District bankruptcies: Who’s responsible?

By Cathy Weiss | January 31, 2012

Stoneleigh Foundation Executive Director Cathy Weiss wrote an article for The Notebook.

When Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his school reform plan last fall, he said this: “When we have failing schools, we know we have failing students.”

Except, as the case study of the Chester Upland School District shows, it’s not the kids who are failing. It is we as a commonwealth who are failing them.

There is nothing unusual, unfortunately, in school systems facing bankruptcy – Philadelphia and Reading are alarmingly wobbly. But Corbett’s refusal to advance funds that are due to be distributed to Chester Upland later this year – and his willingness to leave 3,650 mostly low-income youth from the district with literally no place to learn – has made some of us who invest in the district wondering what he is thinking.

A recent order from a federal district court judge to transfer $3.2 million to the district has averted a total shutdown. Now the governor says that the schools will stay open for the rest of the year. The crisis isn’t over, though, not in Chester Upland nor the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The bitter debate about who is responsible for this disaster has essentially been a replay of the battle that warring educational ideologies have been fighting for two decades. Along the way, the well-being of children, their community, and Pennsylvania’s economy are being ignored. How can we expect these students to grow into productive, law-abiding, responsible adults when today’s leaders can’t deliver the most basic building block of education?

It isn’t the children or their families who are to blame. It is the elected and appointed officials who opt not to invest in their future. Numerous studies have proven the net savings and benefits from investments in education. A study by the Economic Policy Institute projected that providing universal pre-school in Pennsylvania would have an 8:1 benefit by 2050.

Studies also highlight the financial impact of the education gap. A report by the McKinsey Corporation showed that if performance of Black and Latino students had reached that of White students by 1998, the GDP in 2009 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher – or approximately 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The report also says the achievement gaps in this country are the same as having “a permanent national recession.” Cutting the dropout rate in half would yield $45 billion annually in new federal tax revenues or cost savings, according to a report by Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College.

With its budget cuts, the commonwealth is reneging on our 150-year social contract to provide a quality education for all children, the kind of education that provided a lifeline to earlier generations and that enables the mobility that is central to the American dream. And it is the sort of regressive thinking that will saddle our grandchildren with ongoing social costs.

It isn’t fair and it isn’t smart. Helping children overcome the barriers they face from poverty (and its companion, violence) is the leading educational challenge of our time, and the only way to deal adequately with a sagging economy.

Budget cuts in state education funding have forced all Pennsylvania’s public school systems to cut back. But because the poorer districts rely more on state funding, the cuts affect their students more profoundly. These young people have been denied opportunities that children in wealthier districts still enjoy. They have been devalued, under-educated, and not provided the tools they need to succeed.

This goes well beyond Chester, and it has ramifications beyond even individual successes and failures.

“Many of these students, (who) have seen so much tragedy, loss and rejection in 16 years than most will see in a lifetime now . . . are hit again,” a Chester Upland teacher emailed Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. When the students thought about the possibility of being sent to other school districts, the teacher wrote, a common response was, “they won’t do that; nobody wants us.” Is this the Pennsylvania we have become? Is this the national and international news we want to create?

We at Stoneleigh Foundation have seen what a modest investment in Chester’s young people can accomplish. Expanding youth courts in several Chester Upland schools and, from there, to the rest of Pennsylvania is helping young people who have been in trouble to learn respect, practice responsibility, and become more engaged in school. Imagine what adequate and stable state funding could mean to them.

We owe all our children more than they are getting. We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to support an educational system where they can not only survive but thrive.

Gov. Corbett had it right last fall when he said, “We can’t guarantee their success, but we owe all students a fighting chance. We’re talking about our children and we owe it to them to reform the system.” Fine words, but they need determined actions to back them up.

Originally published in The Notebook.