Pa. Education – A State of Emergency

At the start of our nation, founding father John Adams was as concerned with the positive development of our offspring as he was with that of the republic.  Seeing the relationship as symbiotic, he considered it imperative that citizens challenge our children and, “excite them in a habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.”

If correct, I wonder what he would think of the meanness, injustice and inhumanity produced today at our 144 most failing public schools in Pennsylvania.  Hyperbole?  Hardly. In the last year alone, these schools produced staggering statistics that make our state’s education system more like a state emergency.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, not one of these 144 schools scored more than 53 percent proficient in reading and math. University City High School, just three blocks from Ivy League great UPenn, now in its eighth year of corrective action under the state’s federally mandated Annual Yearly Progress program, scored worst in the state with less than five percent.  No Child Left Behind?  Try more than 95 percent of children left behind.

But that doesn’t mean children weren’t learning to divide or subtract.  In the 2009 school year alone, students trapped at these schools endured seven rapes, 1,983 assaults on students, 1,027 assaults on staff, 121 indecent or aggravated assaults, 554 illegal weapon possessions, 548 acts of vandalism, 31 terrorist threats, 26 bomb threats, 593 thefts, 107 acts of arson, 163 robberies, 171 acts of criminal trespassing, 20 burglaries, 38 cases of reckless endangering, four interferences of child custody,  30 indecent exposures, four sexual assaults, one involuntary sex violation and two official riots.

Have we become so unaffected or apathetic to the plight of endangered children trapped not by their ability or desire but through the digits in a zip code that our failure to act enables the status quo?  The quagmire over school choice legislation seems to suggest so.

Presently, state legislators continue to debate the merits of combining vouchers with expanded opportunity scholarships like those in Senate Bill 1, designed to allow parents the ability to remove their children from failing and often violent schools and place them into an school of their choosing. Meanwhile, our children watch, wait and wonder whether an educational lifeline will ever be thrown their way.

Opponents of the bill have challenged it as anything from an unconstitutional entitlement to an unconscionable attack against teachers.  While some cling to the notion we will magically lift these schools from the ashes to reach 100 percent proficiency with more time, others hold true to the notion more money is needed to combat the problem.

Both arguments—more time, more money—have proven ineffective.  Since 1996 when Pennsylvania spent $13 billion on education, the state has now more than doubled  its spending to $26 billion, yet proficiency has stagnated.

So if we have given more than a generation of children, doubled the money we spent and failed to improve our performance while children suffer at violent schools, many argue the status quo is no longer acceptable.

While not a panacea, school choice has proven a worthy alternative.  Nearly every empirically-based study shows that school choice programs increase academic achievement for students and improve public schools through competition. No study has ever shown harmful effects to either scholarship recipients or public schools.

What remains indisputable are the harmful effects caused by the more than 5,400 incidents of violence reported in just our bottom five percent of schools alone.  Instead of setting these children up for prosperity, many will be condemned to a life of poverty or the penitentiary.

To reverse this violent trend, the mantra of mediocrity—more time, more money—that produces violent schools on eight years of corrections but still 95 percent failure must be silenced.  If not, the hopes our children will not have to grovel all their lives certainly will be.

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Jay Ostrich is director of public affairs for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s independent think tank committed to the principles of the American founding: limited constitutional government, personal and economic freedom, and individual responsibility at