To plug a $2.3 billion deficit caused by overspending, Gov. Rendell has proposed closing the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children. Although the $13 million in state funds the school received this year will not come close to resolving the current budget shortfall, its closing is merited for economic and educational reasons.
The Scotland School is the last public school of its kind in the country with a mission to serve military veterans’ descendants. Today, only 35 of the school’s nearly 300 students have active-duty parents. The Scotland School has largely become a haven for students seeking to escape the troubled Philadelphia School District. Seventy percent of the school’s students reside in the City of Brotherly Love, where the dropout rate is 37%.
It is understandable why the parents of these children oppose Gov. Rendell’s proposal. They care too much about their children to put them back into a system that will likely fail them. However, this says more about the failure of Philadelphia’s public schools than about the merits of maintaining an expensive boarding school for a few hundred children.
Scotland School parents are fortunate to be able to exercise an educational choice for their children, which most parents in Pennsylvania are denied—but at $45,000 per student, per year, it is financially unsustainable. However, the answer is not to force these children back into poor-performing schools, but to give their parents and parents across Pennsylvania what they deserve—more educational options for their children.
Today, because of Pennsylvania’s charter school law and Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, children have more educational options than they did 10 years ago—but there are still not enough. Most charter schools in Philadelphia can’t meet the increased demand from parents because of various political barriers. State laws and opposition from labor unions have also hindered development of additional educational alternatives for children.
However, if Gov. Rendell is genuinely interested in giving Scotland School children better educational opportunities at a lower cost to taxpayers, here are a few ideas he should pursue:
1. Establish a residential charter school to serve Scotland students. A Scotland-type boarding charter school could continue serving the majority of Scotland’s current students at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers, while also providing even more parents with educational choices for their children. Models of such lower-cost schools exist across the country. Changing the Pennsylvania charter school law to permit such options would be one solution.
2. Establish charter schools for children of military families. These schools are usually formed on or near military bases, but public schools with large military student populations also make ideal candidates. This complements the Philadelphia School District’s new “Imagine 2014” plan, which would transform the lowest performing schools in the district into charter schools. Some military charter schools accept all students on an equal basis, while others give priority to the dependants of active-duty personnel.
3. Expand Pennsylvania’s EITC scholarship program. Scholarships would transfer a portion of the budgetary burden from the state to the private sector. The EITC allows businesses to take a tax credit for their contributions to scholarships for students. The credit is currently capped at $45 million for K-12 scholarship, and $8 million for pre-K scholarships. At a minimum, Pennsylvania’s EITC could be expanded to allocate funds specifically for the dependants of Pennsylvania’s active-duty citizens.
4. Create a state-funded scholarship program. Instead of directly funding institutions or school districts, Pennsylvania should fund students, allowing parents to choose the best school for their children. Scholarship programs typically cost a fraction of the per-pupil cost of traditional public schools, and would produce significant savings over the current costs of the Scotland School.
The concerns and personal interests expressed by Scotland parents, employees, and others are understandable. Gov. Rendell’s proposal to close the Scotland School makes both economic and educational sense—but only if he gives Scotland School families the means to send their children to another school of their choice. Doing so will provide a more affordable and higher-quality education for these and more students.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy education and research institute located in Harrisburg. Christopher Dodds is a Research Intern with the Commonwealth Foundation.