OPED: Invest in schools to bridge skills gap
“A rising tide lifts all boats” is the go-to saying about economic revitalization. We all believe that when the economy hums, everyone thrives — but do they?
By many measures, Pennsylvania’s economy is humming again. Our unemployment rate has fallen, but at nearly 5 percent, it remains almost 15 percent higher than the national average.
Even more perplexing, employers across Pennsylvania report vacancies in jobs offering family-sustaining wages. Why do we maintain a higher-than-average unemployment rate when good jobs are going unfilled? The answer is simple — our workforce skills gap.
Employers are not optimistic about the match of workers to available jobs, as they reported in a recent Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry survey. More than half — 52 percent — say they have great difficulty recruiting qualified job candidates, and 56 percent believe it will get harder by 2021. Only 21 percent — one in five — rate the readiness of our current labor force for their jobs as excellent or good.
The skills employers need are all built on a foundation of solid academics, but too few Pennsylvania children are achieving in school.
61 percent of Pennsylvania eighth graders are not proficient in reading, 64 percent are NOT proficient in math, and 67 percent are not proficient in science, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. For the many children in economically disadvantaged families, average math scores are 32 points lower than their better-off peers.
Only 45 percent of Pennsylvania public school students meet all predictors of college success.
About 15 percent of Pennsylvania’s high school freshmen fail to graduate within four years. Among economically disadvantaged students, it’s nearly one quarter.
Even in a “rising tide economy,” everyone needs a seaworthy boat in order to float. Education is that trusty vessel. Unfortunately, too many young Pennsylvanians attend schools that lack adequate resources to ensure a quality education.
Pennsylvania has the nation’s widest per-pupil spending gap between wealthy and poor school districts, and students feel the difference. Pennsylvania’s wealthiest districts spend 33.5 percent more than the poorest school districts. That gap is significantly higher than the national average of 15.6 percent. Among states, Pennsylvania is third-worst in the nation in the percentage of children attending severely financially distressed districts.
State contributions to education struggle to address these inequities. With our property tax-based system, wealthy school districts are self-reliant. Low-income communities struggle to earn revenue from low-value properties, no matter how high their tax rates. Again, Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom among states in the percentage of state funding devoted to local schools, contributing only 37 percent, compared to the national average of 47 percent.
We can close the skills gap by investing more long-term state funding through Pennsylvania’s fair education funding formula. Studies show that school finance reforms can significantly improve student achievement. Adequate and reliable funding, carefully allocated where it’s needed, means smaller classes, where teachers can focus on individual students. It also means essential equipment for STEM education, and expanded full-day kindergarten. Critically for the future of our workforce, it means diversified academic offerings and specialty programs that enthuse students about the wondrous career possibilities ahead.
One recent study found that a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all public school K-12 years resulted in educational gains plus higher wages and a measurable reduction in poverty. Studies also show that such an investment yields a healthy rate of return of nearly 9 percent.
Any businessperson would call that return on investment a no-brainer. And yet, not every Pennsylvania school receives adequate funding that promises student success.
It’s time to address these inequities and close the skills gap. Pennsylvania’s business people are taking a stand because we are vested in the drive to prepare all students for college or career regardless of where they live. When every school is adequately resourced, students learn the skills needed to rebuild Pennsylvania’s workforce into a world-class, competitive power.
— Peter Brubaker is the retired president/CEO of Susquehanna Media Co.