportunity exist in most states, the size and pervasiveness of PA’s gaps are among the most severe in the country.   

The fact that the most needy students receive the fewest educational opportunities figures to be compelling evidence in the upcoming October trial in Pennsylvania’s landmark school funding lawsuit, led by the Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center-PA. The lawsuit challenges the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s failure to comply with its state constitutional mandate to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Art. III, § 14.   

Also relevant will be the use, or failure to fully use, Pennsylvania’s two fair funding formulas to measure district need and distribute state funding. Both the Special Education Funding formula (SEF formula) and Basic Education Funding formula (BEF formula) are coming due for five-year review and recommendations from their respective funding commissions. Despite hearings two years ago, including testimony based on a joint report from RFA and the Education Law Center on how to improve the formula, the SEF Commission has delayed its report several times. Will the SEF Commission finally release a report by their new December 31st deadline? Will a BEF Commission be reconstituted by July as required by the school code 

* Quick aside – Pennsylvania actually has another funding formula––one that policymakers appear to have forgotten about––the original fair funding formula enacted in 2008. Under Governor Corbet, the state abandoned use of the 2008 formula to distribute state funding. But Section 2502.48 of the School Code is still requires the Pennsylvania Department of Education to use that formula to calculate “adequacy targets” for each school district. PDE hasn’t done so since 2010, but Dr. Matthew Gardner Kelly, an expert witness in the fair funding lawsuit used available data to do it for them.    

Finally, what will be the status of Level Up funding in next year’s school budget? Both the BEF and SEF formulas are used for only a small portion of state funding, with the majority of state resources distributed without any rational formula, but rather a “hold harmless” approach which drives the school funding inequities. Level Up is an innovative way to use the current BEF formula to more rapidly close those state funding inequities by targeting the 100 poorest and most inequitably funded districts. Last year’s state budget distributed $100 million through Level Up, locking those revenues into the BEF base funding for those districts. But the budget increases were minimal considering the billions in surplus from federal stimulus and improved revenues, much of which the legislature squirreled away into the state’s rainy day fund. Those fighting for fair school funding, such as the PA Schools Work campaign, will likely push the General Assembly to distribute those resources to schools in future budgets and watch closely to be sure they are distributed more fairly than how some CARES Act funds were distributed in 2020.  

Increased state funding is so important is because school districts mandated costs (costs required by law such as pensions, charter school tuition payments, and provision of special education) are rising faster than state revenues, forcing districts to either cut programs or increase local property taxes.  As explained by PASBO’s Tim Strom, “[T]he impact of how the state chooses to pay or not pay for a mandated cost clearly matters. Districts that could tax more, did so, and those who could not, still taxed a little more but at lower levels even as they cannibalized programmatic and other areas of the budget. Over the past decade, the commonwealth’s inability to adjust school finance policy even while watching all this unfold, drove educational funding gaps wider and wider.”  

One way to provide some relief to districts, would be to enact the charter school funding reforms in H.B. 272 and S.B. 27 which have bipartisan backing and overwhelming support from school boards. These bills would create a flat rate for cyber charter school tuition and fix the flaws of perverse incentives baked into Pennsylvania’s current charter school special education tuition calculation (the Triple-Whammy in the current system is demonstrated in RFA’s first episode of PACER TV). Now would be an ideal time to implement such reforms, as the myth that charter schools receive significantly less funding than district schools has been debunked (in studies by both PASBA and the Afton Group) and because cyber charters in particular are receiving massive amounts of federal dollars, without experiencing any revenue loss. 

Back to School Review: Five Days of Education Policy in Pennsylvania – Day 3 

By David Lapp, Director of Policy Research

Each day this week I’m highlighting issues in Pennsylvania education policy that I’ll be following closely this year, with some editorializing for good measure.  Click here for Day 1 and here for Day 2

Day 3. – Teacher workforce

Within schools the quality of the teacher workforce is the most important factor on student achievement. While the average pay gap between teachers and comparable professions is smaller in Pennsylvania than in most states, there are wide disparities across the state, with high pay in high-wealth districts and low pay in low-wealth districts. In a 2018 study, the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) documented substantial levels of teacher turnover in Philadelphia—where teachers already are paid less to teach under more challenging circumstances than nearly all of their neighboring school districts, leading to existing shortages and equities in how quality teachers are distributed. An upcoming Allegheny County Education Research (ACER) brief explores teacher mobility in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, finding students facing wide disparities across county schools and particularly high teacher mobility in charter schools. Meanwhile, the stress of Covid and the culture wars on schools are taking a toll on teachers with some predicting major teacher shortages across the nation.  

