Back to School 2020

The following is the text from Matt’s September 1, 2020 Digital Town Hall

Outside, we’re noticing some changes over the last couple of weeks. The leaves are crisping up, and the first blush edges are showing on the trees and — one of the surest signs for those of us who grew up in wild spaces — the poison ivy is starting to turn red. The annual cicadas have been out buzzing for the past several weeks, too, which I always hear as a childhood memory, of the waning days of summer vacation and the looming start to the school year.

Fall is nearly upon us. And when you’re a kid, well, that meant school is nearly upon you.

Tomorrow, students are headed back to classrooms throughout Northwestern Pennsylvania, and there’s one thing that is safe to say: this year is different…weird, hard, complicated, a little scary, and with a really terrible dose of political spin.

I want to make one thing clear before I go any further: if you are a parent, and if you have been wrestling with the best decision for you and your family, considering all of the options at hand — in person with district-mandated safety protocols, hybrid modes, homeschool, or cyberschool — you have made the right decision. I’ll repeat that: you have made the right decision for your kids, and you have done it in an atmosphere of uncertainty, and you’ve done it within a terrible vacuum of top-level government support.

So what can you do as a parent other than the best you can? That’s what you’ve done. And it isn’t easy. I know that.

Every teacher and administrator in our Commonwealth has been working crazy long hours this summer trying to figure out how to pull this off, without benefit of much support from state and federal legislators. Local districts have been left high and dry, for the most part, forced to make decisions on their own, while still saddled with long-persistent revenue and infrastructure issues.

We also need to recognize that we’re only able to talk about the possibility of going back to school safely in any form because Pennsylvania has taken the outbreak seriously. But we also need to understand that, nationwide, we could be having a different conversation about safety, and opening schools, if we’d done a better job of resisting empty political rhetoric that has since early in the year relentlessly pit “the economy” and public health against one another. Now, our schools are trying to re-open in that toxic political environment.

None of us should ever forgive the politicians who did that, who took an issue of immediate public health concern and saw only a way to create political divide. And I mean that. We cannot forget. Such narrow political gamesmanship made us sicker as a country, it stole a reasonably normal summer from us, and it squandered an opportunity to begin school from a much better place of strength and safety.

But partisan political rhetoric that treats schools and teachers as punching bags, and that holds our kids hostage, is nothing new. We head “back to school” in a moment that is clearly different and complicated, but that also reveals the many ways that the empty politics of austerity hurts us continually.

One thing we’re seeing, understandably, is a significant upswing in interest in remote learning options, with a particular focus on cyber schools. This issue is complex…and as an individual parent, the problems of funding related to cyber charters is not your fault. It’s a situation manipulated by anti-public education legislators who have found in cyber charters a way to live their dream of siphoning public dollars away from local districts. That’s what we need to think about.

Here’s the deal: in 2016-17, Crawford Central and Penncrest each had to pay $1.6 million to cyber charters. I’m going to repeat that again: one. point. six. million. dollars. each.

Cyber Charters are funded by our local districts, using a tuition formula based on a district’s funding. If a local student enrolls, the district must pay the charter. For 2020, Crawford Central will pay about $12,500 for each district student who enrolls in an out-of-district cyber charter; Penncrest about $13,500. Normal per pupil spending is about 15k and 16.6k, respectively, for those districts.

Now, as you know, I’m running against someone in this race, Brad Roae, whose philosophies of public investment could not be more different than mine. So it is with cyber charter spending. Rep. Roae will tell you — and he has made this point as recently as today…just as he did in his constituent newsletter emailed a couple of weeks ago — that this formula is a good deal for school districts, because they get to keep the “extra” money. He rounds the numbers to 12k for the charter tuition and 16k for the per pupil funding, which is fine for our purposes. His conclusion, however, is not.

Roae makes it sound like the $4000 are a great little bonus for the school district. They get to keep that! Bonanza! It’s not a good deal, though, because the District has nearly unchanged expenses: the building still needs maintenance, and heat, and electricity, and the buses still need to run, and the wages must still be paid, and so forth. Thus the reality is that the cyber charter scheme is, in effect, a private ed voucher that siphons public money to a private organization that has much lower overhead than our local schools, and spends a ton of money on the snazzy television ads you’ve probably been seeing on TV this summer. 

I’ll be blunt: our tax dollars are paying for television ads that siphon local tax dollars away from local schools.

And it gets worse. Some schools, like Penncrest, have wisely responded to the demand for cyber options by developing their own online academies. Which they can provide at dramatically lower costs to the district than charter school tuition. But students can still choose the cyber charters — the out of district cyber charters — and the local districts still have to pay the tuition. A good example is Hempfield School District in Westmoreland County, which developed its own cyber academy but still has to budget nearly two million dollars a year for students who opt to head to the charters.

The point is simple: the cyber charter funding scheme is a specific example of how legislators can work to undermine and hamstring public schools. It’s also a perfect exemplar of the small-mindedness of anti-education politics, which are deeply harmful to our prosperity. In the case of financially-strained districts like Crawford Central and Penncrest, the high tuition cost makes the case clear directly. But think also about schools like Fairview, terrific and well-supported schools also located in legislative District 6. Cyber charters are, suddenly, presenting a threat to their long commitment to public education. 

