Monday, July 09, 2007

A Pennsylvania tragedy

Jason throws down the gauntlet, and I'll pick it up. What is happening now with the Duquesne School District--and with the children whose very futures are at stake--is downright criminal. It represents a perfect storm of problems with how Pennsylvania is governed. One is the multiplicity of local governments, many of which--in the face of declining populations and shrinking tax bases--can no longer adequately provide government services, including education. Another is the over-reliance on locally generated revenues to fund public education, which should be a right of any child, regardless of their station in life, and regardless of where they had the good or bad fortune to be born.

Yes, I'm aware that low-income districts like Duquense often get more state and federal money than many affluent districts, but they also need more. The educational deficits caused by poverty are real, they start early, and their effects are cumulative. And if wealthy districts want to spend more money on schools, they have that option--poor districts do not. That doesn't mean that poor children can't learn, or that poverty should excuse failure--but it is willfully ignorant to deny that affluent children have advantages that make their schools' job easier.

I would certainly agree that throwing more money at the problem is not the best answer. Meaningful, effective education reform is a goal that has eluded this nation for more than a generation, and I could be more forgiving if the crisis in Duquense had touched off a genuine debate over how to address the problems faced by underachieving school districts.

But as far as Duquesne is concerned, no one cares. There is no substantive discussion occurring because no one, save for their own parents, seems to give a rat's ass what happens to these kids. Certainly not the governor or state legislators, who have been too busy trying to keep open casinos and find money for hockey arenas. Not the good folks in West Mifflin, who don't want those children in their schools. Regardless of their motives, West Mifflin residents are horribly mistaken if they think the fate of Duquesne's students is not their concern. Do they really think that crime, proverty and economic stagnation respect arbitrarily drawn municipal boundaries?

Education is a right, and a social good. It is not a privilege conferred solely on the affluent, or those who live in the right zip codes. We all suffer if our neighbors' children don't get as good an education as our own. One day, the people in West Mifflin and our "leaders" in Harrisburg will understand that. But by then it will be too late.

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Blogger EdHeath said...

I posted the below over at Tube City, but putting it here maybe increases the chance my question will be answered...

You know, I freely admit that I am one of the bloggers that dropped the ball on this. Jonathan Potts picked it up and ran with it today. The thing is, somewhere I had found a link to the Allegheny Institute website, where they claimed (6/1/07) the students were having some outrageous amount of state money spent on them (16,000 per student), and the school was still closing. This makes no sense to me, and in fact was somewhat intimidating. I just don’t know enough to have a logical opinion on this. The PG mentioned something about debt service in the district, maybe that is what is eating up the state money. The Institute claimed the state was spending more per student than Mount Lebanon spends per student in its district. Maybe there is an apples and oranges thing going on, but I don’t really know.

5:04 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

There was a time when I could have given you a satisfactory answer to your question, back when I wrote about education for the Trib. That was five years ago.

I can say that when I was at the Trib, covering the Pittsburgh city schools, the Allegheny Institute had a bad habit of including capital expenditures--including, I believe, debt service--in its per-pupil cost calculations, which meant that the figures did not reflect what was actually spent on instruction.

I'm hazy on what formula, if any, the state uses to determine subsidies for school districts. I seem to recall that the governor and legislature decided on an education budget, and then a formula was used from there to figure out how much each district got. The state also gave districts subsidies for special education, based on the assumption that 15 percent of the students in every district had special needs. This was unfair to poor districts, as they tend to have a higher proportion of special needs students, and during the early part of the decade I recall--again, hazy memory--that poverty became more of a factor in doling this money out.

Bottom line, I'm almost positive that Duquesne does get more per pupil than Mt. Lebanon. I'm assuming that debt service and other legacy costs are probably eating away the budget in Duquesne.

7:28 PM

Blogger Maria said...

"Nintendo invested more that $140 million in research and development in 2002 alone. The U.S. federal government spent less than half as much on research and innovation in education."

(From this video.)

3:19 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Comparing poor and affluent school districts on the basis of test scores, by the way, is inherently unfair. When I was at the Trib, we worked with a Pitt researcher to do regression analysis of state test scores. We found that about 80 percent of the variations in scores between school districts could be attributed to socio-economic status. (As determined by the percentage of students who qualified for low- and reduced-price lunches, a standard measure of poverty in education research.)

Now of course that doesn't mean that we should accept mediocrity for low-income students. It cheats them and ultimately it cheats all of us. But acknowledging these facts is necessary if we are going to have an honest conversation about school reform.

7:41 AM


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