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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Vouchers don't solve the problem in education

Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed an outrageous $1.1 billion in cuts to schools. Across Pennsylvania, communities are telling legislators to reject these cuts. Otherwise we will be faced with extraordinary choices about programs - shall we cut off our arm or our leg this year?

Yet rather than focus on the big picture, the State Senate is exploring vouchers, in which taxpayers cut checks to some families to send their kid to private school. There are myriad problems with this: a lack of accountability for funds or academic achievement; no certainty of standards, educational quality; no guarantee of student access; legal and constitutional problems, and no research to support it as a way to improve outcomes. Only some would get vouchers, so upwards of 90 percent of kids would remain in the targeted schools. Experts project this could cost $800 million to $1 billion by the third year.

Beyond being an expensive, ill-advised policy, this isn't in the public interest. We don't pay for schools as a community because we think everyone with a kid should get a check. We support public schools because we recognize the connection between an educated community and our shared prosperity. We don't pay to educate our own child; we are a society that believes in opportunity and that education helps create it. It isn't an ATM machine.
We know that every child, not just some, should get an opportunity to learn, regardless of his ZIP code, tax policies or the size of the houses in his hometown. The critical problem with vouchers is that they don't solve the problem. At best, it is a bandage. At worst it is a willful blind eye to the fact that we have significant opportunity gaps: we know which children we are failing and we know what would fix it and we won't do it.

So what should we be doing about the fact that although many Pennsylvania schools are very good, some aren't providing a high- quality education? Our Legislature needs to step it up, not by throwing out a handful of life rafts, but by getting serious and educated about what is needed to provide a genuine opportunity to every kid. They should be addressing:

- What are the most effective academic practices and programs and professional training that improve outcomes?

- What are the schools that are doing poorly lacking? What are the facility, staffing and materials needed to bring them up to acceptable standards?
- What are the schools that are doing well doing?

- The benefits of early education and high-quality pre-K are clearly established, so what is the path to create more availability?

- How can we align educational goals and outcomes to workforce development to better attract jobs and strengthen productivity?

The argument against fixing the problem is that we can't afford it, right? We can't afford not to. If the U.S. had closed the international achievement gap from 1983-1998, U.S. GDP would have been between $1.3 and $2.3 trillion higher, representing 9-16 percent of our GDP. Increased education investments have caused increased achievement. Communities with good schools hold value and remain stable.

There is money on the table if our Legislature chooses to act to benefit our communities, rather than special interests. Without increasing taxes on families, we could tax smokeless tobacco, implement a drilling tax on the Marcellus Shale and close a few special tax loopholes that big corporations are getting. We are the only state that doesn't tax gas extraction. It is a resource of the commonwealth and should be used for that - our common wealth, our shared responsibilities. If we do not use the resources of today to invest in tomorrow, then we are truly fools.

The real demand should not be that we start saving some kids, but that we stop failing to act to save all kids. That we, as adults, plan for the next generation to succeed. If we focus on giving every kid a decent opportunity, in a facility that is acceptable and safe, with tools and materials that are relevant, and adults who are supported in their job and accountable, we can actually solve the problem.

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