by Albert Paschall
From time to time the state has opened its heart to those driven from their native lands but refugees have never really been a big problem in Pennsylvania. Until last week when fourteen Bucks County’s School Superintendents compared Governor Ridge’s educational voucher plan to the war in Kosovo.
“The current war in Kosovo,” they wrote about school choice “is a graphic example of what happens in a society that separates its people and fosters elitism.” While they may not know much about war they must know about elite. On average the taxpayers are shelling out $111,000 a year to each of them, a little better than double what most of us earn. In a rare display of public anger Ridge called the superintendents’ letter “hypocritical in the extreme…for the leader of some of Pennsylvania’s most affluent and racially homogenous schools.”
With the damage done by their guerilla media tactics they began to back off. Bristol Superintendent Joe Boyles, who only pulls down $99,000 said: “we’re educators and we maybe accidentally stepped into the political arena.”
Parents in Bucks County ought to be glad that these fourteen bureaucrats are in the school districts’ back offices not out on the front lines teaching History classes. Even though 11 of the 14 hold Doctorates they apparently didn’t know that politics is how policy is made and that’s the root of the problem in the state’s poorest schools.
In a relatively inexpensive pilot project called the Academic Recovery Act, Ridge wants to let parents pick their kids’ schools in only 10 out of the state’s 500 school districts. Overwhelmingly parents want that option and with good reason. Test results in grades 5, 8, and 11 in the Philadelphia School District showed that 59% of the students were failing or close to failing math and reading. Frustrated parents know their kids will be shoved through the system by the time that daydreaming superintendent David Hornbecks’ Children Achieving Program gets ground up in the city’s political machinations. The Roman Catholic schools in the city have about 25,000 seats available. Last year Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua offered to take in kids from the city schools for about half of what the city spends on them. It’s a bargain considering that the faith-based schools are turning out test scores comparable to their suburban counter-parts. Results that parents get in wealthy suburban schools like those in Bucks County that can afford to spend an average of $11,000 a year per student.
Maybe the Superintendents were right. It could be that this week’s war over school choice in Harrisburg is a graphic example of what happens when a society separates its people and fosters elitism. Pennsylvania has two school systems: the rich and the poor. In 10 of the poorest school districts the educational establishment has had its chance yet still insists on trying to hold those kids hostage to the status quo. Tom Ridge wants to give those kids and their parents a cheap passport out of those failed systems and the general assembly now holds the key.
Albert Paschall is senior commentator for the Lincoln Institute Of Public Opinion Research a non-profit educational foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
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