Note: This commentary was published in the York Daily Record.
The second lowest-performing school district in Pennsylvania is asking for more time to improve but refusing recommended reforms. Unfortunately, more time is not something students and families in York City can afford.
York City ranked 499th out of 500 school districts in performance in 2012-13, according to the Department of Education. Average SAT scores in the district’s largest high school are well below average in both math and reading. Standardized test results are not only stagnant, but they lag behind the average scores of low-income students across the state.
Despite this dismal achievement, the York City School Board recently rejected a compromise proposal to convert three district schools into charter schools. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, wants to maintain the failing status quo.
A PSEA spokesman commented that “internal improvement plans are beginning to work, and we need to give them time to work.”
Where is the evidence, though, that anything is truly “working”? In fact, the situation in York City appears to be deteriorating. Preliminary results indicate that most schools saw declining performance on the most recent State Performance Profile.
Of course, it was York City’s poor financial and academic track record that triggered a reform process in the first place. Two years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Education appointed a financial recovery officer, David Meckley, to rescue the sinking ship.
At each stage of the recovery process Meckley offered moderated solutions, but he was consistently rebuffed with unwavering obstructionism from those invested in the current system.
Meckley originally suggested a series of internal improvements that would trigger charter conversion only if academic performance goals were not met. The school board and the teachers’ union agreed to this approach, but success hinged on the York City Education Association—a PSEA affiliate—making reasonable concessions in a new labor contract.
Reasonable concessions proved too much to ask. The union rejected a contract proposal last June, which prompted the school board to request applications from charter operators.
Once again, the recovery officer made a fair proposal. And once again, he was shot down.
Although Meckley preferred a complete conversion of all district schools into charters, he floated an intriguing compromise in which a charter operator would compete alongside district schools.
No thanks, said the school board, which rejected the proposal without offering an alternative.
The potential next step, as well as the last resort, is for the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education to petition for a receiver—a state appointee who would assume authority from the school board. If York City entered receivership, a full conversion to charter schools would be the likely outcome.
After years of fruitless deliberation and excruciating delay, receivership is the best course of action.
There are some drawbacks to this approach—namely that a full charter conversion would not reap the benefits of competition between operators vying for full control of the city’s schools. But the status quo has so demonstrably failed that more aggressive measures are appropriate.
Will the district allow thousands of students to languish in failing schools all because the teachers’ union needs “more time”?
York City has reached a point where “internal improvement” is no longer an acceptable strategy. Families in the district are effectively being told that second worst is good enough.
What would a charter conversion offer families in York City? Most importantly, charters operate with increased flexibility and fewer regulations. This means teachers can be hired, retained, and rewarded based on their job performance, not merely their seniority. A charter operator can also implement personalized learning plans, tutoring services, and more comprehensive parental engagement.
No one is suggesting that charters will be a silver bullet to academic woes in York City. It should be noted, however, that York City charter schools outperformed their district counterparts in 2012-13. There is certainly reason to believe that a charter expansion would produce meaningful academic improvement.
Business as usual has failed students, families, and taxpayers alike. Second worst is simply not good enough. It’s time for a new direction.
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James Paul is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.