Pa Schools: crash test dummies

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 The myth in Pennsylvania is that local school boards control local schools.  Truth is that while dedicated school directors spend countless hours at the job they are usually devoid of public interest until little Johnny or Janes’ after school club is cut out of the budget, then maybe a few parents will show up.  Most of the time they just tinker around the edges of Federal and State mandates.  And while the national and state educational bureaucracies will claim that local control is the law of the land they mandate about 85% of all local school spending and the other 15% is relegated to luxuries like electricity, maintenance and supplies.  One can’t imagine why school directors just don’t surrender in frustration.  All over the state they are used as political crash test dummies.  Try a new idea, or a budget cut, and watch how quick either a bureaucrat or riled parents smash it against the wall.

     It’s a clever system that took off when the Carter Administration created the Federal Department of Education.  Since 1978 the Federal bureaucrats have handed the mandates to state bureaucrats who hand them down to local school boards usually without any money to pay for them.  Since then local control of schools has been shattered and the public schools have been driven right up against the economic wall.

Those mandates, coupled with an outdated property tax system have created a cycle of failure that according to the Ridge administration has reached a crisis in 11 districts and the state is geared up to take them over within two years.  In Philadelphia the state isn’t waiting.  They’ve spent $100,000 searching for a new school administrator to replace the system’s favorite hardhead Superintendent David Hornbeck.  Hornbecks’ head has to be hard.  He’s continually beaten it against the wall for the last 5 years trying to get anybody who holds a purse string to consider the kids.

The system operates on two simple tracks.  Rich districts driven by taxing big suburban shopping centers and office parks spend more and statistically get top of the line education.  In poor districts with few commercial assets to tax, the homeowners get taxed to the max and the kids get textbooks that are taped back together.

The numbers reek of a kind of economic apartheid.  In the southeast most of the suburban districts that touch Philadelphia’s borders spend double per student what the city does.  The political chasm is equally as broad.  One week after choosing a ridiculous site for a new taxpayer financed baseball stadium adding $200 million to the billion dollar cost Mayor John Street announces that Philly’s schools need another $200 million in state funds to open in September.  Will the Mayor or the kids get struck out when Harrisburg comes to bat?

     Looks like we’ll find out soon.  Last week as part of the state budget process the 11 troubled districts got an average of about 75 bucks a kid to give their students more achievement tests.  The way it’s shaping up the takeover engines have started and Harrisburg has sent the crash test dummies money to buy seat belts.  When the districts hit the statistical wall the state will take over the schools.  And while the Harrisburg school district directors threaten to sue to block the takeover in most other areas there’s a political sigh of relief.  So why not take over all 501 of Pennsylvania’s school districts now?

After all, the only difference between the economic state that these districts are in and the economic state they will be in is that the state taxpayers will pick up the tab, finally putting the final brakes on local control.

Ronald Reagan once told his advisers that he dreamed of the day that he would squash the Federal Department of Education.  Two decades later the Republican nominee for President wants to give that bureaucracy more money.  We’re stuck with the Feds, their mandates and the bills to pay for them.  Local school control was long ago driven out of town.  Local school directors especially in our poorest districts just seem to beat their heads against a bureaucratic wall that stretches from Harrisburg to Washington DC.

     Someday when the state takes over all the schools the general assembly and the taxpayers might realize that its time to get rid of the inequities in the property tax system.  With sales and personal income taxes, and a school choice program Pennsylvania can set an economic standard that treats all of our kids the same.  With all of the Federal and State controls a tax shift certainly won’t make the system any better but at least we can say we tried to give all of our kids a fair chance.