School choice credits pit public against private
By Adam Wagner
Published: Saturday, August 11, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Saturday, August 11, 2012
Private schools are embracing a new state program designed to give students in low-performing classrooms a chance to escape, although response from public school leaders has been tepid, officials say.
The state Department of Education has received about 200 applications from schools to host students who would use the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program. Most are private, including all of the 46 schools the department has approved. Applications are due Wednesday.
Some public school leaders and union officials complain that the program, a compromise to school choice that Gov. Tom Corbett signed in July, is misguided.
“My major concern is that the state is basically just using this as an opportunity to close some of the economically distressed districts. What they should do is focus on funding these schools properly,” said Dan Castagna, superintendent of the West Mifflin Area School District, which borders low-performing districts in the Mon Valley. The district, which fought the admission of students from Duquesne when the state closed that high school in 2007, will not participate in the new scholarship program.
“What they're doing is cutting them at the knees and hurting the districts that need the help the most,” Castagna said.
Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said the program offers opportunities to students who otherwise could not leave bad schools.
Students in schools where scores were in the lowest 15th percentile on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests can apply for a maximum $8,500 scholarship to attend higher-performing, non-charter schools. Students must meet income eligibility; business donations fund the scholarships.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has closed schools in recent years because of declining enrollment, is among Western Pennsylvania schools planning to accept students. Others approved include Community Day School in Squirrel Hill and Kentucky Avenue School in Shadyside.
“No one wants to lose students. You lose students, you lose jobs, your school has a chance of closing. That's happened in public and nonpublic schools,” said Ronald T. Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development at the diocese.
Bowes said the program will give students a chance in public and private settings: “With competition and accountability, all of our schools are going to get so much better.”
The tight timeline means “it's all been a very haphazard, very quickly done program,” he said. “But like any new program, these things will settle down and be flowing perfectly within a year.”
About 100 parents have called to express interest, Bowes said. Financial aid could be available at schools where tuition is higher than the state's $8,500 scholarship. Parents must make up the difference, if any, between the state scholarship and tuition at the accepting school.
Public schools are unlikely to participate in the program because it costs them more to educate students, Castagna said. Educating a student costs West Mifflin about $13,000 yearly on average, while the same student would cost a diocese school about $6,000.
Officials at the Pennsylvania State Education Association worry that losing state subsidies could create a cycle of failure in low-achieving districts.
“We're concerned about any program that takes money out of the public schools at a time when there's a school funding crisis in Pennsylvania,” said David Broderic, a PSEA spokesman.
The standardized testing used to quantify achievement also draws ire.
“We're using one test to determine the success or failure of a school,” said Bart Rocco, superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District. “I taught English, and if I gave one test a year or two tests a year to evaluate my students' performance, would that be fair?”
Rocco believes Elizabeth Forward, which is near low-performing schools in Clairton and McKeesport, will not opt in to the scholarship program.
“No matter how they rank the schools every year, there's always going to be a bottom 15 percent,” said Dan Lujetic, superintendent of Connellsville Area School District, which has five schools listed as under-performing. “So they're setting up 15 percent of schools to look like they aren't doing what they're supposed to.”
Some public school officials think the program will have little impact.
“I think a lot of our parents who weren't happy with the school district have already found other placements for their children in cyber schools or charter schools,” said Alan Johnson, acting superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District, which has six schools on the underachieving list.
Adam Wagner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7956 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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None of arguments by the self-serving superintendents have anything to do with improving the education of students. It's all about we are going to lose money and jobs. That should tell you what they care about and why vouchers are going to be very, very successful. "Educators" quit caring about education a long time ago.