The proposal to create a new type of school voucher program in Pennsylvania has prompted substantial debate in the legislature and the public on the best way to help students in struggling schools.
Senate Bill 2 proposes the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for students in public schools ranking in the bottom 15 percent, based on state standardized test scores, to use on education expenses. Expenses such as private or parochial school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and other “valid educational expenses” would be covered by taxpayer-funded vouchers, which are purported to save public schools money.
Instead of hyperbole and rhetoric, data and a real-world example illustrate how S.B. 2 fails to address the barriers to achievement present in struggling schools. In reality, S.B. 2 will make things worse for those schools and communities.
First, poverty has a significant impact on student achievement. The average acute poverty rate (percentage of children living in families with income less than 100 percent of federal poverty limits) in school districts with more than one low-achieving school was 33.3 percent – more than double the state average of 16.3 percent. There is a strong correlation between higher poverty and lower achievement on state standardized testing. On average, the proficiency rate for students in the highest-poverty school districts is 33 percent less than students in the lowest-poverty school districts.
These school districts need additional resources, programs, and partnerships to overcome the barriers to achievement posed by high poverty, yet the revenue in the highest-poverty school districts is more than $2,000 less per student than in their lowest-poverty counterparts, leaving them unable to make the necessary investments.
Second, S.B. 2 will not save public schools money by helping them operate more efficiently. While this sounds good in theory, budget pressures are difficult at best to manage. This point is best illustrated by example. Take an elementary school that has 50 students enrolled in the third grade and 10 of those students leave to utilize an ESA – taking with them $57,000 in state funding. The fixed costs that stay behind in the school yield no savings and, in fact, result in a greater financial burden for local taxpayers.
With 40 students left in the third grade, administrators can’t reduce staffing, combine classes, or reduce heating or electric costs, and the school would have to be ready and able to accommodate those students if and when they return (textbooks, desks, supplies, etc.). Even with 10 fewer students in that grade level, the district would still be providing instruction at the same cost as when 50 students were there. With $57,000 less in state funding to provide the same education, that money would have to be raised from other sources – namely, local property taxes. In communities with median household incomes under $40,000 and a greater reliance on state education funding, S.B. 2 is something residents and schools can literally not afford to pay for.
So great is the case for concern that more than 230 school boards across the state have taken the step of adopting a resolution opposing S.B. 2.
We are grateful that our state senators are hearing the voices speaking in support for public education in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is committed to working with the General Assembly to find solutions that will allow struggling schools to improve and ensure all students reach their full potential, but S.B. 2, or any similar proposal, is not the plan to do it.
Nathan G. Mains is CEO of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.