Public education is particularly failing those students in the worst performing schools. As documented by the Commonwealth Foundation and on their OpenPAgov.org website, a treasure trove of public education information, 82,000 PA students are enrolled in 143 public schools that make up the bottom 5% of PA public schools, which are predominantly located in the poorest inner city neighborhoods. In these schools 38% of students achieve proficiency in math and 32% in reading as determined by PSSA (Pennsylvania School System of Assessment) testing. In fact, the PSSA is a low standard considering 80% more students reach proficiency on PSSA than the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).
State supervised remediation has been utterly unsuccessful. University City High School in Philadelphia, now in its eighth year of corrective action under the state’s federally mandated Annual Yearly Progress program, scored worst in the state again last year with less than five percent of students achieving proficiency in reading and math on PSSA testing. York High is in its 6th year of Level II Corrective Action, the highest level of remedial intervention imposed by the PA Department of Education. In 2009, 32% of 11th grade York High students were proficient in reading by the PSSA standard.
The same schools that comprise the bottom 5% in student outcome, not surprisingly, also have the highest rate of criminal activity. 4,547 violent incidents including 2,592 assaults on students and staff occurred in these schools as reported to PA Department of Education in 2009-10. Nine Hannah Penn Middle School students suffered sexual assaults that year. At William Sayre Middle School in Philadelphia less than 1 in 10 children learn to read or do math proficiently; at the same time, more than 1 in 10 of these children will fall victim to crimes including assaults, robberies and indecent exposure.
Simply spending more dollars in the same educational system has had little benefit. PA public education spending/student in inflation adjusted dollars increased from $10,807 in 2000-01 to $14,535 in 2009-10. Yet during that same period average NAEP achievement scores remained unchanged. Not surprisingly, the schools with the poorest performance generally have the highest spending/student. In York for example, 32% of York City 11th graders where proficient in reading at a cost $14,714/student while at Central 80% were proficient at a cost of $12,347/student; or stated another way, at York City taxpayers spent $44,142 for each 11th grader that achieved reading proficiency on the PSSA, while Central taxpayers spent $15,433.
Certainly the urban districts, including York City, have many dedicated and excellent teachers; however, the public education system, and current teaching and spending model has been unable to address the challenges associated with inner city poverty and broken families. A voucher system allowing the public funds spent on the individual student to follow the student to the school of the parent’s choosing would drive innovation and fundamental changes to the failed public educational paradigm.
Vouchers provide parents the ability, which is rightfully theirs, to choose a school they believe will best serve their child. Some may object that private or charter schools do not have to meet the same standards required of public schools. Yet those public school standards have manifestly not generated quality outcomes or even a safe educational environment; and private schools will have to meet a higher standard, that of the parents. If the schools don’t meet expectations, parents will look for a better option. Arguments that would reject a limited voucher system because not all parents and students could take advantage of the opportunity would condemn all students to the same failed system; and further fail to recognize that success would breed success. Although choices are currently limited, demand created by vouchers will drive more and higher quality options; and in turn, accommodate more demand.
When a child in public school is more likely to be assaulted than achieving even nominal educational proficiency, the system has failed and radical reform is required. Parents should have the choice, and their choice will drive reform.