Would you ever give a green light or a hard-earned nickel to a business model that showed it was going to hire more staff to service fewer customers by doubling the cost of production while keeping the quality substandard and worse than the global competition?
Of course not, but that is exactly the model Pennsylvanians invested in through the public education system in the last decade.
Pennsylvania public school spending has rapidly increased despite declining enrollment, with little growth in academic achievement to show for it. Since 2000, public school spending rose 68 percent, from $15.3 billion to $25.8 billion in 2009-10. Over that time, enrollment in Pennsylvania public schools declined by 26,960 students, while schools have hired an additional 32,937 employees.
Matthew J. Brouillette
Despite spending more than $14,000 per student, only 40 percent of Pennsylvania's 8th-grade students scored at or above proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and mathematics exams. Along the way, we have produced what many call "failure factories," where 144 schools, Pa.'s bottom five percent, have failed to take more than 53 percent of their 11th graders above proficiency in reading and math.
In any grading book in America, 53 percent is an 'F,' yet many in our state legislature seem to think we should keep things the same. To make things worse, the endorsement of the status quo will send many of these students back to violent schools. In the same 144 schools that cannot provide children basic skills for life, more than 5,400 acts of violence occurred in just the last recordable school year alone, including seven rapes and more than 3,000 assaults on students and staff.
But all is not gloom and doom for the Keystone State's education investment. For the past 10 years, Pennsylvania's highly innovative and popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program has provided educational options to low- and middle-income families across the commonwealth. These families were searching for alternatives to the sometimes dangerous and oftentimes failing government-run school assigned to them according to their ZIP code.
Through the direct engagement of businesses in the educational process, by providing the funding for scholarships in exchange for state tax credits, the EITC program has proven a tremendously successful partnership, awarding more than 284,000 scholarships worth $335 million.
In addition to helping individual families, this landmark program has saved Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars each year. With an average scholarship of approximately $1,000, the EITC serves students for a fraction of the $14,000 spent per student by school districts.
The distinctive elements of the EITC focus on a partnership between parents, businesses, and scholarship organizations. This partnership shifts the focus from the educational institution to the needs of a child. When resources follow a child, that child and their family now have the choice to attend the school that best fits their needs.
These scholarships have helped families like the Littles of Mechanicsburg. Steve, a math teacher in the Harrisburg School District and his wife, Sheona, a fulltime mother who is finishing up her bachelor's degree, believed public school worked for some families, but didn't meet the needs of their three children, Tyrece, Tiara and Tamel.
After much investigation, they found Emmanuel Baptist Christian Academy in Camp Hill met every educational need for their children. Unfortunately, like most Pennsylvania families, Steve and Sheona didn't have the income or resources to send their children to private school. With the help of EITC scholarships, though, they enrolled Tyrece and Tiara at EBCA and Tamel followed just a few years later. Without this scholarship, the Littles would have no options.
Not surprisingly, demand for EITC scholarships far outweighs the available supply across the commonwealth. For example, the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia had 95,000 applications for 7,700 scholarships awarded over the last decade.
To fix the supply needs, the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Gov. Tom Corbett must act quickly this fall to expand the EITC program. By doing so, Pennsylvania can continue to green light a program that better suits children's needs while rescuing them from oftentimes failing and violent schools.
Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. More information about The Commonwealth Foundation can be found online at www.commonwealthfoundation.org.