Editor’s note: This commentary from Jonathan Butcher, Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation and a reimaginED guest blogger, and David P. Hardy, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation, appeared Nov. 4 on the Commonwealth Foundation’s website.
Pennsylvania’s leading gubernatorial candidates both support Lifeline Scholarships, a proposal to give students in underperforming schools around $7,000 in education funding. This is good news for Pittsburgh students, especially for those trapped in schools that aren’t meeting their needs.
Pennsylvanians are desperate for fresh leadership that will finally prioritize students above special interests. Bought off by government unions, current politicians want to force families to send their students to their zip-code-assigned public school—all while they benefit from the best private education that money can buy.
Take top Washington politicians like President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who trumpet praises for public schools but send their own children to private institutions. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf chose to attend an elite, private boarding school in the 1960s but actively opposes scholarship programs that give other students a similar choice.
If politicians exercise educational choice for their children, they should support giving their constituents access to the same opportunities. Without it, students are confined within a broken system that assigns poor children to the state’s worst public schools.
Pittsburgh’s Woodland Hills School District, for example, was originally formed in the 1980s as part of a desegregation effort but has failed to provide true opportunity and equality to its students.
Despite increases in funding, Woodland Hills struggles with failing academic performance. While per-student funding has increased over 50 % in the past 10 years, the latest standardized test scores show dismal results. Of eighth graders in the district, 95 % are not proficient in math and 73 % are not proficient in English.
Woodland Hills is just one of many neighboring districts that are struggling. Allegheny County is home to over 40 schools that rank in the bottom 15 % of public schools in the state. Close to 80 % of students in underperforming schools are minority and economically disadvantaged, effectively trapped in their assigned public schools.
Government unions routinely argue that underperforming public schools just need more taxpayer funding, but these calls distract from fundamental, structural flaws in the system. What’s more, Pennsylvania has already tried statewide funding increases and has little to show for it.
Since 2013, total taxpayer spending on Pennsylvania public schools has skyrocketed 32 % to over $33 billion. In addition to their ever-growing budget, state public schools received over $6 billion in federal taxpayer money during the COVID-19 pandemic. Far from being underfunded, Pennsylvania public schools spend over $4,000 more per child than the national average.
What are the results of all this spending? Recently released scores from the Nation’s Report Card (or NAEP) show a 12-%age point decline in Pennsylvania eighth-grade math scores between 2019 and 2022.
While money can protect bureaucrats and pad special interests, it cannot buy parent satisfaction or student achievement. A Gallup Poll from September finds that nearly 25 % of Americans are “completely dissatisfied” with public education. The level of overall satisfaction is at its lowest point in 20 years.
In Pennsylvania, specifically, parents appear to be demonstrating dissatisfaction by choosing schools outside the assigned system. Public school enrollment has dropped by almost 7 % since 2000. In some districts like Woodland High, enrollment declines in the last decade are at nearly 20 %.
Meanwhile, polling shows an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians support giving families more educational freedom.
If lawmakers want to help every child, then they should give all families the chance to choose how and where their children will learn. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania House approved Lifeline Scholarships, which would give families in underperforming schools funding to purchase textbooks, hire a personal tutor, pay private school tuition, and more.
Right next door in West Virginia, families already have these options. Pittsburgh families should too.
Lifeline Scholarships isn’t about partisan politics, it’s about giving every child a better future. While it’s good news that both gubernatorial candidates are signaling support, voters should hold every candidate accountable for where they stand on educational opportunity.
Merely increasing funding for a broken system isn’t fair for students that are stuck in it. Pennsylvania’s leaders—especially those who benefit from educational opportunity in their private life—should empower all students with the freedom to choose.