Corbett’s education reform plan misses the mark
The Corbett Administration's education plan misses the mark by focusing on tuition vouchers and expansion of charter schools, which could undermine vital support for the public schools attended by nearly 90 percent of the state's school children, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
The statewide organization representing locally elected school directors noted that some of the governor's proposals are needed, such as improvements to the teacher evaluation system.
"We welcome dialog with Gov. Corbett and members of the General Assembly about strengthening the public education system in the commonwealth," said Thomas J. Gentzel, PSBA executive director.
The governor's proposed taxpayer-funded tuition voucher program sounds similar to other pieces of legislation that have been introduced throughout the year, which means it is still unaffordable, unaccountable, unproven, unpopular and unconstitutional. Some of PSBA's arguments include the following:
- Unaffordable – Costs for other voucher proposals have been estimated at more than $1 billion, at a time when public education funding has already been cut by more than $930 million.
- Unaccountable – Nonpublic schools are not accountable in the same way that public schools are. They do not hold students to the same rigorous state academic standards and graduation requirements as public schools, and they are not required to assess their students using any state measures of student achievement. Corbett's voucher plan does call for scholarship recipients to take an assessment to measure academic achievement, which is encouraging, but the details are not clear.
- Unproven – a report released in July 2011 by the National Center for Education Policy, Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research, examines a decade's worth of research on school vouchers and concludes that vouchers have had no clear positive effect on student academic achievement, and mixed outcomes for students overall.
- Unpopular – Within a year, the public has said "no" three times to vouchers in statewide polls. The most recent poll from Terry Madonna Opinion Research shows 65 percent of the public either strongly or somewhat opposed to taxpayer-funded vouchers.
- Unconstitutional – The state's Constitution is far more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution when it comes to government aid to education or religious schools making vouchers unconstitutional.
PSBA is not opposed to charter schools as an option for students. The association does, however, believe as they are set up now, they are unaffordable, unaccountable and underperforming. Charter school expansion is costly. Currently, almost all funding for cyber and charter schools is provided by local school districts, which places a significant financial burden on districts' resources. In fact, charter schools have cost school districts more than $875 million over the last two years. The Corbett proposal calls for improvements to the current payment mechanism for charters schools, which PSBA would encourage, but the association has not yet seen any details of how this may work.
Charter school performance is a mixed record. While there are examples of highly effective charter schools, such examples are not representative of charters as a whole. National research shows that students in many charter schools have significantly lower learning gains, even in Pennsylvania. A report released by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University in April 2011 showed that students in Pennsylvania charter schools on average make smaller learning gains compared to the educational gains those students would have had in their traditional public schools.
PSBA's Education Research & Policy Center found similar results in a study it conducted in 2009. A look at the 2011 PSSA scores of Pennsylvania's charter schools confirms the studies. Based on the Department of Education's own numbers, just 56 percent of charter schools reached targets for Adequate Yearly Progress as required under federal law, while 94 percent of school districts reached targets for AYP.
Finally, charter school reforms must include accountability measures. Again, Gov. Corbett alludes to this in his proposal. PSBA believes these appropriate mechanisms for authorization, oversight and intervention of charter schools are needed to remedy not only funding and governance concerns, but to establish and maintain financial and academic accountability. One major area of concern is the proposed expansion of charter schools without involvement from local communities by creating a statewide authorization entity to create new charters. The key problem with a central or multiple authorizers is that they would have no direct connection or responsibility to the local communities and taxpayers who will pay the bills.
PSBA cautions against the expansion of the current Education Improvement Tax Credit program, which provides tax credits to businesses for investment in educational opportunities, without additional accountability measures incorporated into the law. These tax credits, paid for with public dollars, can reimburse businesses for contributions to Scholarship Organizations (SOs). Before the state dramatically adds to the available money in this program, it must require documentation or testing of academic performance from schools that receive these taxpayer-subsidized vouchers.
PSBA does in general support the teacher evaluation improvements being proposed by the administration. Quality teachers are the most important ingredient in the success of students so it is extremely important to have a good way to evaluate their effectiveness in the classroom.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is a nonprofit statewide association of public school boards, pledged to the highest ideals of local lay leadership for the public schools of the commonwealth. Founded in 1895, PSBA was the first school boards association established in the United States.
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