Thursday, February 9, 2023

PA: Court Ruling Is Not A Victory For School Choice

This week, a ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge RenĂ©e Cohn Jubelirer declared that in the state of Pennsylvania, “students attending low-wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.” The state's famously inequitable funding system was found to be unconstitutional. 

The suit has been kicking around for a decade, and the decision is, as one of the lawyers working on it said, "an earthquake." The governor and legislature are now required to work together to come up with a new funding system.

What happens next is not clear; it could be anything from fully funding the public schools of Pennsylvania to a lot of stalling and foot-dragging to procedural shenanigans to using a combination of feigned deafness and various pretend solutions to keep the clock running forever. These are all techniques that have been used in other states that faced similar court decisions (North Carolina's legislature has been ignoring a court order to fix their broken funding for something like 25 years). Lots of mystery lies ahead.

Weirdly, the decision has been applauded by some folks on the anti-public ed side. 

Nathan Benefield, regular speaker-upper as VP for the hard right Commonwealth Foundation, offered these insights:

“The only way to ensure that ‘every student receives a meaningful opportunity’ is for education funding to follow the child,” Benefield said. “Students that are trapped in their zip-code assigned school—especially in low-income and minority communities—often have no alternatives when their academic or social needs are unmet. Only by giving every student direct access to funding for an excellent education of their choice can we meet the court’s new requirements.”

Rep. Seth Grove, the GOP rep from York and Republican Appropriations Committee Chair, tweeted 

Commonwealth Court Judge just ruled we need more school choice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to ensure every child has the same opportunities no matter their zip code! Huge school choice victory!

Grove even included a screen shot of the decisions final two-page summary (the whole decision is 786 pages long), which means he had ample opportunity to see that he was cheering counterfactually. Maybe he hadn't had a chance to scan all 786 pages, but it's a pdf, so searching terms is easy.

The phrase "school choice" appears twice. Once to indicate that Philadelphia has it (p. 328) and once to indicate that one witness believes the Philly charters are swell (p. 348). 

"Backpack funding"? Zero. "Voucher"? Zero. There was ample representation of charter schools as witnesses of fact for the legislative side--in other words, they tried to bolster what turned out to be the losing side. "Money follow the student"? Zero. 

In other words, not a single concrete piece of evidence that this decision in any way supports school choice.

Granted, the suit is good news for choicers, because more money for public schools means higher per-pupil spending which means charters get to rake in more bucks. But this decision does not suggest choice as an answer to the larger funding problem.

The decision, in fact, reaches a conclusion that choicers resolutely avoid. Because Judge Jubelirer does agree that no child should suffer in a lousy school in their zip code, and she has mandated that the state must take steps to make sure that no school in any zip code is lousy. This is a much different solution than "Give each child an inadequate amount of money so that a few who are able to be accepted by a private school can get out, leaving everyone else behind in a even-more-underfunded public school." Different because, unlike the choicer solution, it makes actual sense. 

Jubelirer was exceedingly clear that additional money would have to be part of the solution, and that simply shuffling the same old inadequate amount of money around would not cut it. Since shuffling the same old inadequate money around is the preferred model for the modern school choice industry. 

As Benefield put it, he was grateful that the judge was not "mandating more money to a broken system." Well, no. First of all, her decision had some clear ideas about why the system looked broken, and those ideas had to do with a lousy funding system. Second of all, the ruling itself suggests the options for reform are “virtually limitless,” and don’t have to be “entirely financial." That's clear language is clear enough. If help me buy a car and I ask what I owe you to even us up and you say, "Well, it doesn't have to be entirely financial," I don't think "Oh, so it's free, then" is the response you're looking for. 

The fact that Benefield is so excited about the prospect of further defunding public schools does not mean that it's what the judge said.

Choicers can squint real hard as long as they like. This ruling is not some sort of victory for school choice. It may well result in some nice windfall profits for them. They should probably just be happy with that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment