Failing grade for Corbett / A new law stomps on the rights of the Duquesne school district and others
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The financial crisis in the Duquesne City School District should have been a wake-up call to state government that comprehensive education reform is needed immediately. Instead, Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a new law written by legislative Republicans that stomps on the local rights of financially distressed school districts, like Duquesne and possibly Clairton and Jeannette in the future.
Property taxpayers in neighboring school districts should be worried, too. You could be on the hook for thousands of dollars for every student transferring into your district.
The bill passed with the state budget, which locked in last year's unprecedented $1 billion in cuts to public schools and provided $49 million for the state's 16 distressed school districts. But the extra money came with a huge catch. It's now much easier for the state to take over a school district.
The bill narrowly passed the House despite strong opposition from some legislators, including me, in communities that will be harmed.
This school year, the state Education Department, will spend $6 million to appoint a chief recovery officer to replace boards of control in Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg and York. Eventually the state could take control of up to nine school districts at one time.
Each CRO will have enormous power to develop and implement a financial recovery plan. Regardless of what's in the best educational interests of students, the CRO can close schools or convert traditional public schools into nonprofit or for-profit charter schools. For Duquesne, that's a huge obstacle. It's so underfunded that charter schools avoid coming here. There's no profit to earn.
However, changes are coming for Duquesne students before a CRO is named. After months of refusing to discuss Duquesne's future, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in early July told the West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts to expect seventh and eighth graders from Duquesne.
Taxpayers in those districts will feel it, too. West Mifflin Area says it gets only about $11,000 to educate each Duquesne student, but the real cost is closer to $14,000. West Mifflin Area's property taxpayers will pick up the difference.
First, property owners had to endure tax hikes because of massive state funding cuts, now they could be paying to educate students from other school districts.
In the name of saving money, a CRO has even more power, such as cancelling agreements with vendors and renegotiating teachers' contracts. Most striking of all, the law can force a locally elected school board to vote to raise school property taxes. If it refuses, the state will go to court to appoint a receiver who will force through a tax hike.
The CRO even has the authority to prevent a school board member from resigning, which violates the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That's utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.
Schools like Duquesne are struggling financially because communities lack the tax base to support them. Raising taxes makes the situation worse and delays the inevitable and more difficult decisions for a few more years.
That could eventually force other struggling districts like Clairton and Jeannette to send students to Elizabeth Forward, West Jefferson Hills, Penn-Trafford, Hempfield Area or Norwin.
We must do more than this misguided state takeover plan that's not in the best interest of any school district. Ultimately, it fails to address the real issues, the true cost of educating diverse student populations and the fact that some communities lack the tax base to support quality schools.
We have an obligation to ensure every child in our community has access to a first-class education. Our decisions will affect each student's education and ultimately the course of many lives. Instead of punishing communities with limited means by forcing a state takeover, we should work toward a fairer funding formula to allow all schools to be successful, regardless of their ZIP code.
First Published August 22, 2012 12:00 am