Teacher shortages and high mobility rates are already a reality for early childcare and education providers—some of the most important educators in our entire school system. These providers have long been Budgeting for Survival and, as explained by RFA’s Rachel Comly, often cannot pay a living wage. The staffing shortage for childcare is keeping families out of the workforce and the sector is in desperate need for additional intervention, such as the American Families Plan. 

One weakness of Pennsylvania’s overall teacher workforce is its lack of diversity. As RFA found, Pennsylvania has one of the starkest disparities in the nation, with 36% students of color compared to just 6% teachers of color. Over 1,000 Pennsylvania schools have only employed White teachers over at least the past seven school years. Even in Philadelphia, which employs the majority of Pennsylvania’s Black teachers, the number and percentage of Black teachers has declined over the past two decades with the same phenomenon happening in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.  


Note: Figure based on data from Chalkbeat Philadelphia and RFA 

Policy recommendations and toolkits from members of the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium provide policymakers a helpful roadmap to improving recruitment and retention. And the growing impact of the Center for Black Educators Development, driving modest increases in the number of Black male teachers in recent years, and a comprehensive pipeline initiative piloted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education called Aspiring to Educate demonstrate that this is a problem with ready solutions to patch the leaky teacher pipeline. 

Back to School Review: Five Days of Education Policy in Pennsylvania – Day 2

By David Lapp, Director of Policy Research

Each day this week I’m highlighting one of the issues in Pennsylvania education policy that I’ll be following closely this year, with some editorializing for good measure.  Click here for Day 1.

Day 2. Freedom to teach accurately about racism:

 The past year has been fraught with attacks against the 1619 Project and misinformation about critical race theory (CRT) in k-12 schools, presenting CRT as something other than an effort to more accurately understand history and social policy. These attacks feel particularly notable with the recent passing of James Loewen, author of the seminal Lies My Teacher Told Me. Some policymakers apparently want teachers to keep telling those lies. 

Legislation has been introduced in several states including Pennsylvania that, as historian Jelani Cobbs explained are “ultimately concerned with an imaginary world in which white people were actually the victims in need of protection from racism.” Several Pennsylvania school districts have issued their own curriculum bans 

This is occurring in a state where 94% of teachers are white and at a time when nearly half of students nationally already have little to no opportunities to discuss racism in the classroom and more than one-third have been taught little or nothing about the history of racism. In some communities, it is students themselves who are pushing back on these bans against learning. Even if these bills or local bans do not find traction, they create a chilling effect on accurate teaching about racism and American history.

Back-to-School Review: Five Days of Education Policy in Pennsylvania – Day 1

By David Lapp, Director of Policy Research

Back-to-school for Pennsylvania students—many to in-person learning for the first time in one and a half years—provides a moment to take stock of issues that are expected to drive prek-12 education policy discussions during the 2021-22 school year.

Of course, the most pressing issue—one that is all-consuming for families, students, and staff working inside school buildings—is whether schools can safely operate in person while mitigating the spread of COVID-19. As documented in Where Do We Go Next?, a joint report from RFA and GradNation, the pandemic’s upheaval on public education has taken a heavy toll on students. Successful return is key to support student learning.

But the task is daunting, especially if states and school systems fail to take even the most basic recommended precautions, such as universal indoor masking, mandating vaccines for all teachers and staff (with student vaccine mandates possibly coming soon, already issued in Los Angeles), regular asymptomatic testing, high quality ventilation indoors, and maximizing use of outdoor space, especially during lunch.

After an unsuccessful effort to get the PA General Assembly to act, Governor Wolf issued a statewide mask mandate for schools by order of the Department of Health. While mandates have been banned in some states (an action that may be illegal under federal law), Governor Wolf’s leadership may relieve some school board members who have faced threats of violence for implementing local mask mandates in efforts to keep students and the community safe.  Even if it does contain a loophole.

Yet as Covid-19 continues to dominate education policy conversations, many other pressing issues will impact students. Each day this week I’ll highlight one of the issues in Pennsylvania education policy that I’ll be following closely this year, with some editorializing for good measure.  Let’s get started!

Day 1. School Facilities

Unfortunately, risks to student health and safety are not limited to COVID. A new national report documents the dismal state of school infrastructure across the country and a recent report by Women for a Healthy Environment identified serious environmental hazards from aging infrastructure across Pennsylvania school districts. Low wealth Pennsylvania communities operate hundreds of schools built prior to the 1950s. School openings for several schools in Philadelphia have been complicated by these concerns.

