As children enjoy their holiday break, a safe second semester is at the top of many parents’ wish list. Parents want their kids to get the most out of their educational experience. But more importantly, they want them to return home safely after the school day.
It's unsurprising that 35 percent of parents fear for the “physical safety” of their children at school. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the Trump administration convened a Federal Commission on School Safety, which issued its final report on Friday. The Commission acknowledged the federal government's limited role and encouraged state legislators to work with local communities for local solutions.
Act 44 may or may not improve school safety, but we know that expanding school choice enables students to escape unsafe schools.
The Commonwealth Foundation previously highlighted the prevalence of school violence in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania tied for 6th worst in “States of Concern,” the Educator's School Safety Network’s 2017-18 ranking of school-based violent threats and incidents.
Last summer, Governor Wolf signed Act 44 to address school safety concerns by establishing the School Safety and Security Committee, providing guidelines for schools regarding school police and school resource officers (SROs), and instituting the Safe2Say program. The Safe2Say program operates a mobile app, hotline, and website where residents can anonymously report people they believe could commit school violence.
Public schools are now required to appoint school safety and security coordinators under Act 44. Their duties include tasks such as coordinating training for school staff and reviewing the school’s security measures to ensure they are in accordance with Federal and State law.
Act 44 also established the School Safety and Security Grant Program, which provides grants for various school safety projects. An initial $52.5 million in grants will be separated into two parts:
- Part A: Meritorious Application, which is only for school districts and provides a minimum grant of $25,000 if approved.
- Part B: Competitive Application, which is open to all “school entities” as defined by Act 44.
It is concerning that the grant application process gives a structural advantage to traditional school districts over private schools. Families who don’t utilize their local public school are helping to fund these grants with their tax dollars. Their children are entitled to the same safety funding as their fellow students.
We must also acknowledge that funding alone isn’t enough. Empirical studies have shown that school choice positively affects student safety. In a recent study, authors M. Danish Shakeel of Harvard University and Corey DeAngelis of the Cato Institute found that private schools are 8 percent less likely to have physical conflicts among students and 18 percent less likely to have gang activities at school.
School choice empowers parents to determine where to educate their children, creating a safer learning environment for all students.
Act 44 may or may not improve school safety, but we know that expanding school choice enables students to escape unsafe schools. The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs empower thousands of families and students each year to choose the school that fits them best. Yet thousands more are turned away due to donation caps.
As legislators and students return to work after the holidays, there is more to be done to improve school safety for every child in the Commonwealth. An increase in the cap on EITC and OSTC scholarships would be a positive step toward ensuring safe learning environments for Pennsylvania kids.