Before Covid, Fairview hasn’t had to worry that much about cyber charters, because in normal circumstances Fairview students aren’t choosing cyber options, for various reasons. But now, with the understandable desire of parents to find remote schooling for their kids, Fairview faces a sudden concern of profound increase in their spending for cyber charter tuition…which would undercut a lot of the hard work and public investment that Fairview residents commit to in having one of the finest districts in the Commonwealth. 

That’s how the siphoning of public dollars works. Even a strongly supported district like Fairview is at risk when the anti-public-ed folks come calling. Suddenly, the school taxes Fairview residents pay for their local schools starts heading out of town.

That’s the point, for anti-education politicians. They see school spending as wasteful. Rep. Roae likes to point out, for example, that Pennsylvania spends more than the national average on public education, with an implication that we shouldn’t.

Well, he is right about the investment Pennsylvania makes in our kids: we rank #10 nationally in per pupil spending. 

But he’s wrong about the implication: US News ranks PA as the tenth best state for PreK-12 education, which is to say that our investment in public education leads to proportional value. 

You get what you pay for, and undermining public education funding is simply a way to undermine our kids. When we wither public services in the interest of austerity politics, and when we pretend that privatization and choked-out spending is the answer to everything, we simply weaken one of the greatest avenues we have for economic advancement: education. And the harder truth is that choking out public education funding is particularly devastating to the people who live in parts of the country with struggling economies. Like us.

Crawford County ranks 56th out of 67 Pennsylvania counties in per capita income. Meadville has a poverty rate that is twice the state average. With school funding based on local property taxes, Crawford County will quite obviously have a harder time paying for education than places with higher wages. And the residents of Crawford County will also find it hard to budget for those taxes.

Instead of looking for ways to divest from public education, we should be instead aspiring to have well-supported districts like Fairview across the entire region. Part of that means we must change funding models based on local property taxes and move, as have other states, to equitable models that share education funding for all schools, regardless of zip code. It is possible, and we can choose to invest in education instead of view it as a burden.

We must also work hard toward rectifying disparities of equity and access in our schools. Part of that is related to tax bases. It’s no secret that Fairview has a much higher median household income than Meadville, for example, which makes it easier for residents in Fairview to afford the taxes for their excellent schools. But we also need to think about disparities of technology, something else closely related to school district funding and local wages.

Take broadband, for example, something that we have all seen quite clearly as a public need instead of a commodity. In well-connected areas, districts have better options for remote learning because they know students have access to true high speed internet — capable of hosting several kids in a house at the same time — and to laptops and tablets. That’s not the case in the rural parts of the region, where some students have to sit in parking lots outside volunteer fire departments, who have stepped up to offer WiFi hotspots.

We have to see real action on rural broadband as a utility, rapidly expanded not in a for-profit model, but as a public good. This can help level the technological playing field for our students, and it can be part of the answer to building a stronger economy in rural Pennsylvania. With real high speed access, more residents could work from home and telecommute to strong wage jobs. We could also welcome new neighbors who have the option to telecommute, but who would also like to live in our rural counties. And, I should add, stronger schools are also a major boon for business investment: companies like to set up shop in places where their employees want to live, so strong schools, public investment in broadband, and in general an eye toward developing a region instead of locking it down in an economically pinched past are good for us all.

In a similar vein, we need to also invest in education that encourages the widening of horizons instead of the narrowing of possible futures. We all know what my opponent said a couple years ago about state funding and students who study “poetry or other pre-Walmart majors.” That belies a concept of education that means students only matter when they provide “value” to industry. Instead, we need to support our schools in a way that values the students, that gives them the options to study broadly in STEM, and the Arts, and in technology, and in trades. Who really knows who they are when they’re 17? We need an education with enough support to help students figure out their next steps in life, so when they finally know that they find meaning in poetry, or chemistry, or auto repair, or social work, that they are both prepared and able to make those choices.

There’s a lot more to be said here, about how Pennsylvania teachers are among the best trained in the country and still are treated as lazy whiners by many legislators. That’s cruel, and wrong, and an insult to the committed educators who make our schools great. And we need to talk about better funding for our state universities, because one great embarrassment for Pennsylvania is that we rank near the bottom in higher ed student debt, as in, our college graduates are saddled with some of the highest debt loads in the country, which prevents our young neighbors from getting good starts in life, in buying homes, and starting families, and pursuing careers that matter to them, and to all of us. 

The overall point can be summed up in an old saying, perhaps cliché, but that strikes me as apt this evening: if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

We can’t afford to continue to ignore the inequities of education that plague our districts. We can’t continue to ignore what we know about education and economic advancement. We can’t ignore the importance of trade- and career-development education. And we can’t allow ignorant legislation that will further exacerbate the wage and prosperity gaps we see in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Here in District 6, we all stand to lose when legislators work to undermine public education, when they suggest that money spent on education isn’t money well spent. 

Public schools reflect a nobly American ideal, that each and every person has the right to a high quality public education, which is very much part of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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