A major influx of federal funding could have been used to ameliorate these issues, but Pennsylvania instead extended a moratorium on new applications to PlanCon, the state’s established approach to reimbursing school districts for school construction expenditures. Last year in State Funding to Ensure Safe and Healthy Facilities: Lessons for Pennsylvania, RFA found that recent amendments to PlanCon have put the program in line with emergency facilities funding systems in neighboring states, at least in theory.

The point of improving PlanCon, was for school leaders to actually use it to improve school facilities. So long as the moratorium continues, that can’t happen and students in our least wealthy districts will continue to attend the most outdated and too often unsafe school facilities.

ACER Virtual Town Hall

Come join Research for Action team members, local education stakeholders, and community members for coffee and conversation at the first Allegheny County Education Research (ACER) Project Town Hall.

Date: February 26th

Time: 8-9 am

Location: Zoom

Pre-Registration Required


Our first town hall will highlight RFA’s upcoming data analysis on Allegheny County’s Teacher Demographics and feature a panel of community members involved in efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color.

Esther Bush, CEO and President of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, will be facilitating the panel. Guest speakers include representatives involved in initiatives at Pittsburgh Public School District, Propel Charter Network, and South Fayette School District.

After our research presentation and discussion, RFA invites attendees to share announcements or upcoming opportunities from their own organizations and work. Have something you would like to share at the town hall? Please email to submit a resource or reserve time on the agenda.

Learn more about ACER and RFA at


A Message from RFA’s Executive Director

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

After 11 years as Executive Director of Research for Action (RFA), I have decided to step down in mid-December.  While this is a planned transition that has been in the works for months, it is still bittersweet to leave an organization that has been my professional home for so long.

Since 2009, I have had the privilege to lead this extraordinary organization through a period of exponential growth in both size and impact.  Today, RFA deploys its deep P-16 education expertise and strong research capacity to produce timely, accessible, and actionable research and analysis for local, state and national audiences.  The work of my talented colleagues is used by practitioners, policymakers, the philanthropic community, the media, and the advocacy community to inform debates and decisions across the education spectrum.  And while RFA has stayed true to its mission to serve Philadelphia, we have also expanded our focus to include a robust portfolio of statewide and national projects.  I am perhaps most proud that amidst growth and change, RFA has maintained and sharpened its focus on educational inequity of all kinds and has become notably more effective in using research as a tool to address it.

Interim Leadership

I leave RFA in the able hands of a committed Board of Directors and a strong and experienced leadership team with whom I have been working closely to ensure a smooth transition.  Dr. Kate Callahan will serve as RFA’s Interim Executive Director while RFA conducts a national search for a permanent Executive Director. Dr. Callahan is an accomplished mixed-methods researcher whose work is informed by substantial direct experience in both the K-12 and postsecondary sectors; she has been at RFA for over a decade, including several years as RFA’s Chief Research Officer.  She has been instrumental in ensuring that every research project in RFA’s expansive portfolio is robust, nuanced, and aligned to the information needs of our stakeholders.  She has also worked shoulder to shoulder with me as we tackled a broad range of strategic decisions.

Dr. Callahan will be supported by CFO Meena Wolverton and COO/Director of Communications Alison Murawski who are both seasoned professionals with a strong track record of ensuring RFA’s fiscal and administrative health.

Looking Ahead

RFA is remarkably well-positioned to begin this next chapter.  By building on its strong record of success, the organization will continue to make substantial contributions to ensuring that our education systems are more equitable, effective, and accessible.

It has been my distinct pleasure to partner with so many of you to confront some of the most challenging and important educational issues of our time.  My last day as RFA’s Executive Director will be December 11th. But as its biggest fan, I will continue to support and promote RFA as it enters its next chapter.

Many thanks for your support of RFA and of me.



Kate Shaw
Executive Director

Improving Equity in College Completion: RFA & CLASP Join Forces on Outcomes-Based Funding

Philadelphia-based Research for Action (RFA) and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) have embarked on a unique partnership to work with six states to better understand their approaches to rewarding public colleges and universities for both increasing student success and reducing equity gaps through outcomes-based funding (OBF). Based on their analysis, the two groups will create an OBF Equity Toolkit that can be used by states to ensure their policies do not leave the most vulnerable students behind.

“Many states have adopted some form of outcomes-based funding, and while results have been mixed, there is increasing evidence that, over time and if done right, these policies can increase college attainment,” said David Socolow, Director of CLASP’s Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success. “But we have to ensure that all students–especially under-represented communities of color, and students who are adult, low-income, or part-time–are not adversely affected.”

