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Taking on Education Reform with The Philly Inquirer

This weekend The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Editorial Board posted an article on their blog, “Say What”, criticizing Governor Corbett and his education reform plans. The Inquirer’s editorial board suggests that Corbett should “stop acting like ‘competition’ from charters and vouchers will be enough to fix bad schools.” We of course responded, but The Inquirer has yet to post it. So we’ve continued the debate here on Edspresso. Check it out…

This post by The Inquirer’s Editorial Board is misleading. Yes, governors do have a responsibility for schools, and yes, the issue of public education has become extremely politicized in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in recent months as both Governors Corbett and Christie look for ways to take responsibility for the failing public education systems in their respective states. But rather than demonize their approach to try something new, by offering parents and students school choice, we should be commending them for trying to get it right.

Technically speaking, according to Article III, Section 14, in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, “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.” It does not prescribe one system or another, but technically gives the General Assembly absolute power over education. Governor Corbett and his colleagues in the General Assembly recognize that Pennsylvania’s current system is neither “thorough” nor “efficient” and is not “serving the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Consider that only 33 percent of Pennsylvania’s 4th graders and 36 percent of 8th graders can read at a basic proficiency. Eighth grade math scores are not much better with only 38 percent of students proficient. Yet, on average, public school districts in the Commonwealth spend nearly $13,000 per student (among the highest in the nation). This does not seem very efficient and clearly does not seem to be serving student needs very thoroughly.

School choice programs — of which there are 20 (scholarship programs and tax credits) in 12 states and Washington, DC — increase student achievement and graduation rates while costing only one quarter of the amount of money, per child, than conventional public schools.

Scholarship programs stimulate healthy competition that helps public schools improve; there has never been a single study — ever — demonstrating that scholarships have a negative impact on public schools.

According to Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program yields healthy competition that encourages public schools to improve. In 32 Milwaukee schools that faced the most competition –– with two-thirds or more students eligible for vouchers –– fourth-grade math achievement test scores exhibited what amounted to an annual gain of 6.3 National Percentile Rank (NPR) points over a four-year period. The 66 Milwaukee schools facing less competition (with less than two thirds of voucher eligible students) saw an annual gain of 4.8 points.  In contrast, the schools facing no competition saw an annual gain of only 3.5 points.

Charter school students in New York City demonstrate a long-term trend of outperforming their peers in conventional public schools thanks to a strong state charter law that allows for multiple and highly accountable authorizers. In fact, 68.5 percent of the Big Apple’s charter students are proficient in math compared to 57.3 percent in conventional public schools. There was once a time where conventional public school scores in New York City looked a lot more like Pennsylvania’s dismal record. But over time, the competition from giving parents a choice has improved all schools.

School choice works and is a very effective tool for improving all schools. Competition in education is just as effective as in every other sector of American life. The achievement data from other states do not lie. And Pennsylvania’s working families ARE clamoring for “an escape route.” Yes, maybe it is time to change the political rhetoric, and the media’s role is, in part, to hold elected officials accountable. But the media’s role is also to report the facts. Let’s change the focus from politics and the word choices of our politicians to reporting on the real issue at hand, how best to serve the needs of Pennsylvania’s students.