Willie and Penny Can’t Read

We’ll call them Willie, Penny, Ben and Frankie, four public school students from Philadelphia, Reading, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, respectively.  If they don’t drop out of school and become clients of the state like many of their former classmates, they will soon graduate and compete in a global market for a dwindling supply of jobs.

Willie attends Germantown High School in Philadelphia, where the school Web site homepage touts its mission as “Providing all students with the academic, technological & social skills needed to be productive & contributing citizens in our society.”  Willie’s reality is much different. 

In the 2009-2010 school year, only 8 percent of Germantown’s 11th-graders reached proficiency in math with only 17 percent proficient in reading.  It’s no wonder Willie can’t read at a high school level or balance a checkbook.  Willie’s school days aren’t focused solely on reading, writing and arithmetic. His attention must also be prudently devoted to learning the new ‘Three Rs’ – run, report and recover.

That’s because for Willie and nearly 82,000 Pennsylvania children trapped within the141 worst-performing schools in Pennsylvania, their last school year has been filled with more than 4,500 acts of crime and violence.  Sadly, children here witnessed more than 100 indecent or sexual assaults and 225 indecent exposures; nearly 2,600 assaults on students and staff; more than 330 cases of reckless endangerment, and more than 500 weapons possessions and terroristic threats.

The realities for Penny in Reading are not much different.  At the 10th and Green Elementary School, Penny has a better shot at learning to read and add than Willie, but not much of one.  Penny’s future is anything but shiny with only 38 and 53 percent of her classmates reaching proficiency in reading and math. She also lives in a city that, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau data, now ranks highest in the nation for residents living in poverty, and was among the FBI’s top-50 most dangerous cities in 2009.  

Penny’s school days are no guaranteed escape from these grim realities as 45 incidents of violence were reported within Reading School District, including several weapons possession charges, thefts and many acts of vandalism. 

In Harrisburg, the news for children within the embattled capital is worse.  Ben goes to school at Harrisburg High School, now on its eighth year of corrective action under the Annual Yearly Progress program tied to the federally mandated No Child Left Behind initiative.  If Ben hopes to excel beyond more than 90 percent of his classmates who aren’t proficient in math, he’ll have to do so while absorbing the impact from seven weapons charges reported in the last school year alone.

Frankie, a middle-school student in Wilkinsburg School District in Pittsburgh, will soon attend a high school in its fourth year of corrective action that not only mustered less than 16 percent proficiency in math, but ranked among the highest in violence at 128 incidents of crime for every 100 students.  While most would be crippled with fear at those numbers, Frankie might simply be relieved to leave Wilkinsburg High School, where the number of violent acts per 100 students far outpaces the high school’s academic performance.

While Willie, Penny, Ben and Frankie are fictional characters, the children who are condemned to attend public schools that are academically failing and frequently violent are not.  If the 82,000 children trapped in these schools are able to survive, attain a diploma and gain basic life skills, they are the exception amongst their peers, not the rule. 

And yet, these imperiled students are being told by defenders of the public education status quo that opportunity scholarships, like those outlined recently within Gov. Tom Corbett’s education agenda, are unnecessary, unaffordable and unfair.  This defense of the flagging one-size-fits-all system that has led to these failing and violent schools is simply untenable.

Opportunity scholarships, or vouchers, are quite the contrary.  By saving children in harm’s way, this rescue not only addresses the state of emergency in public education, it saves taxpayers money.  The only thing unfair about vouchers is the delay in making them available to Willie, Penny, Ben and Frankie who are now more likely to attend a state pen than they are Penn State.

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Jay Ostrich is the director of public affairs of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.