By combining both research and on-the-ground support for states and institutions, the partnership between RFA and CLASP is a practical, results-oriented approach designed to identify how colleges and universities can ensure equitable student outcomes, and build the capacity of the field to use state dollars as an incentive for effective, equitable postsecondary completion policies.

“Many states already recognize the need to address equity concerns, and have refined their OBF policies to spur institutions to ensure strong outcomes for disadvantaged populations,” said Kate Shaw, Executive Director of RFA. “Yet approaches vary significantly, and there is no clear road map for what might work best, given variation in student populations, state governance structures, and institutional mission, capacity and funding levels. While equity goals in OBF policy probably can’t be met by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, we hope the OBF Equity Toolkit will provide states with a menu of strong options.”

This work is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We are grateful for the opportunity to embark on this important work with RFA,” said Olivia Golden, Executive Director of CLASP. “This partnership combines CLASP’s postsecondary policy and advocacy expertise with RFA’s research skills and nuanced understanding of OBF policy to work toward our shared goal of improving opportunity and outcomes for underserved students.”

Dr. Ruth Neild to Join Research for Action

Research for Action (RFA) is pleased and proud to announce that Dr. Ruth Curran Neild will be joining the organization to serve as Director of its Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC). PERC, an initiative of RFA launched with a grant from the William Penn Foundation in 2014, is an innovative research-practice partnership serving Philadelphia’s public education sector.

Dr. Neild currently serves as the Delegated Director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education. Since joining the agency in 2011, Neild has instituted a wide range of reforms that have strengthened the utility and accessibility of highly rigorous educational research. Under her leadership, the Regional Educational Laboratory program introduced researcher-practice partnerships that have served as laboratories of innovation for knowledge utilization. She has also greatly improved the utility of federal educational research databases and launched a new IES website.

Neild’s appointment is a homecoming of sorts, notes Kate Shaw, RFA’s Executive Director. “Ruth has deep roots in Philadelphia. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education. Using Philadelphia as a laboratory for much of her research, she has published extensively on topics such as the importance of early warning systems for high school dropout, career and technical education, and small schools. Moreover, a multi-year collaboration with RFA led to a series of seminal reports on the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in Philadelphia. We are excited to welcome her back to RFA, and to Philadelphia.”

“I am thrilled to be returning to Philadelphia,” said Neild. “My early experience at RFA showed me the importance of thinking creatively about strategies that bridge research and practice, and significantly influenced my work at IES,” she noted. “The Philadelphia Education Research Consortium provides me with an important opportunity to expand my vision for knowledge utilization by creating a national model for how rigorous, place-based research can best serve the needs of those on the front lines of public education.”

RFA is an independent, nonprofit education research organization with more than two decades of experience in utilizing research as a tool to improve access to high-quality education for disadvantaged students. With a staff of over 30, RFA retains its historic commitment to Philadelphia, while also engaging in a wide range of K-16 education research across the region and nation. Dr. Neild will join RFA on January 17, 2017.

For inquiries, please contact Kate Shaw at 267-295-7770.

RFA Releases New Policy Brief on Early Childhood Education

Policymakers are recognizing that Pennsylvania has fallen behind in providing equitable access to high quality early childhood education. Gov. Tom Wolf ran on a campaign promise of universal pre-k access and proposed an unprecedented budget increase for early childhood programs in 2016. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney has made pre-k a cornerstone of his education agenda and successfully lobbied City Council to pass a soda tax to fund it.

But not all early childhood education is created equal. As policymakers push for expanded access, they must also ensure that Pennsylvania’s “Quality Ratings and Improvement System” (QRIS) defines and measures quality in a meaningful and rigorous way, and provides adequate support to early childhood education providers. To this end, the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) has embarked on an effort to refine Keystone STARS, the state’s QRIS for early childhood education.

In this brief, RFA explores existing research on the “quality characteristics” of early childhood education programs that improve child outcomes, outlines ways in which the state’s QRIS can be refined to better evaluate and promote these quality characteristics, and highlights important policy considerations for local and state leaders seeking to expand access to quality early learning programs.

Click here to read the brief.

RFA Presentations Featured at AERA 2016

Research for Action will once again make a strong showing at the American Educational Research Association (AERA)’s Annual Meeting. Check out our sessions, described below.




