Pennsylvania’s government has a deservedly bad reputation, including for missing national trends. It’s up to the State Senate to protect us from reaching a new low, going in the opposite direction of others — and harming 70,000 students.
Many states are expanding choice in education, and a historic number of America’s parents are applying for K–12 scholarships for their children. The big news in our state has been the ongoing debate over the unfinished, much-needed work of enacting “Lifeline” scholarships. We could join the trend of allowing poor parents to rescue their kids from the worst schools in our state. But there is a stunning story of politicians doing the exact opposite — working to take away options that work for students.
It’s yet another expression of legislative arrogance. Many of the legislators conspiring to limit school options are white, progressive, suburban members who represent some of the highest-rated public school districts. Yet they’re insistent that other students be forced to attend failing schools or schools that don’t work for them.
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House Bill 1422 passed the House and now awaits consideration by the State Senate. If the Senate truly wants to empower parents, HB 1422 ought to be rejected as a bad idea — worse than drafting Ben Simmons.
Yet, the usual suspects co-sponsored this bill, which slashes cyber school funding by up to 46 percent, essentially killing off cybers. Why? Because they claim Pennsylvania cyber schools get “too much” money.
Their never-ending thirst for “more money” is ridiculous considering this year’s state budget contains the largest increase in public education spending ever. This comes one year after what had been the largest increase in public education spending ever. Plus, every school district in our state received millions in Covid relief — Philadelphia alone received over $1 billion. More stunning: the school districts across the state are sitting on approximately $5 billion in reserves.
So, is this really about school districts needing more money, especially suburban districts?
Unlike traditional public schools that are guaranteed funding regardless of enrollment through property taxes and the state budget each year, cyber schools are only paid a per-student fee. If students don’t enroll, they don’t get paid. If a given school has 326 students, the school gets paid for 326 students.
This school year, there may be almost 70,000 Pennsylvania students enrolled in cybers. To put that number in context, that’s three times the entire Pittsburgh School District and over 60 percent of Philadelphia’s. Since the school lockdowns in 2020, Pennsylvania cyber schools have nearly doubled in enrollment. Students attend these schools for a variety of reasons, including: they became accustomed to online education during the lockdowns; they deal with social anxiety; they experienced bullying at prior schools; they enjoy the opportunity to learn at a faster pace; they need more time to work on their learning; they felt their local school didn’t work for them — or they just like their cyber school!
Why do so many white, progressive, suburban legislators keep trying to force mostly black and brown students to attend schools based on zip code alone?
Those 70,000 students are seen as “competition” for traditional public schools. So, the usual suspects have decided enough is enough. But in a sneaky, cowardly way, rather than legislating to close down Pennsylvania cyber schools, they instead pit students against students. Politicians create anger and even hatred in communities through political games.
These politicians whip up audiences at school board and town hall meetings by arguing: “If it wasn’t for cybers, then…” Fill in the blank with a litany of false promises: “we wouldn’t have to raise taxes,” “we would have more money for our public schools,” “we could fix the roof,” “we could hire that teacher,” “we wouldn’t have to lay off the other teacher,” etc.
What they don’t care to realize is that they are not only misleading taxpayers and parents, but they are making cyber school parents — and the students — out to be the enemy, responsible for every local ill.
If McDonald’s was the only fast food restaurant in Lower Providence, they would get all the business. If Chik-Fil-A opened and some people ate there, these politicians would argue that Chik-Fil-A stole money from McDonald’s. If politicians forced Chik-Fil-A to close, one could make the silly argument that this would boost sales (attendance) at McDonald’s.
But this is about children, not sandwiches. Isn’t it in everyone’s interest that all children find schools that work best for them? Why would we want any child to be forced to leave a school that works? In the real world, taking away up to 46 percent of a school’s budget means that many, if not all, cybers would close — which seems to be their real goal.
It is an academic, economic, and moral imperative that every child have access to a school that works. Cyber school students finally found a school that works for them, often after trying others.
That’s why cutting their funding would be so tragic.
Most of this budget fight has been over improving education and expanding school choice — especially Lifeline scholarships. The State Senate did its job to help those children. The House must finish the job by passing Lifeline.
Regardless of what happens with Lifeline, under no circumstances should politicians slash cyber schools’ funding, putting 70,000 students at risk.
It’s time to put the focus of education back on our children. And it’s time to ask why those politicians keep wanting to dictate to those parents and students.
And why do so many white, progressive, suburban legislators keep trying to limit parents’ choices and force mostly black and brown students to attend schools based on zip code alone?
Guy Ciarrocchi is a Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for Broad + Liberty and RealClear Pennsylvania, serves on the board of the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, and consults for a cyber school. Follow him @PaSuburbsGuy.