By: Gloria C. Endres
South Philly resident
The past two weeks have been eventful for school districts throughout Pennsylvania, particularly for the School District of Philadelphia. Pro-privatization advocates designated the last week of January “School Choice Week.” Newspaper columns on both sides of the issue appeared every day. One, by state Sen. and potential Philadelphia mayoral candidate Anthony Williams, addressed the debate over charter schools. Sen. Williams claims that charter schools are not only here to stay but the only viable choice for struggling families. He ignores the fact that 20 years of school choice have not increased racial or economic integration, but in fact have done just the opposite. Only families with means and mobility can access the most exclusive schools (private, magnet, charter or neighborhood). And charter schools serve proportionately fewer children who are the hardest to teach. So in many cases, it is the charter school, not the parent who has the final choice.
Williams supported the original charter school law, which Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has repeatedly called “the worst charter school law in the nation.” That law allows schools to become privately managed businesses with a special license that allows them to sell their buildings to nonprofits that rent them back to the charter. The charter can then receive rent reimbursement from the state. All of this is supported by Pennsylvania taxpayers with little oversight. In other words, charters are “public” in name only. Two political action organizations that have contributed to Williams’ political campaigns, Students First PA PAC and American Federation for Children, are both in favor of expanding charter schools.
The other big education event occurred Feb. 5, when Gov. Tom Wolf gave his budget address. His $34.15 billion proposal is an increase of $927.3 million, or 2.8 percent, over the current year. There are intended increases in both the basic education subsidy and special education line items. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association issued a special report on how that budget impacts education in the commonwealth. The governor is proposing an increase of $200 million (3.8 percent) for basic education as well as $241.9 million in block grants for charter schools. In addition, the budget provides increased funding for special education, including special funds for necessary equipment to enable children with serious illnesses or injuries to attend class. There is also money for career and technical education, school safety, pupil transportation, school employees’ retirement and additional funds for state and federal standardized testing. Early childhood education programs will receive increases of about $40 million. What the governor’s budget does not fund is school district construction reimbursement.
Meanwhile, an intensive study by Temple University’s Center on Regional Politics concludes that, of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, nearly 300 districts are looking at huge deficits and the need to cut expenses. Philadelphia is definitely on that list. Our decaying school buildings, lack of necessary resources and support personnel like nurses, counselors and librarians only make the need for better funding more acute. The main source of funding for all districts is property taxes. Philadelphia is outspent by well-to-do districts with thriving economies and stable tax bases. The result is that Philadelphia’s children, without heavy community involvement, do not have access to the same quality of education as others living only a few miles away.
Part of the problem is that, besides charters, too much funding is being diverted to private education. There are tax credit scholarships that I call backdoor vouchers. Sen. Williams and others were unsuccessful in passing school voucher laws, so they concocted legislation that diverts hundreds of millions of education dollars to private schools, while neglecting poorer public school districts, like Philadelphia. Plus, they manage to divert our taxes with no accountability. Main Line private schools that obtain tax-supported scholarships are not required to administer the same standardized tests that regular public school students must take.
Our children deserve a much fairer system that provides high-quality education for all, no matter where they live. Schools should not be funded so that private operators/managers/investors profit.
Gloria C. Endres is a retired public school teacher and former adjunct assistant professor at Temple University’s College of Education.