12:25-1:55 pm
Convention Center, Level One, Room 158 A
What Does “Fair” Mean to Students?
Dr. Katrina Morrison will present her paper examining ninth grade students’ perceptions of fairness and unfairness with regards to their school’s discipline policy.
2:15-3:45 pm
Convention Center, Level Two, Exhibit Hall D – Section B
The Launch of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC): Lessons From the First Year of Implementation
Drs. Rosemary Hughes and Brittan Hallar will speak about their experience helping to launch PERC and the process by which PERC selected and executed its first research project: an in-depth analysis of how best to apply the emerging concepts of Blended Learning to Philadelphia school contexts.




8:15-9:45 am
Convention Center, Level Two, Exhibit Hall D – Section D
Career and Technical Education in Juvenile Justice Facilities: A Study of the Pennsylvania Academic Career and Technical Training Network
Roger Chu will be presenting a study, co-authored with Dr. Tracey Hartmann, in a roundtable session on juvenile justice facilities that have agreed to raise the quality of the educational services they provide by using Career and Technical Training as a key component of their educational program.
10:35am-12:05 pm
Convention Center, Level One, Room 102 A
Outcomes-Based Funding in Postsecondary Education: An Expanded Analysis of Effects in Three States
RFA’s Director of Quantitative Research, Dr. Daniel Long, and Senior Associate, Dr. Kate Callahan, will be presenting a study examining whether the different versions of outcomes-based funding policies in Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee had an impact on student outcomes.
2:45-4:15 pm
Convention Center, Level Two, Room 207 B
The Unique Role of Non-University Research Centers in the Study of Educational Equity
In this AERA Presidential Session, RFA’s Executive Director, Dr. Kate Shaw, will participate as a panelist discussing the critical role that organizations can play in bringing rigorous social science methodology to one of education’s most intractable problems.

RFA’s Kate Shaw Testifies at Phila. City Council

RFA’s executive director, Kate Shaw, delivered testimony on February 18, 2016 to the Philadelphia City Council hearing on the impact of state budget cuts on the city’s schools. RFA shared statewide data collected in collaboration with PASA and PASBO on the ways in which districts across PA have responded to decreased state investment and rising mandated costs. Research tells us that these impacts have been felt most in high-poverty districts like Philadelphia.

You can read RFA’s testimony here, and learn more about our statewide survey in the most recent PASA-PASBO Report on School District Budgets here.

Research for Action Appoints David Lapp as Director of Policy Research

Research for Action is excited to announce the appointment of David Lapp as its new Director of Policy Research. For the past seven years David has served as a Staff Attorney at the Education Law Center, where he represented dozens of families on a variety of education law issues and led a range of efforts to address inequity in education policy at the local, state and national levels. David brings particular expertise in school finance, student discipline, special education, school governance, and charter school law.

“By bringing an attorney of David’s stature to RFA, we begin an important new chapter in RFA’s policy research capacity,” said Executive Director Kate Shaw. “David’s strong track record of providing insightful, effective legal analysis on issues of central importance to Pennsylvania’s public schools will allow us to continue to strengthen our efforts to use rigorous research as a tool to ensure that all children have access to high quality education.”

David has devoted his career to education and child justice. Prior to obtaining his law degree from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, David served as a middle and high school social studies teacher at two Philadelphia charter schools. He has also taught GED and Adult Basic Education in Philadelphia schools and libraries and previously coordinated programming at an emergency youth shelter.

“I am thrilled to be joining RFA,” said David. “I look forward to combining my knowledge of education law with the deep research expertise of RFA’s talented staff.”

David Lapp’s appointment at RFA begins on March 29th. For more information, please contact Kate Shaw at

RFA Community Schools Op-Ed Published in Philadelphia Public School Notebook

Mayor Kenney’s first major policy announcement centered on plans to develop 25 community schools across Philadelphia, but the transition from school to comprehensive community hub requires a significant shift in mission and practice. RFA’s Mark Duffy and Della Jenkins explore what local policy-makers can learn from the experiences of other districts that have invested in the community schools approach with varying results.  Published today in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, the op-ed focuses on the importance of inclusive planning, shared goals, and transparent metrics for the success of the community school model. Read more here.

RFA’s Kate Shaw Presents at the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia with Otis Hackney

RFA’s Executive Director, Kate Shaw, was a guest speaker at the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia’s Education Funders Roundtable last Tuesday, February 9, 2016. She discussed the research on community schools, including key findings and insights from RFA’s recently published policy brief, “Community Schools in Practice: Research on Implementation and Impact.”

Kate was joined by Otis Hackney, Chief Education Officer for the Mayor’s Office of Philadelphia, who spoke about the City’s key education-related initiatives, including their strategy for creating 25 community schools.