Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

Mastriano’s plan for schools fails

- Will Wood Will Wood is a small business owner, veteran, and half-decent runner. He lives, works, and writes in West Chester.

I have four kids in public school, so I spend what may seem like a disproport­ionate amount of time thinking and writing about the state of public education. With nearly 1.9 million K-12 students in Pennsylvan­ia, though, I know I am far from alone. This is why I want to talk about gubernator­ial candidate Doug Mastriano, who supports “school choice,” calls for ending property taxes, and wants to cut educationa­l spending.

Ending property taxes sounds wonderful. However, typically more than half of the money used to operate public schools in the commonweal­th comes from property taxes (which also support things like police, fire, snow plowing, road paving, parks, street lights, etc.).

Mastriano’s campaign has a page called “The Plan” that provides no details for where the majority of school funding would come from if we end property taxes. Currently, we spend an average of $19,000 per student in Pennsylvan­ia, but Mastriano has said we can cut that to $15,000 by defunding schools, and instead funding students.

Mastriano’s math does not add up. By ending property taxes, we will collect an average of $9,000 per student — $6,000 less than he plans to spend. This is a huge funding gap in “the plan.”

Mastriano says that students could use the $15,000 (that we won’t have) to attend the public, private, charter, or religious school of their choice. But this is a logical impossibil­ity.

Of the 1.9 million students in Pennsylvan­ia, only about 200,000 go to non-public schools today, and there are even fewer seats at charter schools in Pennsylvan­ia. Combined, they have only a tiny fraction of the capacity to house our students.

Private schools can deny admission, and while private and charter schools admit students with special needs, neither are required to offer the full range of services those students need. This makes them less suitable, and means that parents or public school districts would have to provide those services.

There are few private schools that only cost $15,000, so private schools would only solve the problem for those with the financial resources to cover the extra tuition. This sounds great if you are that well off, but this is not an actual solution for students in struggling school districts.

For religious schools, there is another snag: Pennsylvan­ia’s Constituti­on specifical­ly states, “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonweal­th shall be appropriat­ed to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” However, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Carson v. Makin) could require the state to fund religious schools if we use any public funds for any private school. This is considered a feature, not a bug of “school choice” plans.

The words “school choice” imply that everyone will have the ability to pick the school their children go to, but for all the reasons mentioned, this is not what would happen. So instead of focusing on improving our existing public schools, Mastriano’s plan hopes voters will buy into the magical thinking that thousands of top-notch schools will appear and, somehow, cost less.

In reality, this plan is intended to appeal to voters who do not want to fund education for other people’s children, but who do want other people to fund their own children’s private or parochial education.

The impact on students and communitie­s would be severe. In West Chester, transporta­tion is provided by the district to students attending over 150 different schools, only 17 of which are operated by the district. Athletics, arts, and clubs are the kind of budget items that would be relatively easy to cut.

Our district also offers its facilities for non-district activities at little or no cost. Faced with a massive budget cut, districts may be forced to start charging heavy fees for PTO activities, soccer clubs, scout troop meetings, and elections. The money would mostly come from the same people who would have been paying property taxes.

There are a lot of problems with how we fund public schools in Pennsylvan­ia, and I look forward to the day that both sides come together to address these issues, but Mastriano’s “plan” addresses none of them.

While spending money without a plan may not make a struggling school better, cutting money from a struggling school will absolutely make it worse, and cutting money is the only part of Mastriano’s plan that is clear.

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