Tuesday, May 9, 2023

PA: Education Commission Loaded With Red Flags

You may recall that back in February, the court in Pennsylvania declared, after almost a decade of chewing on a lawsuit, that Pennsylvania's education funding system was unconstitutional and they would need to get things straightened out, toot suite. There were not many teeth attached to that decision, and speculation among those of us of a more cynical bent was that the legislature would swiftly begin the process of hemming and hawing and stalling and definitely not doing what the court had ordered them to do. 

So, back in March, spurred by the PA funding lawsuit decision, the state senate's majority whip created a new group-- the Pennsylvania Commission on Education & Economic Competitiveness. The group "will bring together stakeholders from education, business, labor, and government to create a shared long-term vision to redesign Pennsylvania’s education system." Because nothing gets action happening like a good study commission. 
The group certainly casts a wide net, with something like fifty members of the commission and subcommittee, including representatives from the public school world (including teachers unions), the charter world, and the private school world (we have tax credit scholarship style vouchers in PA). 

The commission is supposed to crank out a report in 18 months with 13 bullet points to be addressed that include some real whoppers like "an aligned instructional system spanning early childhood through higher ed" and soothing ones like "a holistic approach to education that prepares students for life after graduation." Here's the whole list:

However, there are definite red flags here. The extreme focus on jobs, as if that's the real purpose of education. Or maybe it's just supposed to be the only/most pressing issue facing education in Pennsylvania. Either way, it's a pretty narrow view to reduce education to vocational training (and doesn't fit with that nice holistic approach goal on the list.

The brief claims Pennsylvania's education system is "antiquated and struggling" and warns "To meet the challenges of an interconnected global economic landscape, Pennsylvania must build a world-class education system to produce a highly skilled workforce."

The senator behind this is his own red flag. Ryan Amaunt started out his political career as Clerk of Courts in Lancaster; before that, the Citadel graduate served as a US Army Captain during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He moved up to state representative, then moved on to the state senate, running on "conservative results." Part of that is "improving our education system with choice and accountability." Amaunt is on the "sexually explicit" content in schools bandwagon, though so far he has stopped short of outright book banning or going after gay penguin books. He opposes abortion rights and has pitched both trans female athlete restriction bills and a version of Don't Say Gay. 

On education, he sounds like more of the same. Back in March when he was proposing the new commission, he wrote an op-ed that played all the old tunes.

Under the headline "Pennsylvania shouldn't fund a broken education system," Aument made the familiar arguments. 

Despite historic increases in education funding, the numbers continue to fall, and more and more employers look to the commonwealth to do something to better prepare kids to become productive members of society.

"We've been throwing soooo much money at education, so where are our bigger better meat widgets?"

Schools are not preparing students for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow, he says. It's the kind of claim that ought to be verifiable by things like vast numbers of jobs unfilled because nobody is qualified to fill them, or vast number of twenty-somethings unemployed because they lack necessary skills. But he's not going to do that.

Our students have been failed not by teachers, but by an antiquated system built over a century ago with goals that are no longer relevant in today’s globally competitive, knowledge-based job market, which we know is prone to rapid change and disruption.

It's nice to try to avoid blaming teachers, though I'm not sure which direction we should point to aim at "the system." And the "school's haven't changed in a century" claim was old and dumb when Betsy DeVos made it. Of course schools have changed in a myriad of ways. Nor has it become clear what the "global competitiveness" charge means, exactly. How will technology helps US citizens compete for low-wage jobs in countries chosen for their lack of regulation? 

Aument cites an international education conference he attended, but he doesn't name it. And he points to the part of the court decision that says money alone won't fix Pennsylvania's equity problems. He does not point to the part that clearly says very plainly that more funding is needed. 

We need effective teachers and principals, a rigorous and adaptive learning system, and an evenhanded foundation of support — all held to the highest standard of excellence and efficiency.

The word "efficiency" is always a red flag, as it usually means "doesn't cost so much." And sure enough, there's also this:

While we must review our structure for funding education, we shouldn’t throw more and more money at a failing system that we know is not meeting the needs of our students or the workforce.

As the lawsuit underlined repeatedly, Pennsylvania's problem with education funding is, at root, the state's low level of support means that local communities must make up the bulk of school funding themselves, meaning that poor districts stay poor, and wealthy districts have lots of cool toys. The political barrier to straightening out PA's equitable funding issues remain pretty simple-- wealthy districts do not want to pay more taxes that will be sent off to poor districts (and that goes triple when the poor district is Philly).

It's not an issue that's unique to Pennsylvania; you will notice that a great deal of ed "reform" starts with the base assumption that we simply can't spend any more tax dollars on public education, so let's come up with cool ways to shuffle the money around differently. The blanket on my bed is too small, but maybe if we chop it up and move it around, it will cover more.

But in Pennsylvania, it's particularly acute already, and now the court decision adds some urgency to a pressing need to appear to pretend to for a group to study a recommendation for thinking about planning to do something about it some day, while also working on how to make the same old non-solutions look like a solution to the court requirements. Wave those flags. 

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