Rescuing Public Education in Pennsylvania

Posted by By at 23 May, at 11 : 50 AM Print

There is no magic pill to cure all of the ailments that besiege public education. Folks that tell you they have the answer don’t understand the  problem.

Eliminating property taxes, reducing pension payments and consolidating school districts will provide relief to taxpayers, but fiscal reform (which is absolutely necessary) won’t produce better results in the classroom.

We all must accept responsibility for decades of bickering, neglect and ideological stalemate. Replaying the same talking points over and over is not going to change the outcomes.

Parents, teachers and school boards need to be held accountable and invest in the future. But lets be clear, the marketplace will not pick your kids up in the morning, invest in special education or provide a public forum to respond to your concerns.

What We Want

It is time to detoxify the war over educational resources. Let’s begin by establishing what parents, teachers and tax payers can all agree to be the core functions of public education.

  • Accountability from administrators, teachers, parents and students.
  • Consistent discipline and structure through a uniform Code of Conduct.
  • High academic standards that are not hindered by mandates and “teaching to the test.”
  • Strengthen parent-teacher partnerships.
  • Public-private collaboration that contribute to well rounded development including apprenticeship programs, consumer education, distance learning, financial literacy and work programs.
  • Safe schools.

What Works

We need a new script to preserve the social contract of providing quality public education to our children. There are successful reform models to choose from that don’t involve political zero-sum games.

For example, Washington D.C.’s former-Mayor Adrian Fenty was elected  in 2007, and hired Michelle Rhee as chancellor of Public  Schools to reform a failing urban educational system.

At that time Fenty and Rhee came into office, African-American students in D.C. were 70 percentage points behind white students in math. Fenty stated, “We’ve closed that by 20 percentage points, which is
a huge gain, but it still leaves us 50 percentage points  behind.”

But many in the community revolted. What did Fenty and Rhee do that caused so much commotion? First, the Mayor introduced legislation on his first day in office to take control of the school system. Next, he appointed Michelle Rhee. She shut down two dozen schools, dismissed educators for poor performance, and overhauled the teacher evaluation system to include student performance.

How did the voters respond to accountability and structural reform in D.C.? They fired Mr. Fenty in the 2011 Democratic primary for his “elitism.”

Mr. Fenty remains steadfast in his commitment to educational reform: “It’s time we did something about it.  At the end of the day, politicians are going to have to make tough decisions and risk their political future because it’s the right thing to do.”

On the other side of the safety net stands an unelected  celebrity intent on creating replicable reform. André  Agassi’s Foundation for Education was created in 1994, and has achieved staggering success in urban arenas.

Agassi raised private funds, partnered with the Clark County School District and unveiled the André Agassi College Preparatory Academy in 2001. The K-12 public charter school has 623 students.

The results were astonishing. In Nevada, only 50%  of ninth graders graduate from high school, and only 10%  of these young people survive to graduate from college. Yet Agassi’s Prep program achieved a 100% high school graduation rate, and a near-perfect college acceptance rate among the
senior class in one of lowest performing school districts in the country.

How do they do it?

Smaller classrooms, more time on task  – including longer days and an an extended school year – full-day  kindergarten, ongoing staff development, increased investment in public schools, enhanced accountability through uniform standards to measure student, teacher, administrator and school success, and flexibility in rewarding teachers, regardless of tenure or union status.

Pennsylvania school boards, teachers, parents, and privateers should take notice. Agassi achieved measurable improvement while preserving the social contract of  providing a quality public education. Agassi’s success demonstrates that accountability, structure and partnerships can work.

Triage

Before we launch new curriculum and programming initiatives, we need to understand that Pennsylvania’s method of funding education will have to change. Clearly, health care, pension obligations and unfunded mandates have to be addressed. The Governor and the legislature need to determine what the formula will look like in the future and stick to it.

We also need to reform the current funding method for charter and cyber charter schools which can result in unaccountable expenditures, cross-district subsidization and profit taking.

Economic realties have changed and we need to acknowledge that flat growth and property taxes are not reliable or equitable funding streams. We will have to tap into other state resources such as increasing the Marcellus Shale severance fee above what Texans pay, and accessing slots revenues and table game proceeds to defray pension obligations and create increased permanent state contributions to public education.

We need reform at the local level.  Many financial wounds have been self-inflicted and caused by ill advised capital projects, “insider contracts,”  tax abatements and poor planning.

We can save money and conserve resources at the local and regional levels through aggregate purchases of energy, food services, health care and fuel; coordination of a regional transportation system; require school board members to take accounting and financial management; incentive retrofitting of schools along Green Building guidelines to reduce energy demand and water consumption; and most importantly, hold a referendum on the school district’s proposed budget.

In Pennsylvania we must defeat philosophical gridlock and legislative inertia, and seek out proven reform models. Doing nothing is not an option. There is no cure-all for public education, but with more accountability, community partnerships and shared sacrifice, we can   rescue public education in Pennsylvania.

Photo by The Life of Bryan

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This post was written by:
- who has written 352 posts for Rock The Capital
Eric J. Epstein is RocktheCapital‘s coordinator and a community advocate for good government for over 25 years. Mr. Epstein is also Chairman of the Three Mile Island Alert, Inc., a safe-energy organization founded in 1977; President of EFMR Monitoring Group, Inc., a non-profit economic development corporation established in 1977, and Chairman of the Stray Winds Area Neighbors (SWAN), a smart growth association organized in 2005. Mr. Epstein was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at PSU-Harrisburg (1992-1999) and co-authored the Dictionary of the Holocaust, which was released by Greenwood Press (1997) - Email Eric Epstein

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