School Choice Can Save Pennsylvania’s Education System

Former Philadelphia superintendent Arlene Ackerman is right on this one

As we all know, weather forecasters are wrong much of the time. But you can’t hold them responsible for that wholly unpredictable icy blast felt this week. After all, it was hell freezing over. That’s right. Seems Dante’s Inferno took a dip in the cold, not coincidentally, at the exact same time that former Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman—a 43-year fixture in the public education establishment—called for comprehensive school choice as the primary means to improve education.

Calling access to a quality education “the civil rights battle of our generation,” Ackerman penned a column in the Inquirer in which she lamented that it took her entire career to realize that true reforms would never originate from inside the system. Her words describe the problem perfectly:

“Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers’ union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children.”

Ackerman then offered the solution that, while obvious to anyone with common sense, has been thus far impossible to achieve.

“Meaningful education reform must be forced upon the system from outside by giving parents of all income levels real choices about where their children go to school. That requires giving parents comprehensive school choice … ”

Ackerman also advocates the expansion of charter schools, which, while a good idea, is but a small part of the overall solution, since the waiting list for these successful institutions is 30,000 strong.

The major reason charters are light years ahead of regular public schools, as Ackerman correctly points out, is two-fold. They are not required to follow many of the burdensome and counterproductive regulations imposed upon public schools, and, more important, teachers are hired—and fired—based on merit.

Hmmm. Holding people accountable for their job performance. What a novel idea. If only we did that in other jobs. Oh wait. We do. In the private sector.

That’s right. Despite the comedy routine of certain folks who have nothing to “Occupy” their time other than railing against the evils of competition and free enterprise, the private sector is in fact what built America into the greatest, most benevolent power the world has ever known.

Without question, though, the United States is slipping backwards, being dragged into malaise and misery. And that decline, more than anything, can be traced to one thing: the demise of education.

For decades, all efforts to improve public education have been squashed by teachers’ union bosses, whose loyalty was to their fiefdoms and the almighty paycheck—both funded entirely by taxpayers who were duped into believing their children were receiving the best education possible.

Whenever questions were raised about the lack of accountability and stagnant or declining standardized test scores, the blame game began. “Parents don’t put in the time with their kids’ homework … It’s society’s fault …There are too many students in each class.” And, of course, the most common one of all: “We need more money.”

Undoubtedly, some parents don’t put in as much time as they should, and we live in an ever more complex society, but these simply cannot be used as excuses for inadequate teaching. In the private sector, when your job becomes tougher, you either meet the challenge, or hit the door. Adapt, improvise, overcome—or go home. Nowhere should that be more applicable than when teachers are entrusted with our children, indeed, our future.

And the “not enough money, too many kids” excuse is a myth. That’s not opinion, but cold, hard fact. Pennsylvania spends $26 billion per year (that’s billion, with a “b”) on education—more per student than 39 other states—an amount that has doubled since 1996. Despite a drop of 27,000 students over the last 10 years, the public school system has added 33,000 employees in that time. Therefore, by definition, increased funding, more personnel and decreased class size have not improved student achievement.

The results for all that money and smaller class size? Pennsylvania students are 42nd in SAT scores, and rank low in literacy, graduation rates and those going to college. Their performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam has not improved. And most startling, nearly half of all 11th graders are not proficient in math and reading (per PSSA standardized test scores). This cannot be attributed to just the poor-performing urban schools pulling down scores, but is testament to an across-the-board educational failure.

Bottom line: It’s not just that the status quo isn’t working. It has completely failed. Based on that dismal picture, Ackerman’s advocacy of school choice—the “change that must come from outside the school system”—couldn’t have been offered at a better time.

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There are two elements of Ackerman’s revelations that are worth noting.

1) The implementation of school choice, more than any other reform, is imperative if we are not to lose another generation. The way we did things in the past hasn’t worked, and what we continue to do isn’t having an impact. Unless we treat education the same way as we do every other successful institution in America—business, sports, entertainment, the military—then we might as well raise the white flag of defeat.

Most western nations have a form of school choice, and the results speak volumes. Compared to our 30 biggest global competitors, America’s students rank near the bottom of the pack in every category.

2) Isn’t it a shame that no one in the public education establishment has the courage to speak the truth while they are still on the inside? Don’t get me wrong. It is wonderfully refreshing to hear Ackerman’s sentiments, and to see that she has finally seen the light on what must be done to improve public education.

But it is a sad note that revelations like hers must come after her departure. Just imagine how different things could have been had the Philadelphia School Superintendent come out of the gate advocating school choice. While certainly not a slam dunk, it would have infinitely increased the chances for the adoption of choice, particularly since a majority of the legislature and Governor Tom Corbett also favor it.

A school choice victory is still possible, as we are told it is a top legislative priority. While it won’t be easy, especially given the teachers’ unions’ huge political war chests generated by forced union dues, maybe, just maybe, the conversion of Arlene Ackerman from the Dark Side of Public Education might be the spark needed to push across the finish line.

Only then will the dream of so many, including Ackerman, begin to come true: “all children having access to a quality public school education.”

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, FreindlyFireZone.com. His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]