Lebanon Daily News

Pennsylvania’s education debate must focus on kids, parents

by Senator Mike Folmer

To read the article on LDNew’s site, click here.

Article III, Section 14 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution, “Public School System” requires that: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Through the generosity of taxpayers, we spend nearly $27 billion in federal, state and local tax dollars in pursuit of a “thorough and efficient” public education system.

This amount is more than 70 other nations’ Gross National Products, and spread out evenly among Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, equals $54 million per district. The catch – and an issue surrounding the state’s school funding formulas – is that districts receive widely varying amounts of state dollars.

When I became chairman of the Senate Education Committee, I was surprised to learn there are numerous school funding formulas: basic education funding; English language learner high incidence supplement; charter and cyber charter school extraordinary enrollment supplement; second class county school district supplements; increasing aid ratio supplement; personal income supplement; small district increasing aid ratio supplement; and small district supplement. These various formulas result in about one-third ($10 billion out of the $27 billion) of state money going toward education.

Nearly 40 percent of the state budget is spent on basic and higher education. Taxpayers need to know that these investments in education truly “serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” However, like public perceptions of Congress, many citizens believe schools as a whole need to do better while thinking their local school is a model of affordable and quality education.

In an effort to objectively assess individual schools, federal and state measurements have been attempted through the years, and many question the wisdom and effectiveness of initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core Standards. As a side note, “education” is not part of the United States Constitution.

I believe decision-making is best done at the local level, where elected officials are closest to the people. What works in one school may not work in another, and what works in one certainly not will work in all 500 Pennsylvania school districts. Balancing these interests is challenging – especially when you also chair the Senate Education Committee.

Although I have served on the Education Committee since I have been in General Assembly, the issues are more complex and deeper when you are the chairman of the committee. Acronyms and abbreviations abound, and to my surprise, in most meetings, adults debate issues and rarely mention the needs and interests of children.

If education is about children, then adults need to focus on them – and their parents. I’m committed to this.

An example of this dilemma was seen recently on the possible consideration of a bill to address the funding of cyber charter schools. Touted by supporters as “an all-inclusive and comprehensive bill,” it basically makes just one change: “If a public school district offers a cyber-based program equal in scope and content to an existing publicly charted cyber school and a student in that district attends a cyber charter school instead of the district’s cyber-based program, the school district shall not be required to provide funding for a student’s attendance at a cyber charter school.”

Who decides what’s “equal in scope and content?” Presently, it is parents who decide to enroll their children in cyber schools (or other schools). Parents should make such decisions: They know best what’s best for their children. I don’t think government – any government – should interfere with these rights – ever.

This will be my guiding principle whenever the General Assembly deliberates education issues: How does it help the education of children?

Folmer represents Pennsylvania’s 48th Senatorial District, which encompasses all of Lebanon County.