One of the most controversial and emotional issues facing our Commonwealth involves the future of the education system. The media's attempt to reduce nearly every major complicated issue to a sound bite has resulted in this debate being labeled "school choice."
Mentioning those two words can send otherwise calm people into a tirade, either for or against, that can leave observers shaking their heads in confusion and disbelief.
Constituents often ask where I stand on school choice. This can be a tricky question because the phrase conjures dissimilar meanings to different groups. In any debate one must first define the terms to ensure all parties discuss the same subject. That effort is confounded when it comes to school choice.
Across the country, I know of nearly 20 quite different programs that can be classified as a form of school choice. Let's discuss just a few variations to provide clarification.
To some, school choice means parents should be able to choose whether to send their children to a charter school. Most citizens don't realize that charter schools are public schools and have achieved great success. I still hear a lot of myths concerning charters but we must tackle that through educating the public.
Right here in Pittsburgh, I toured the Urban Pathways Charter School which follows all the same accountability regulations as traditional public schools. With a student body of 98 percent minority students, most of whom qualify for the reduced lunch program, the school produced an output last year of 100 percent of their seniors graduating and going on to college.
By the way, Urban Pathways accomplished this at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools. Oh, one more item; it has have never turned away a special needs student. I talked with parents, teachers, students and administrators, and remain quite impressed with this incredible outcome.
Opponents constantly insist that charters drain needed funds from public schools. They fail to mention that for every charter school student, 30 to 40 percent of the money remains in the home district to cover overhead.
To others, school choice means attending cyber schools. While internet based cyber school may not be for every student it certainly provides a segment of the population a viable alternative. Having witnessed the curriculum and safeguards currently in place, public sentiment indicates cyber school is an option that will grow over time.
To still others, school choice means "vouchers" which includes several variations. One concept
allows parents to apply the money allotted for their child to whatever school they choose. As long as the money follows the child, it has been ruled constitutional.
Of course, opponents raise the question of why offer any "choice" at all. Some groups insist our public schools are doing well enough. Teacher unions point to a recent study ranking Pennsylvania schools eighth nationwide in Math proficiency.
Wow eighth, that sounds impressive until you learn that only 40 percent of eighth-grade students rate proficient, which is slightly higher than the national average of 34 percent. Not a figure to be proud of. What business could continue when 60 percent of its final product was not proficient? Yet, this level of achievement is celebrated.
Even worse, when compared globally, we lag far behind our competitive counterparts (23rd). Economic successes like Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong are far ahead, but even countries like Slovenia and Estonia beat our kids in math while we stay just a step ahead of Slovakia and Poland.
Within Pennsylvania we suffer great disparity in math scores. Considering that 60 percent of students are not proficient in math statewide is truly alarming, but if you look at the City of Philadelphia that number soars to 82 percent which is less than most of the Third World.
We all benefit from school choice, as defined in the examples above. Students, parents, teachers and taxpayers benefit from competition. Traditional school representatives have emphasized they are not afraid to compete and that is good. But lowering the standard of what we deem acceptable is not the answer. In some cases we may be forced to consider changing the very paradigm we have operated under for decades.
Taxpayers refuse to continue funding a system that produces marginal output at great cost, especially when more effective alternatives are available.
The Legislature will be examining ways to improve our schools, insert competition and offer choices to parents. We all need to welcome new ideas that will enhance our ability to fully educate the children of Pennsylvania.