When asking how to fix education for all throughout Pennsylvania, we continue to quiz the education industry, from former elected officials to career education bureaucrats, on which reforms are the most impactful to pursue for better results. 

Yet, when we focus on them, we fail the test of listening to the true experts about children’s education experience in Pennsylvania: the parents.

Once again, the question we must ask is: do we primarily focus on school children or school systems when we tackle education reform?

As we find ourselves between the end of National School Choice Week and the celebration of Black History Month, we must make a choice: listen to the echoes of history and the clamor for scholastic hope by families throughout Pennsylvania today, or cave in to complaints over funding from school districts that have received billions in federal aid just over the past two school years alone? 

If education is paramount in the new civil rights movement for school choice, reform must embolden the potential of our future and not repeat the ways of our troubled past.

READ MORE — Karin Majewski: Life after the teachers’ union

Since the formation of the 1949 Pennsylvania Public School Code, discrimination has tarnished the promise of equality in America and the potential within our school districts in the commonwealth. In the “Cradle of American Democracy,” self-determination in education in Philadelphia is stymied by rigid bureaucratic mandates placing students in failing schools, the same ones that have failed their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents. In recent years, we have seen desperate parents seeking better options for their children actually go to jail in their attempts to escape failing schools.

It’s no wonder that public charter schools — along with other school choice programs within Pennsylvania and across the nation — have grown substantially. For example, charter school enrollment has expanded over 85% from the 2009–10 school year to today, with a 60% increase even before the Covid-19 pandemic fully hit. Despite this steady increase, Pennsylvanians are paying less on average per charter school student than they do for each school district student. 

In fact, in most instances, school districts have seen an uptick in total revenue per student even as charter school enrollment has increased. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute commissioned a 2021 study which determined that, “…in Pennsylvania, a 10 percentage-point increase in the number of students attending charter schools was associated with a 7% increase in ‘host’ districts’ total revenue per pupil, a 7% increase in their total spending per pupil, and a 9% increase in their local revenue per pupil.”

Additional research shows that “…Pennsylvania charter schools received $12,175 per pupil, while traditional public schools would have received $17,989 for those same students.” Unfortunately, 170,000 Pennsylvania students realized this tough reality during the hard-pressed 2020–2021 school year: one quarter of every dollar allocated for their education never got to schools they attended.

Over the course of a K-12 education, that’s over $60,000 per student — roughly the equivalent of nine years of the national average for Catholic grade school tuition and one year of the national average for private high school tuition.

They claim the waste in public education is due to charter schools — even as we spend money at schools that students don’t attend?

Education reform should be a bipartisan, inclusive issue, but efforts to cast blame and block the progress of reform continue along nasty partisan and racial lines, with one side addressing only the charter school law while entrenching a broken school code that pre-date busing integration as the other side seeks to follow the national tide for more school choice. People of color — the victims of redlined school districts who are disproportionately enrolled in public charter schools in Pennsylvania — usually have elected representatives that listen more to bankrolled lobbyists and political agendas than they do their constituents’ repeated expressed desires for expanded choice. Elected officials that benefited from social progress in education in their youth now stand in opposition to these same programs today in a manner that makes their opposition to Justice Clarence Thomas’ position on affirmative action find comfort in the shared hypocrisy. 

Reform efforts must ensure that all viable options to achieve the best educational outcomes are available for Pennsylvania students. In areas like my hometown of Pittsburgh, where student safety cannot be assured in district public schools and “few solutions” currently exist, options such as charter schools must be allowed to thrive. In regions where teachers of color have scarcely been found in local district schools for years, public charter schools must continue to provide a collective familiar face to thousands of students at-risk of dropping off of the academic grid during this pandemic. In areas where schools traditionally fail and underperformed, having better local options are a must if we are to remedy the impact of blighted schools and neighborhoods on multiple generations. 

Reform efforts must ensure that all viable options to achieve the best educational outcomes are available for Pennsylvania students.

We can do this by changing the authorization process, ensuring that the toxic competition between school districts and charter schools is eliminated so that all public schools can flourish without unnecessary tensions. The working relationship between local school districts and charter schools must pivot toward collaborative efforts and away from punitive actions.

We can do this by addressing waste in public education as an altruistic effort focused on students, not systems — from investigations into wasteful spending in local school districts in Penn Hills to federal concerns over corruption in public schools in Harrisburg. 

We can do this by allowing every education dollar to follow each child to the school she or he attends. Any dollar more focused more on an adult’s pension, politics, or salary than it is on a child’s educational journey toward a self-determined life is a wasteful endeavor that must be reformed immediately. Any desire to close a charter school that’s failed its mission over a decade while bolstering district schools that have failed their missions over a century puts politics over people. 

There are policies that must be instituted in a bipartisan, inclusive fashion that empowers Pennsylvania families and makes better fiscal sense than our current system. There are policies that can improve the academic performances of all community schools that have failed children for decades. Charter schools jumped into that noble fight years ago, but we need more education advocates to join in. That’s why it’s so important for the General Assembly to cast aside politics and listen to the experts: Pennsylvania parents. 

Expand school choice. 

Empower charter schools. 

Envision a better future where each child has the best scholastic fit for her or his needs. 

Lenny McAllister is the CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

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