The movement to take control of public education away from local communities and to turn tax dollars over to privately run charter schools, religious schools, and private schools is likely to take on new urgency in the Pennsylvania legislature in 2017.
The “choice” movement hampers public schools' efforts to address urgent problems they face, such as childhood poverty and an inequitable state funding system, by diverting public dollars to privately run schools.
Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts are governed by your neighbors and fellow community members. School boards and the public school districts they oversee are this country’s best examples of democracy – elected directly by the voters in their local community and charged with serving the public good. Serving as volunteers, these school directors accept the civic duty to educate our children and they balance that duty with the community’s ability to pay.
In Pennsylvania and across our nation, locally elected school boards are undermined by an anti-public education “choice” movement that is pushed in large part by billionaires and lobbyists. It supports using local tax dollars to pay for privately run charter schools and to pay tuition at religious and private schools.
A large number of our state legislators are committed to weakening local control of our schools as they push for the expansion of publicly funded charter schools and the expansion of tax dollars flowing to private and religious schools. This diversion of public funds undermines the democratic principle that decisions regarding public education and the use of tax dollars should be determined by locally elected school directors.
In fact, local citizen control of public schools in Pennsylvania has already been undermined: Taxpayers sent more than $1 billion to privately run charter schools last year alone. These charter schools, unlike locally elected public school boards, have no fiduciary responsibility to serve the public good or to be concerned about what is financially sustainable for the taxpayers of their communities.
Privately funded independent and religious schools differ from charter schools and have historically served an important role in our educational landscape. Understandably, since these schools have been privately funded, they are not accountable to the electorate the way public schools are.
However, this important difference between private and public is now blurred under the rhetoric of “choice,” as programs such as the Educational Income Tax Credit in Pennsylvania divert tens of millions of tax dollars to “tuition scholarships” for students to attend religious or private schools.
Robust and democratic public schools are needed now more than ever to bring together diverse people and to prepare the next generation for the global challenges that await us. The “choice” movement’s undermining of democratically elected boards is particularly ill-timed. The fight to protect our local schools will require public school supporters to raise their voices to be heard in the halls of the Pennsylvania legislature. Let’s not lose our public schools to politicians in Harrisburg on a mission to hand over to private interests the vital task of educating our children.
Michael Faccinetto is the president of the Bethlehem Area School District Board of School Directors and the president-elect of the Pennsylvania School Board Association.
Joseph Roy is the superintendent of schools for the Bethlehem Area School District. He was named as the state's 2017 Superintendent of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.