“Topping the list” is usually good thing. Who doesn’t want to be #1?
Unfortunately, Erie tops a list that should inspire not celebration but soul searching.
Financial news website 24/7 Wall St. recently named Erie the worst city in the country for African-Americans. Looking at factors including residential segregation and resulting educational inequalities over a 5-year-average, the report found a stunning 47 percent of Erie’s black population lives at or below the national poverty level. This is more than quadruple the city’s white poverty rate.
To make matters worse, Erie has a “deep gap in job prospects between white and black residents,” according to the study. It noted that roughly 25 percent of Erie’s black labor force is unemployed compared to just 4 percent of whites over the same time period.
As an African-American and western Pennsylvania native who has spent a significant amount of time in Erie, I find these statistics more than heartbreaking; they are unacceptable for over 15 percent of our fellow Pennsylvanians. Few would dispute that we must do better for minorities and by doing better for minorities, we do better collectively overall.
The question is: how?
We hear of the need to bring jobs back to Erie—and that’s true. Yet the existence of jobs alone doesn’t guarantee prosperity. Many will note that manufacturers and other job creators in the area have jobs and want to hire people. But they lack the right talent to fill those jobs locally. This is a direct indictment of the education afforded to Erie students, particularly minority students. This is not just an Erie problem—we hear this around the state.
We cannot create a robust working class in Erie or Pennsylvania without a system of education—public, private, and parochial—that provides equal opportunity for every child, regardless of race or nationality, to gain the skills needed to work both blue-collar and white-collar jobs.
Some claim that the solution is more funding for schools. But there is a difference between funding school systems and funding students’ education. One need only consider that pension costs continue to swallow huge portions of education funding to realize students don’t automatically win when dollar signs multiply.
The truth is: too many students are failing—not due to a lack of exceptional teachers or dedicated administrators, but because we accept the status quo that a ZIP code should determine a child’s educational options.
Instead, we must resolve to be first in opportunity for all. That means putting educational choice and opportunity back into the hands of Pennsylvania families who know best how to guide their child to academic success.
Pennsylvania’s two highly successful tax credit scholarship programs are helping do just that. In 2014-15 alone, Erie students benefited from more than $6 million in scholarships to attend schools that best meet their needs. These programs should be expanded, but even more must be done to put parents in the driver’s seat to meet their children’s unique needs.
That’s where Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, come in. ESAs offer parents a flexible spending account, funded and administered by the state, which can be used to pay for a range of approved educational services, including tutoring, private school tuition, online courses, and textbooks. In short, ESAs allows parents to customize their child’s education at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schooling.
Senate Bill 2, recently introduced in Harrisburg, would open up ESAs to families in the worst 15 percent of the state’s school districts—including Erie City School District—bringing opportunity to those who need it most.
Yet, under this program, school districts would still keep local funding for a student who withdraws from a public school to take advantage of an ESA. As a result, public schools could reduce class sizes and spend more money per student—a win-win for Erie’s public schools and for students.
Education is the one common factor that can empower all Americans and lead to an Erie renewal. But unless we fight to provide every child the best path toward academic success, we will continue to see Erie top the wrong lists. Yet, with education equality, Erie can win—along with all of us—with a revitalized talent pool that reflects our diversity as Pennsylvanians.
Statistics may tell us how things are now, but they don’t predict how things have to stay. Educational empowerment, especially for minorities, will place the city on level footing to compete for jobs and talent. It sets Erie up for regional and national success. And ESAs offer students across Pennsylvania education equality with all deliberate speed—before opportunities for success continue to pass them by.