STUDENTS HAVE “NO FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO EQUALITY IN EDUCATION”
Yes, you read this title correctly. Patrick M. Northen, a lawyer for Mike Turzai, the Republican Speaker of the Pennsylvania House, made that pronouncement this past Wednesday, March 7, at a hearing to determine whether a lawsuit by an interesting coalition of the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools should proceed to Commonwealth Court. According to Mr. Northen, the Pennsylvania Constitution does not provide such a right to students, even though it does stipulate that the General Assembly “shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.”
It is also important to note that while the Republican leadership in the General Assembly is allergic to the idea of providing poor school districts with what they should be providing under a fair funding formula, they are not averse to giving school districts in their own areas more money than they deserve. Of the four GOP leaders in the General Assembly – House Speaker Mike Turzai, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman – only Corman has underfunded districts within his legislative area.
(According to an unpublished analysis by David Mosenkis)
While the Republicans in the State legislature were proclaiming their message of inequality with pride, the GOP gubernatorial candidates were providing the rationale for this position. At a debate at the Constitution Center Tuesday night, Paul Mango, a retired health care systems consultant from suburban Pittsburgh, proclaimed ignorance about the fairness of the State’s distribution of its money for education, but then told the audience, “I know that we’re not going to throw any more good money after bad money.” “What is bad money?” you ask. That answer was provided by Scott Wagner, the State Senator from Suburban York, and owner of Penn Waste, Inc. “In the last four years, we’ve put almost $1 billion more into the school system,” Wagner said. “Not a nickel has hit the classrooms. It has gone to cover the pension, health care and salary increases that we have seen over the last four years.” Well, duh!!! Books and computers are certainly important, but shouldn’t we expect that most of the education dollars be spent on the compensation of those professionals who actively instruct our students.
Rather than spend more money on education, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth, a lawyer from the Pittsburgh area seemed to favor alternatives such as charters as a means of improving education in the State. When financially strapped school districts in Pennsylvania ask the legislature for more money, the typical response from the Republican leadership is to “Let them have charters.” Philadelphia, for instance, receives $1,584 less from the State than its fair share, yet accommodates 50% of all charters in Pennsylvania. Although Mike Turzai is a big advocate for charters in Philadelphia, surprisingly, he has not advocated for school choice within his own affluent but charter-less district. And a recent study by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, concluded that “Charter school students are not outperforming their traditional school peers; results are mixed at best and extremely subpar at worst.” The study also explains how charters drain money from the public school system, further squandering the meager revenues that the district has at its disposal. Regardless, the General Assembly Republicans are intent in their belief that a choice among a large quantity of lousy schools makes up for the high quality of one great school system.
Last year, there was a sense of outrage when Betsy Devos, the champion of privatization, was named U. S. Secretary of Education. But Pennsylvania receives only 13.6% of its public education revenues from the Federal Government. Shouldn’t we be mustering at least that same amount of indignation at our own State legislators as well?