Race to the Bottom

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

The Rendell Administration has been feeding hungrily at the trough of federal stimulus money, and among the categories it hopes to score dollars is in the area of education.

Keeping in mind the stimulus bill has little to do with actually reviving the economy and much to do with paying off every leftist special interest group in the nation, stimulus dollars have been diverted into government schools which are under control of the teacher unions. Rendell has made feeding the edu-beast a top priority, pouring hundreds of millions of state dollars into a system that continues to fail our students, and he hopes to get more federal money as well.

The latest competition for federal stimulus dollars is actually a race to the bottom. As with the naming of most such efforts the title of the program is the exact opposite of reality. Called "Race to the Top," the Obama Administration is making available stimulus money to states for so-called "reforms" to turn around low performing schools. Pennsylvania has an abundance of under-performing schools. Even so, the first round of grant money went to Tennessee and Delaware, but Pennsylvania likely will be funded in future rounds.

And while Ed Rendell’s education department beats its chest about how bad we are so the federal government will throw more money at the problem, the governor is again proposing significant state spending increases on public education in the 2010-2011 budget. Recall that last year, in the midst of a massive budget crisis, Rendell held out for – and got – significantly higher spending on education.

According to the Commonwealth Foundation in the 40-year period from 1968 to 2008 spending on K-12 education in Pennsylvania increased by 1,202%, while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) went up by 210%. Thus, over a sustained period of time education spending has increased five times the rate of inflation.
So is a lack of money really the problem?

Although spending more to educate "the children" sounds like a mom, apple pie and baseball issue, the fact is the profligate spending on government-run education, coupled with the lack of accountability and results, is not only depriving our children of the quality education they deserve – it is saddling them with massive amounts of debt that will harm their economic well being as they grow into adulthood.

Our government education system is not in need of more money, it is in need of significant, structural and meaningful reforms. As a captive of the teacher unions, government-run schools continue to operate on a model that was developed early in the last century and thus fails to adequately prepare students for jobs or higher education in today’s highly technologically advanced global economy.

Take for example the Harrisburg School District. Ten years ago the Harrisburg School District was a complete failure, consistently rated as one of the worst school districts in the state. State Senator Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) pushed through a reform measure that removed control of the school district from the elected school board and replaced it with a board of control appointed by the city’s mayor. As part of that reform, the district was also relieved of a number of rules and regulations that applied to other school districts around the state, supposedly to allow it to innovate.

Mayor Stephen R. Reed brought in a new superintendent, Dr. Gerald Kohn, who promptly began rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The people in charge changed. The people they owed political favors to changed. But Kohn stuck to the education establishment play book. Kohn shot down any true reforms, including a proposal by the then Democratic county commissioner to establish a residential charter school for at-risk inner city youths. Having failed to embrace the opportunity presented to it, the Harrisburg School District continued to languish at the bottom of all performance measures. A couple of weeks ago the city’s new mayor, fed up with the lack of progress and continued poor academic performance of the city’s schools, fired Kohn.

The situation in Harrisburg is illustrative of the problem government-run schools all across the state face. Any reform that provides dollars to educational options not under control of unions and education bureaucrats is attacked and killed. The number of charter schools remains low, parents still lack the ability to choose another school district if the school their child attends is failing. Innovative programs that help fund alternatives, such as the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), have seen funding cuts, while dollars spent on union-controlled schools rise.

No, more money is not the solution to the problems plaguing Pennsylvania’s government schools. What is needed is a complete new paradigm for public education that recognizes we are actually now in the 21st century. We must refocus education spending on students rather than unions; remove barriers to alternative means of education such as charter schools; and give parents the right to choose where they send their children to school. Only then will we win the "Race to the Top."

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address in [email protected].)

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