Corbett’s Case for School Choice

Gov. Tom Corbett delivered the following speech at the American Federation for Children conference at the Washington Marriott in Washington D.C. on Monday, May 9, 2011.

What isn’t working about public schools is … in many ways … what isn’t working about the public at large.

It is said that our educational system is supposed to perpetuate the culture. This idea harkens to a time when the culture meant a few important values … and meant them clearly.

The culture of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries was about personal liberty.

It was about autonomy — as in self-reliance. And it was about community … and all the responsibilities being part of a community implied.

Society was coherent and …  despite differences in religion and ethnic background … those groups almost always shared a common thread of personal and public morality.

There was …  if not a common religion or background … a commonality of purpose. The Social Contract was in force.

Our public schools were established because of those values.

Not the least of them was the principle that children should not compete with adults in the workforce. They ought not to be idle, either.

They need to be granted childhoods and an education that would shape them so they became worthwhile adults.

To the extent that any group viewed itself as a people apart … the town school was there to make them part of the society as a whole.

It was where the Irish met the Poles and the Germans met the Italians.

If America was to be a melting pot … the public school was the main burner on the stove.

It’s amazing to think that a concept this basic — this grounded in both common sense and common decency — could be lost.

But that’s what has happened. It happened because of an almost immeasurable array of factors. But a few stand out for their impact.

Certainly, we saw considerable and abrupt cultural change in the 1960s. But at the same time, we saw the emergence of an America that no longer enjoyed the level of economic isolation we once had.    

Industrial jobs, the ones that often were filled by people with basic education or less, began to drift overseas, along with American capital.

Suddenly, the low skilled or industrial jobs that had been the mainstay of people with limited education were gone. Lost opportunity was replaced by welfare.

And, unlike years past, Welfare became less a temporary form of relief than a generational expectation. We held the weak captive with our pity.

At the same time … many of the people trapped in a cycle of dependency on government handouts, ceased to value education.

As neighborhoods declined and schools became labor-management battlegrounds, it was no surprise that they lost their role as unifiers much less AS educators.

It only takes one generation of a bad school to create parents who accept the idea that the school is what it is — and that it’s not worth the effort of their own children.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke of “defining deviancy down.”

He was speaking of lowered expectations about personal behavior, the withering away of the traditional family. We began to accept the unacceptable.

In some ways, we have done the same in our expectations about education.

Good enough has replaced excellent. Dropout rates of 30 percent in inner city schools no longer seem to shock.

And we have allowed this downward definition to take place among our most vulnerable citizens — our poor.

At the same time that we lost this sense of community in some parts of our nation, we were also losing the definition of teaching as a profession.

Let me be clear about this: I am not blaming teachers for wanting a living salary.

I am not faulting them for wanting protection against capricious dismissal. My first job was teaching high school. I know it’s not an easy job.

What I do protest is the fact that in the years since teachers unionized, school districts began to focus too much on contracts and too little on curriculum.    

The educational model degenerated. It has shifted to a labor-management model. The focus has become teacher — parent — child.

That’s entirely backward. That is not an educational priority. It’s a negotiating strategy. It’s not a system that makes schools work for children.

We have, for generations now, been funding institutions instead of people. The bricks and mortar, salaries and hardware are all covered by our education budgets.

Still, children show up at some of our schools with empty stomachs.

They walk through bad neighborhoods to a school that is its own dysfunctional neighborhood. For years we talked about failing schools. Now we find ourselves talking about dangerous schools.

How on earth is a child whose own parents see no other kind of school than a failing one, supposed to learn basic mathematics, reading, literature?

How are they expected to aspire to something better when they are hungry and fearful inside their classrooms?

We have done this for several generations and it is the very definition of insanity — doing the same, wrong-headed thing over and over again expecting a different result.

It is as if we have become infants who sit in a high chair and drop a spoon all day long to see if maybe, just this once, it will fall upwards.

Two things are abundantly clear. No spoon is going to fall upwards unless we amend the law of gravity. And no school is going to change unless we change the culture in which it exists.

The latter of those two is actually possible. It requires a series of steps.

The first is to give students in bad schools an escape route. The ones who want better, and the parents who see through the fog of politics, will vote with their feet.

Many a middle class family has chosen its home based on the schools.

My own town, Pittsburgh, is really a small city surrounded by a sea of smaller towns.

More than one couple has decided to live in Mt. Lebanon or the North Hills or one of the eastern suburbs, because they had children and knew those places had award-wining schools.

The poor don’t have that choice. For many children, a zip code sentences them to a second-rate education.

That can change with something as simple as competition.

