The HR 610 discussion and my own notes on education

With 45 readers’ comments to date from readers on “H.R. 610 Choices in Education Act: a disaster if it passes in Congress,” I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to post their views. You have contributed a lot of good information to a critical debate. The lines of discussion are pretty clear: what are the merits of public schools, charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling? And what should our federal and state governments do as a consequence?

I think all those forms of education have their place. But I like to start thinking from the legal underpinning: the PA state constitution says under the header “Public School System” that “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

So whatever other options exist, the state must “maintain and support” public education. A recent report said the loss to public schools is about $5,000 for each student that enrolls in a charter school. That is a problem, when the public is financing two competing school systems and one takes away from the other.

Charter schools were set up in PA to innovate. Schools specializing in, say, arts and performance fill an innovative niche, but charter schools that just compete for public school business do not.

The state constitution talks about public schools, not a free market supported by taxpayers. Just as a curiosity: that free market includes the charter chain run by the Islamist scholar Fethullah Gülen, whom the president of Turkey accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt there from his home here in Pennsylvania.

Public schools are under the control of democratically elected school boards. Charter and private schools are not, and some are profit-making institutions, which on the backs of taxpayers seems to me unsavory.

Private schools definitely fill a need; but so-called vouchers (which in fact we already have in PA, through an end run around the constitution) siphon off money from public schools to private ones.  I think those PA vouchers, which intercept tax payments before they reach the state treasury, are improper.

I agree that some students do gain from being home-schooled. But I’d like to see a demonstrated need based on each student’s own learning program, not a preference based on parents’ beliefs. Some homeschooling involves charter school support; fine, as long as it works for a student that genuinely needs both.

Some teachers should not be teaching; some charter school operators should not have anything to do with education; and some parents are not qualified to instruct their young. This is why we have public school systems with professional standards and leadership ultimately depending on an elected school board.

And what’s the role of government? I didn’t care for No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, because I thought they were too centralizing and that imposing multiple choice tests from Washington was a serious error.

I am more comfortable with states setting an educational path and I’d  like to see Pennsylvania working toward paying about half of  the costs of  K-12 public education, which was Governor Rendell’s goal. The PA state contribution is now foundering around one-third. But just beware; whenever you talk about whether the state contribution is going up or down,  you have to specify if  you are including pensions or only actual educational expenses.

One reason charter schools can afford so many ads is that they get contributions from private donors. I wouldn’t want public school systems to become dependent on charity, but given the current challenges, I wonder if they could raise more of their own funding, at lest for some beneficial extras, from donations. The problem then becomes, of course, that richer school districts can raise more donations as well as more tax revenue.

That is why the state needs what is known as a “fair funding formula,” which would take into account districts’ demographics, resources, number of special needs and gifted students, special missions, and the like.

But good luck right now in getting the General Assembly to work out fair funding for anything!

PS Back to HR 610: you might be interested in this download from Parents Across America: voucherstudies3-17

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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