Lancer Letter – Privatize this!

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

It is well known that the person put in charge of public education at the federal level, Betsy DeVos. She has been a champion for charter and private schools and would like government to do more to fund them.

At the state level, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that “a new school choice program may be the next accompaniment to charter schools and scholarship tax credits: Education Savings Accounts.  Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, announced Tuesday that he intends to introduce legislation in September to create a program that will allow students in Pennsylvania’s struggling school districts to use state money for private school tuition, tutoring services and other pre-approved education expenses. 

‘I believe the ESA really is a lifeline for at-risk youth and low-income families that, based on where they live, do not have the opportunity to have educational options,’ Mr. DiSanto said. 

Under his proposal, parents who choose not to send their child to their neighborhood public school would receive the equivalent of what the state spends per pupil, which would be deducted from their home school district’s subsidy. That money would be set aside in an account with the Department of the Treasury and transferred to families to be spent for “legitimate educational services” like private school tuition, special education services or community college courses.”

Now, this is wrong on so many levels, I’m not even going to address it as I don’t think my keyboard can withstand the pounding I will unconsciously give it as I write about it. Instead, I would like to think about carrying this concept to full development. What if all students could choose what school – private, public or charter – they want to attend and the state would provide all the money which would follow the student? This is really what DiSanto and his like-minded colleagues really want and it has been discussed in some circles.

The first thing I think would happen under the free enterprise system of education would be a dramatic increase in the use of tax dollars for advertising. If a schools’s survival is based on how many students they attract, this would be necessary. A few years ago a reliable source told me that the PA Cyber School spent 1 million tax dollars on advertising each year. This is money that is diverted from students. In the current public school system, diverting that kind of money from students would be frowned upon. But under a free enterprise system, it would be necessary. (Can you see me in a GM informercial, haunting you on every cable channel?)

The second thing I think would happen under this system would be the watering down of just about everything. Unfortunately, it is a natural inclination for children, especially teenagers, to want to manipulate adults(I’m convinced there is a book somewhere titled, The Teen’s Guide to Manipulating Adults.) A scenario we have often seen is this: child does not attend school regularly; school goes through procedures and eventually files truancy charges; child convinces parent that he just can’t get up early for school so if he “attended” cyber charter school, he could sleep in every day and do school on his own schedule; child withdraws to attend cyber school to avoid truancy charges; six months to a year later, child returns to public school behind in credits; turns out, sleeping in really didn’t help the underlying work ethic problem. What a surprise! The point is, in the free enterprise system, the chase to make child and parent happy will be never ending and would likely result in the lowering of standards to keep students in the school.

What schools would offer may change dramatically. Some of the changes would be good, others not so much. We all know that children aren’t capable of knowing what classes they NEED but are very good at knowing want they don’t WANT. Creating a curriculum and outlining a path for a student’s educational journey is tricky business that requires a strong level of input from professionals and an insistence that children don’t have to like what is good for them. I fear that the free market system would significantly weaken schools’ ability to have students engage in the disciplines needed to keep our society and nation strong.

What would be very interesting in the “free market scenario” would be whether all schools would be forced to have open admission. There is ample evidence that the government, which should be supporting public education, would be biased against it; but, if they were fair and required private schools to have open admission in this system, it would be interesting to see what happened when the population of private schools mirrored the composition of the student bodies currently in public schools. Research has repeatedly proven that the number one predictor of academic achievement is socio-economic status. Even within the public school system, a ranking of schools in the state by highest PSSA scores is very close to a ranking of schools by relative wealth. So the free enterprise system, if administered fairly, would likely change the essence of private schools.

Finally, in a free enterprise system, school systems would fail and close. Just think about all the restaurants and businesses that come and go. This has been the case with some charter schools throughout the country – some failing mid year. We’re talking about children’s lives here that become quite disrupted if their school suddenly closes. This would be very tough on children and their parents?

These are just a few of the thoughts that come to mind when I think of fully carrying out the idea of public money “on the loose.” Right now, there is a slow bleed as money is siphoned from the public schools to charter and private schools. If the true purpose of all this is to provide all children with quality schools, I think we can find a better way.

The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion, and not necessarily those of or our sponsors.

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