“Chronic low performance and abysmal graduation rates fail to prepare our students for college or careers.” — July 7, 2017 — State Senate Memoranda Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Senator DiSanto, Senator Eichelberger and Senator Scarnati.

On May 22, 2018, the Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 2 (SB2), the bill that would establish Education Savings Accounts (ESA) in Pennsylvania.

This bill would allow parents in underperforming public school districts to establish savings accounts using public money from their local school district, to pay for private school tuition or a host of other approved expenses through a “participating entity.” In the memo attached to SB2, the terms “chronic low performance and abysmal graduation rates” were highlighted as reasons this bill was necessary to provide parents additional educational choices for their students. A participating entity could include private schools, colleges, non-public distance learning programs or a tutor who, as defined by SB2 is, “licensed in any state, has taught at an eligible postsecondary institution and is a subject matter expert.”

Currently, the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile (SPP) assigns a “grade” to every public school in Pennsylvania. A passing SPP score is 70. The goal for graduation rates is 100 percent.  Does an SPP score of over 80 and consistent graduation rates over 90 percent sound like a school district with “chronic low performance and abysmal graduation rates”?

Based on the requirements of SB2, Otto-Eldred Jr.-Sr. High School would qualify as such a school, even though OEHS has the highest SPP in our four-county area. If SB2 was in effect right now, Otto-Eldred School District could stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars in public funding to private schools or “participating entities” with no accountability for those funds. The results would be fewer programs, fewer choices and fewer opportunities for our students.

Parents in Pennsylvania have the choice to send their students to public school, to a charter school or to provide their children a home school education. Additionally, parents may send their students to private school at their own expense.

How do your local school districts compare to charter school options? A quick look on http://paschoolperformance.org would reveal that no Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has ever earned an SPP score of 70. Of the thirteen most popular Cyber Charter Schools, only one has a graduation rate of 80 percent, while nine have a graduation rate less than 60 percent. How do private schools compare? No one knows. Private schools are not held to the same accountability and reporting standards as public schools. Understandably, many private schools have great success; however, these schools are not educating every child that enters, no matter their academic, emotional, physical or medical need. Public schools do this day in and day out, proudly supporting every child to reach his or her full potential on a daily basis.

As written, SB2 imposes no requirements for student selection or admittance for students with an ESA. Private schools would be free to admit students of their choice and not be required to follow any specific education program or service. This bill would not require private schools to uphold or admit any student with an IEP, GIEP or 504 plan. SB2 provides parents an additional choice for their student’s education, but the real choice lies with the private school or “participating entity.”

With the SB2 definition of “participating entity,” someone not meeting the requirements to teach in Pennsylvania’s public schools could be a tutor receiving Pennsylvania taxpayer funds. There is no definition of “subject matter expert.” Although, many citizens are experts in certain subjects, it does not mean they can reach students with engaging and authentic activities. A college mathematics professor was not trained to break the Math Curse as our staff at Otto-Eldred is. For example, O-E’s subject matter experts recently developed cross-curricular math, social studies and science lessons for 5th grade students that incorporated GPS satellite technology. Just today, I observed our students apply scale and ratio to plans for our school garden, while also incorporating harvesting techniques and plant growth needs.

Are there public schools that struggle with achievement and graduation rates? Most definitely there are. Is it every district in Pennsylvania? Most definitely not. Why should we apply a “one size fits all” approach to this concern? Every school district faces different challenges related to programming, demographics, facilities and staffing. Why not understand these challenges and provide supports locally for districts to improve? No district in Pennsylvania has a goal to “fail,” so let’s be sure we are not stripping away valuable resources from our public schools that already do so much with so little. The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that the Legislature provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” Siphoning money to administer new programs and to private entities is not “thorough and efficient.”

In an August 8, 2017 article on www.pennlive.com, Senator DiSanto was quoted as stating “public school advocates” would be resistant to changes brought about by SB2. Count me in as a public school administrator that is a proud public school advocate.

Our Legislature needs to hear from you. Whether you support or oppose SB2, find out what it means for your district and stand up for our students.

(Splain is the superintendent of Otto Eldred School District & a PARSS board member.)

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