A few blocks from my office, teachers at a place called Nativity School have accepted young people from other schools.

Some of those children enter as sixth graders who read on a second-grade level. By eighth grade, they’re reading at eighth grade level or better.

On one hand, it seems like a miracle. But it is being done by flesh-and-bone teachers and it is being done because they are not there for job security.  They are not there for the money.

They are there because of a core value, a sense that every one of these hard-cases is a child endowed with the God-given right to learn.

I could tell you a similar story about a charter school in York County.

And I could tell you endless stories about the religious and private schools across the state … where a child-centered, values-oriented education makes the difference.

This difference …  of course … can work the other way. A public school that finds its students moving out should ask two questions:

Why are these students leaving?

How can we make them stay?

The only plausible answer is that they are leaving to get something better. And the corollary is that, to make them stay, the public school must offer them something better.

The school must compete.

It is, on one level, a matter of return on investment. Taxpayers have not received the quality of citizen we need when we invest in our public schools.

As calculating as it might seem at first glance, this failure affects our nation up and down the economic scale.

We lose a productive citizen. That citizen becomes, instead, a dependant of the state.

We pay for that failure for decades to come. The answer is not to blow up the system. The answer is to change it. In this case, the agent of change is competition.

The only way I see to create that competition … to create that student mobility …  is to make the funding portable.         

I liken it to a backpack: a family is allotted money for their child’s education. It doesn’t start at the school. It’s carried to the school with that child.

And each school competes to attract — or retain — that child.

There is no way to separate funding from the reform … Not when competition is the agent of change.

And after decades of watching our leaders try everything else, the only effective change-maker I can name is competition.

Failing schools must be helped to find new ways to improve and implement turn-around models.

Competition does that. It also seems to sort out the students who really want to break loose.

The sad reality is that poverty’s longtime companion is family dysfunction. We cannot always improve a family.

But we can make the difference in a student who is on the bubble, still capable of breaking free of the tradition of failure.

Consider the findings of a 2010 study mandated by Congress.

It looked at the opportunity scholarship, school choice program offered by the District of Columbia.

Because there is so much demand BY STUDENTS AND PARENTS …  the scholarships for charter and private schools are determined by lottery.

Among those who obtained school choice, the graduation rate was 82 percent. Eighty-two percent of the students who won the lottery got an education they stayed with IT.

Among those called “the control group” – the kids who stayed in the public school – the graduation rate was 70 percent.

That’s a lot of kids to lose. It’s time we started saving them.

 These study findings tell us something – both about the success of school choice for those who obtain IT …  and for those who aspire to it.

It could be that the very hope such a possibility presents is in itself a spark toward changing people.

That extra 12 percent of students who left high school with a diploma is 12 percent more that we can re-direct from dependency and failure … AND toWARD successful lives.

But we can only do it when we build the school system around the child, not the other way around.

 In a place where nothing else has seemed to work … this path is essential.

We should fix the system for those who value education and the best way I can think of is to give a failing school the incentive to change itself.

Just as no two students are alike, we need a variety of schools with different approaches that reach each student’s special way of learning and growing. This is a moral obligation grounded in our founding values.

Our public schools were founded on the idea that Americans deserved equality of opportunity.

The Declaration spoke of a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It did not guarantee success, but it did assure the right to pursue it.

In the last generation, America has shifted the field and placed entire communities of young people an impossible distance from the starting line.

The only culture some of our schools perpetuate is that of an educational industry that ensures a guaranteed income for those who can hang on long enough for tenure.

The old custom known as LIFO – last-in first-out – might have worked in factories … where the unskilled carried out rote tasks that demanded no unique talent.

It will no longer do in the field of education …  where caring and subject mastery must be twinned with the nuanced talents of finding the best way … at any given time … to help a young person learn to read …  or master algebra.

This talent knows no age and recognizes no tenure.

Teachers should be rewarded for outstanding effectiveness …  not mere endurance. We need an educational workforce of strivers, not survivors.

In the coming days, Pennsylvania will begin … once again ..  the long path toward making school choice a reality.

We need to obtain it first for the students in failing schools. We have too many of them.

Too many students are trapped there. We have a moral obligation to give them a road map to a real future.

School choice doesn’t just benefit the students who participate.

The society is made better. It puts us all on a footing of equal opportunity.

It lessens, if not erases, class divisions.

It allows us to live together as fellow citizens … not as “have” and “have-not.”

We can only achieve this kind of Pennsylvania … the one William Penn envisioned … by opening opportunity to everyone.

That mansion of opportunities must have many doors so we can each pick the one that gets us there.

That’s a choice we all need to make.