Monday, November 4, 2019

PA: House Speaker Mike Turzai Is Upset, Again

PA House Speaker Mike Turzai is not a huge fan of public schools, and especially not the teachers who work. He was happy to host Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos when she visited Harrisburg. It was that visit that yielded the special moment when Turzai told some protesting teachers that they were special interests who are  part of a monopoly and that they don't care about the children. Personally, I've heard the tale of elected school officials who were visiting Harrisburg and dared to ask about funding. "You people already get plenty of money," the speaker allegedly snapped. At least he didn't do it publicly-- Mike Turzai is the guy caught on video bragging that Voter ID laws would give the state to Mitt Romney.

Turzai was the author of the bill intended to double the educational tax credits (aka vouchers) in PA. His idea of bailing out Harrisburg schools is to force them to go to a voucher system.

So it's no surprise to find him in the Philadelphia Inquirer writing an op-ed arguing that choice opponents should stop talking so mean. It's a fine example of the kind of spin and obfuscation used by anti-public ed politicians.

This guy
Turzai's preferred argument is that old "we give you people too much money already" complaint, with a variety of corners cut.

"Pennsylvania spends more that $33 billion in state and local taxes on public education," he says, which is true, but the devilish detail here is that the lion's share of that comes from local taxpayers. Pennsylvania ranks 43rd in the amount of state funding for schools. That means that there is a huge spending gap in PA districts based on the local wealth. In the size of that gap between rich and poor, PA is first in the nation. We're Number One!! Yay!

PA spends $13 billion-ish on Pre-K to 12 education, which is the most we've ever spent. Turzai has some fun with that figure, calling it 38.6% of the General Fund budget rather than 20% of the total budget. And just watch this next trick--

Thanks to these record levels of spending, Pennsylvania ranks third of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in average teacher salary, average starting teacher salary, and average school spending per student when these figures are adjusted for cost of living. 

See that? All those record-breaking billions of dollars are going to give teachers big fat paychecks. Well, average teachers. Of course, there's a problem with measuring by average teachers. First of all, Pennsylvania's teacher force picture has some unique quirks. We got ahead of the teacher "shortage" at the beginning of the decade by shedding almost 20,000 jobs (so one of the reasons the teacher pipeline numbers dropped in PA is because students believed there were no teaching jobs--and for a while, they weren't wrong). Put that all together and you get a slightly older/wiser/more experienced teaching force which raises the average teaching salary.

But the other key here is that word "average." Peter Green the classic blues guitarist has been in at least two major bands (Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers). That means that, on average, musicians named Peter Green(e) have been in an average of one major band. And yet, my invitation to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Peter Greene, actor, has appeared in over 60 films, which means that on average, Peter Greenes who have done any acting have made thirty films.

Remember that PA has the nation's largest gulf between rich and poor districts, which makes averages particularly useless in this state. If we look, for instance, at per-pupil spending, we range from the bottom of $6,324 all the way up to the #2 district for spending at $17,409 (we'll skip #1, which is a bizarre outlier). Discussing averages in this way just becomes a bizarre excuse to keep the poorest districts poor-- because to raise them up would raise the state average.

Turzai takes a paragraph to plug the education tax credit scholarship programs that the state runs. He's still sad that Governor Wolf vetoed an attempt to expands these backdoor vouchers that let wealthy folks and corporations get out of paying state taxes by giving money to schools instead--that is, almost exclusively private and religious schools, with a program income cap so high that it supports plenty of families that are not exactly struggling. And some rich schools are benefiting, though they show no sudden influx of non-wealthy students.

Turzai then calls Pennsylvania a "gold standard with respect to funding public school districts," which is a joke. 43rd in state funding level. Biggest gap between rich and poor districts in the nation. That is not a gold standard. But what Turzai really wants to plug is choice-- vouchers, charter, private, parochial. Part ofg his argument is baloney, as when he says that charters "often" provide "innovative, cutting-edge approaches to education." Nope. We're well into the Great Charter Experiment and one thing is abundantly clear-- no charter, not even the nominally successful ones, has discovered some new, previously unknown technique for educating students. There is nothing that charter schools have to teach public schools.

