Our view: Latest school choice bill as flawed as others

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The Pennsylvania School Boards Association reported Friday that school boards of 100 districts — 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s total — adopted resolutions opposing the implementation of “Education Savings Accounts” in the Commonwealth.

Locally, Northwest Area was the lone Luzerne County district on the PSBA list of those passing such a resolution so far.

PSBA has been encouraging the resolutions in response to Senate Bill 2, arguing it will “siphon more than $500 million dollars from the most under-resourced schools that desperately need the funding.”

Opposing the bill is the right thing to do, though not entirely for the reasons PSBA puts forth. This bill, like pretty much every “school choice” idea being floated in recent years, is flawed for much bigger reasons.

• It makes the state money available to residents of “low-achieving” school districts, defined as those scoring in the bottom 15 percent on state math and reading tests. Even if all schools improved to high levels of achievement, 15 percent would still be “low-achieving.” If you want to set a goal that schools must exceed to shed the “low-achieving” label, fairness requires setting an absolute test result figure, not a relative one.

• While slightly better than some other “school choice” efforts regarding accountability — it requires some testing at the chosen school — the bill does not hold the non-public schools getting the state money to the same standards required from public schools. If you believe school competition is the right way to improve education (a dubious claim, but that’s for another editorial), it is essential to make the competition occur on a level playing field.

• The bill does not require a person who uses the state-funded accounts to actually be attending a public school. They merely have to live in the district and have attended a public school anywhere in the state for one semester at some point. A parent already sending a child to a private school can benefit while a student actually in the “low achieving” school gets nothing from the program.

Most egregiously, the bill suffers from the same flaw of every school choice bill: It does not offer real choice for everyone. These bills routinely provide an amount of state money (up to $5,700 annually in SB2) too small to pay full tuition at many non-public schools. Nor do they require non-public schools to take every student that applies.

And make no mistake, efforts to push these sorts of bills are often led by people and organizations eager to profit off public education money by siphoning it to private (and unaccountable) entities.

It may indeed be time to have a real debate about education and how we want to handle it moving forward. But the current “school choice” movement — often backed by extraordinarily wealthy people with no background in education — is deliberately trying to bypass that debate.

SB2 is a textbook example of efforts to change the system in tiny steps without discussions, without building consensus, and without hard data informing the effort.

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