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One State's Poor Excuse for Funneling Taxpayer Cash to Private Schools

A new tax credit program relies on the flawed logic of "failing schools" to defund public education in the state.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Katherine Welles via Shutterstock.com

 
It’s politically hot right now to talk about “failing” schools. To hear many legislators and school “reformers” tell the story, public education in the U.S. is circling the drain. Did you see Michelle Rhee’s obnoxious Olympic spoof ad? Remember the nasty radio campaign back in June, funded by the ultra-conservative and mega-rich Koch brothers, pushing the narrative of “students trapped in failing schools”? [See “ The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”] But the rhetoric of failure is not only misleading (and sometimes flat-out wrong), it is having disastrous consequences on our schools.
 
The latest example of this comes courtesy of Pennsylvania’s recently expanded EITC $150 million corporate tax giveaway. The horribly misnamed Educational Improvement Tax Credit program now has a companion called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which is premised on the notion that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. To do this, the program borrows from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind, which has been labeling schools as failures for the past decade under one of the nation’s largest policy fiascos. Through the new EITC program, Pennsylvania has developed a list of 415 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public taxpayer money to go to private schools. (Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them – more on that later.)
 
But the whole system rests on faulty logic. First, the list of supposedly “low-achieving” schools is deeply flawed. Published at the end of July by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the list uses results from the 2010-2011 PSSAs (standardized state tests given to all public school students in grades 3 – 8 and 11) to identify the bottom 15% of schools based on reading and math scores. However, as a recent analysis by the Pennsylvania School Board Association shows, a full third of the schools on that list actually reached their student achievement targets set by the state and federal government.
 
That’s right, a third of the schools on the state’s list made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) or were “making progress” under the definition of No Child Left Behind. Those numbers apply to Philadelphia – where we hear a lot about struggling public schools – but hold equally true across the state in Pittsburgh. In the 10 counties of Southwest PA, 22 out of the 73 schools listed – 30% – made AYP or were showing progress. That includes both the schools identified as “failing” in Green and Butler counties, one of the two schools in Beaver county, and six of the 16 in Fayette county. (There was one school on the list from Washington County, and no schools identified in Armstrong, Indiana, Lawrence or Westmoreland counties.)
 
What’s more, of the 13 supposedly “failing” schools in Allegheny County, seven of them have already closed under a new realignment plan in the city of Pittsburgh. And eight of the 27 Pittsburgh Public Schools also made AYP or were “making progress.” Again, that’s 30% of the list in the city of Pittsburgh. As the Pennsylvania School Board Association points out, “Labeling these schools as low-achieving when they have met the student achievement standards set by the state and federal government functions to create two separate and conflicting measurements for student achievement.”
 
If the state is really interested in rescuing students from failing schools, why didn’t it include charter schools on that list? Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “ Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. Shouldn’t the state be rescuing students from these low-achieving charter schools?
 
The fact that the state just approved four new cyber charters suggests that this isn’t really about saving students from failing schools at all. Indeed, under the new EITC scholarship program, students need never have actually attended a failing school in order to take public money to a private institution. The law is written so that students only have to live in the attendance area for a school on the low-achieving list – they may never have even set foot in the building!
 
And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made sure that no one can look too closely at the results of the new EITC program. The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements (despite the fact that they can take 20% of donations for their own administration), and there is no way for the public to learn if the scholarships actually help students in any way. “In fact,” the Pennsylvania School Board Association explains, “the EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement, making it impossible to measure the effectiveness of the program.” So students could be attending failing private schools with these scholarships – but since private schools do not have to administer the PSSAs, we would never know.
 
And then there’s the pesky problem that EITC diverts $150 million of our public dollars meant for public education – where those resources could actually address student achievement issues. But with draconian state budget cuts ($1 billion last year), school districts have been forced to slash even basic tutoring programs while continuing to be on the hook for students who leave. For example, there is no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly subsidized “scholarship,” and the student’s home school district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to 10 miles. It’s no wonder local school districts are not buying into this program. Even those that did not appear on the state’s list – and could volunteer to receive students from “low achieving” schools – have shown little interest (only two have signed up in the whole state so far, and none in Southwest PA).
 
Interviewed by the Tribune-Review, Wilkinsburg School District Superintendent Archie Perrin “said the tax credit program is yet another means of siphoning needed resources from districts — particularly those with high percentages of students from low-income households — which already contend with declining state revenue.” And West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna told the Post-Gazette that his district would not participate in EITC because “it’s a blatant attempt to privatize public education.” He and 23 other Allegheny County school superintendents had a conference call last week, and the majority concluded “that the opportunity scholarships would not help public school districts.”
 
The EITC program is clearly not about what is best for students. It is about giving corporations huge tax breaks while sending public dollars to private and religious schools, doing an end-run around Pennsylvania’s state constitution and draining our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s about a national “reform” agenda threatening our schools from coast to coast, heavily financed by the ultra-right, with an ideological appeal to both the middle and left that remain gripped by the failure narrative. It’s really about labeling schools as failing and then using the rhetoric of failure to legitimatize the privatization of public education. Now that’s an epic failure.

Jessie B. Ramey is the ACLS New Faculty Fellow in Women's Studies and History at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages (University of Illinois Press, 2012). She is the founder of the public education advocacy Web site Yinzercation.