But the juxtaposition of his two main points-- we spend too much money on education, and we should have more choice-- underscores a central problem with his argument. As he well knows, one of the likely causes of high education spending in the state is that we have too many school districts-- about 500 in the whole state. And that actually represents a considerable cut that occurred in the sixties when the state pushed districts across the state to combine. My own small county (approximate population- 50,000) contains four major school districts (and small pieces of a few others. That represents considerable duplication of services, particularly on the administrative level.

Point being-- you don't cut costs by adding schools. In fact, as Turzai should also know, many districts have been combining schools in order to cut costs. Nobody-- nobody-- says "Hey, the budget is tight, so I think we should open some new facilities."

So if Turzai doesn't like the cost of supporting 500 districts and roughly 3,000 schools, how does he imagine that adding more schools will help, or will represent the most efficient use of tax dollars?

Set aside for a moment the quality issues, the church-state issues, the problems of turning public schools into a private business-- I would like to hear choice fans like Mike Turzai tell the truth about school choice. "Folks," I'd like to hear him say. "I think school choice is a good thing, but to run a bunch of parallel education systems is going to cost more. So I'm going to push for choice, and I'm going to raise your taxes to pay for it properly."

Sure, you can have them all.
But no-- time after time we get School Choice Santa who will somehow magically make the current funding, which couldn't adequately support a single public system, suddenly stretch to fund the old system and the parochial system and a whole bunch of new education flavored businesses that will spring up.

School choice is the Daylight Savings Time of education, the magical belief that if we just move resources around, there will somehow be more of them. We have a king-sized bed filled with children and a twin bed blanket, and choice fans keep arguing that if we move it around, somehow it will cover everyone. It won't. Some choice advocates believe  in a magic blanket; others know full well that only some children will be covered, and they have some ideas about which children that should be, but they know better (most of the time) than to say that part out loud.

I don't know which kind Turzai is, but his argument in favor of choice is weak, which is why he ultimately resorts to the old "think of the children" argument, citing the 70,000-out-of-200,000 children in Philadelphia as if the 130,000 still in public schools don't really matter. "These schools are saving lives" is his plea, and that may be true now and then, but it's also true that in PA some of these schools are profiteering scams benefitting from lax oversight and absence of accountability, while at the same time costing the public system resources that could have been used to save a few public school lives as well.

Turzai also repeats the fiction of calling charter schools "public." They aren't. Public schools are publicly owned, publicly operated, publicly accountable, and run by publicly elected officials. Charters are none of these (and of course private and parochial schools aren't, either). But going into his finish, Turzai throws lots of exaggerated rhetoric at the issue. He talks about "the all-out attack" against charters, and I'm not sure what that is supposed to be. Wolf said some things that made charter fans sad, like calling them not-public and suggesting that they should be accountable to the public whose tax dollars they spend, but an all-out attack would be more like, say, outlawing charters and choice entirely. That's not happening. But it's time for the finish:

We can have thriving public school districts, public charter schools, and private and parochial schools available for our kids and parents. Competition raises the quality of each, ensuring that the needs of every student and family are being met.

Again, I thought the GOP was the party that understood that you can't have ten ponies just because you want them. Yes, we could have a thriving many-headed system (I can think of some reasons not to, but let's set that aside for a moment)-- but we would have to pay for it.

And the part about competition-- no. Just no. Free market competition does not foster superior quality; free market competition fosters superior marketing. But hey-- if Turzai believes this, he4 should be delighted with the governor's recent activities, which are a clear signal that charters and choice are going to face much fiercer competition, so we should be expecting new heights of greatness. I can't wait to see how this new tougher market environment raises the choicey ships.

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