What Will You See in 17 Minutes?

Seventeen minutes is a small sliver of time for most people.  In those few moments, most people could take a shower, prepare a meal, or watch half a sitcom.  But for 82,000 kids in Pennsylvania, 17 minutes is no ordinary or laughing matter, it is pain that can last a lifetime.

That’s because a violent act of crime occurs once every 17 minutes in the state’s lowest academically achieving schools.  These acts include physical and sexual assaults, robberies, weapons possessions and terroristic threats – as well as more pedestrian criminal incidents such as vandalism and trespassing.  From 2008-10 alone, some 140 schools, representing the bottom – 5 percent in academic achievement, saw nearly 10,000 of these incidents.

Unsurprisingly, the education of kids trapped in violent schools suffers.  About two-thirds cannot read or do math at grade level; in some schools, less than one out of every 10 children possess these basic life skills. 

But Pennsylvania lawmakers can help, and in fact, some already have.  In October, the state Senate courageously passed a school choice bill that would offer vouchers for some 70,000 low-income students to attend safer public or private schools of their choice. 

Throwing these kids a lifeline – saving their lives and their futures – is nothing less than an emergency rescue operation.  But you wouldn’t know it from leadership in the House. 

Only a few voting days remain in 2011, and a House Republican leader flatly said, “I don’t see vouchers and education reform passing by the end of the year.”

Tell that to a tearful and desperate Joy Herbert, mother to 17-year-old Anthony and three other school-age children, who has already been waiting years to give her children some hope.  Anthony was an ‘A’ student until he suffered two muggings and had property stolen at West Philadelphia High School, where such violence finally forced him to drop out.

“I’m walking through the hallways and trash cans and barrels are on fire,” said Herbert of his experience in high school.  “People were fighting and yelling and there was really no order around.”  At West Philadelphia, now in its eighth year of corrective action under No Child Left Behind, less than two out of 10 students are proficient in reading and math.

The Herberts cannot afford a private school, and their ZIP code assigns Anthony to West Philadelphia High, period.  In essence, they are legislatively locked in.  But a voucher would allow Joy to take a portion of existing education dollars devoted to Anthony’s education at West Philadelphia and use them at a better, safer school.  Under the Senate bill, the average full voucher amount is $7,000 for a family of four earning up to $29,000 a year.  Families earning above that amount, up to $41,300, are eligible for three-quarters of the voucher total.

For kids like Anthony, supporting vouchers should be a no-brainer.  Vouchers give families like his the immediate escape they need from violent, failing schools, with no new spending.  Instead, vouchers redirect and use existing taxpayer dollars – and less of them – more efficiently.

Sadly, Anthony and Philadelphia students are not alone in the worst failing schools.  Woodland Hills Junior High School in the Pittsburgh area saw 105 assaults on students in 2009-10, or one for every six students. In York, Hannah Penn Middle School dealt with nine sexual assaults, while Philadelphia’s failing schools witnessed seven rapes and four cases of involuntary sexual intercourse in just two years.  Wherever you go in the commonwealth, our failing schools are endangering our children’s lives, literally robbing them of a decent, productive future.

“These children we are pushing aside right now are going to be the ones you ask in 50 years to find your medication when you can’t and they aren’t going to be able to read to find it,” Joy said.  “Without a school choice voucher program, my family and other families in this area have no hope.”

Constantly looking over your shoulder for fear of an assault or robbery is no way for anyone to live, let alone a child.  Children trapped in Pennsylvania’s worst violent, failing schools don’t have days to spare for more debate.  They’ve barely got the next 17 minutes.

# # #

Matthew J. Brouillette is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.