The death of public education in Pennsylvania

FOR THE school-choice movement, a voucher system giving parents the ability to send their children - and with them our tax money - to the public, private, parochial, charter or cyber schools that they select, is the latest holy grail in the pursuit of a quality education for Pennsylvania kids.

Proponents say that adopting a competitive education plan statewide would spur schools to improve so that they can attract more students into their classrooms.

While the notion of rewarding districts for their academic reforms sounds reasonable, don't be fooled into thinking that vouchers are a panacea for what ails education today - they would be just another nail in the coffin of the public-school system.

After all, if this scheme functions true to its free-market theories, wouldn't the results likely mirror other aspects of U.S. society where money is the dominant factor in determining quality? If so, as in housing patterns, the only children remaining in the underperforming public schools would be those whose parents don't have the means to escape them - regardless of the reason.

By the time I graduated from high school, I'd attended seven schools - including five elementary schools - in a variety of settings.

After going to the kindergarten where my mother taught, my parents, both educators, exercised their own form of school choice in Philadelphia back in the mid-'60s. They didn't like the school across the street from our house so, after first grade, my brother and I walked a mile to a better public school.

Suspecting that we didn't live in the enrollment area, the principal followed us home in his car one day, but because we were good students, Mr. Kline let it slide. Three years later, I left the school, which had been transformed from black and Jewish to all-black, for a much more rigorous one in suburban Pittsburgh that, out of 500 students, had three black kids - including me and my brother.

After a sixth grade at another good, integrated school in suburban Washington, I was fortunate enough that when my parents weren't satisfied with the neighborhood junior high, they could afford to send us to an all-boys Philadelphia private school.

In my experience, the most important characteristics that good schools possess are adequate resources for learning, committed and knowledgeable teachers, and involved parents.

And Philadelphia's antiquated, 100-year-old high schools can't compare with my continually-upgraded suburban palace of an alma mater, bulging with the finest in technology and science labs stressing academic excellence, an arts and music curriculum that enhances cultural enrichment, and outstandingly-equipped sports facilities.

True to the market, and according to where we live, we already get what we pay for when it comes to education. And who would dare to deny that for decades, city students especially have gotten shortchanged?

American public education has its origins in the mid-19th century, its reformers believing that common schooling would reduce social problems and create good citizens.

BUT EVEN back then, suffragette Susan B. Anthony had sense enough to recognize that "[if] all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals."

Let's hope that our leaders in Harrisburg embody that wisdom with an earnest effort at revitalizing and fixing our public schools instead of applying disingenuous, trendy solutions.

Sid Holmes is a proud alumnus of Radnor Senior High School, class of 1978.