School choice is on the ballot in November — and it's as complicated as ever

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD

When it comes to gutting public education, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano has rightfully garnered a lot of criticism.

His plan to cut per-student public education funding from $19,000 to $9,000 would result in the loss of nearly 4,000 educators in York County alone, per the Pennsylvania State Education Association's estimate.

But school choice proponents found another somewhat surprisingly ally: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro.

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On the campaign trail, Shapiro stresses a pledge to fully support public education. The campaign website for Shapiro, whose own children attended a faith-based private school, also notes that he supports "adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships."

The scholarship legislation in question is HB 2169, which would make students enrolled in the bottom 15% of public schools eligible for a subsidy to seek an education elsewhere. That money would be deducted from the school district's funding.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill using state Department of Education data, HB 2169's proposal would apply to 382 low-achieving schools statewide that collectively enroll some 191,000 students.

Based on data from the 2020-21 school year, that includes eight schools in York City.

During the most recent legislative session, HB 2169 passed the House but amendments made in the Senate would require it to pass both chambers again before reaching the governor's desk. Given the current political makeup of the Legislature, it's possible the proposal could show up on the desk of whichever candidate wins the 2022 governor's race.

In comments after a recent public event, Shapiro clarified that he believes HB 2169 is flawed — but added that he's open to the concept of extending these lifeline scholarships.

“I’m for fully funding public education," he told PennLive. "I’m for making sure we give parents the ability put their kids in the best situation for them to be able to succeed. And I’m for making sure we add scholarships like lifeline scholarships to make sure that that’s additive to their educations."

Let's be clear: It is not acceptable for any school for be failing at its primary objective of educating children.

And students shouldn't be predestined to an inferior education — and a more difficult life — by dint of where they were born and whether their parents can afford a private school.

But a proposal like HB 2169 could do more harm than good by diverting resources away from public schools.

It's also worth noting that York City has a checkered history when it comes to charter schools, which for many school choice supporters represent some kind of panacea for what ails public education.

Lincoln Charter School faced scrutiny over its finances, namely multiple overdue audits. Two former administrators have been charged in federal court for misusing school funds.

Another, the Helen Thackston Charter School, was shut down in 2018 over similar financial oversight issues and itself faced criticism that it didn't deliver on promises to provide a better education than the public schools.

Before that, in 2014, New Hope Academy Charter School lost its charter for similar reasons.

Reforming our education system is hard work. Generations of well-intentioned people have tried — and failed — to lift up low-performing schools. For now, though, it seems foolhardy to divert any more money away from public schools.

What happens if we continue to starve our public schools of resources without enough viable alternatives?