Putting Students and Parents First

I recently read an article that issued a “loud call for work on taxes; school funding.”  I hope this effort includes listening carefully to students and parents.

When I became chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Dinniman (Democratic Chair from Chester County) and I held public hearings designed specifically to listen to students, and their wants, needs, and expectations for their education.  Our Chester County and Lebanon hearings were excellent.  Unfortunately, at our third hearing, held in Harrisburg, I believe someone decided to “educate” the students in advance as one was so familiar with school funding formulas she knew more than most Senators.

The same thing happens at my annual Senator for a Day Student Government Seminar.  Students are well versed on the Commonwealth’s education budget but some have little or no knowledge of our Constitutional republic or its history.

I suppose one could say these students were informed about current events, while cynics say they’re being indoctrinated by adults with a vested interest in the outcomes.  Either way, it’s both curious and troubling to think children could be used to advance a political agenda.

Let’s look at education from a parent’s perspective.  Imagine showing up the first day of school and hearing:  “this is your child’s teacher.  He or she isn’t very good, but we’re giving him or her another year to improve; the school thinks that’s best for the teacher.  We’re sorry, but you’ll just have to suck it up.”

I can’t believe anyone would find this acceptable for their children.  Why do we accept it for anyone’s child?

This was the very question asked at the first meeting of my Education Work Group, a group established when I first took office, long before I became Education Chair.  Why is it when children’s classroom assignments are made, everyone knows who the “good” teachers are and who are the “bad” teachers, yet the “bad” teachers remain year after year after year?

Eight years later, this question still hasn’t been answered.  And, no one seems to be able to answer this one either:  how can anyone in good conscience justify a status quo that subjects students to poor outcomes?

When I became Chair, my goal was to focus on students and their parents.  While I believe educational choice would best meet their needs, I’m also a realist:  there’s not enough support to pass choice as many in both the education community and the general public fear it.

Meanwhile, many students and parents feel trapped by the status quo.  And, while many agree changes in education are needed, few changes are actually made.  The most popular “solution” is spending more money.

However, every day we fail to provide children with a quality education, we adults fail to meet the mandate of our state Constitution:  “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

When I was first elected, I followed the advice of teachers and educators:  visit classes; talk with teachers and educators to better understand what goes on in today’s classrooms.  I’m glad I took this advice; no matter how bad your day is going, it goes much better when you visit a classroom and meet with students – especially Kindergarten students.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the discussions I have on education don’t focus on children.  Rather, they focus on money and the needs of adults employed in education.

Many of my meetings are on charter and cyber charter schools.  Parents who choose these schools as an option love them while traditional schools hate them and push to have the “bad” ones closed.  Yet, few call for closing failing traditional schools; some failing traditional schools receive more money.

Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Yet, that’s what we’ve been doing in education:  spending more time and more money in the hope it will help students, parents, teachers, and schools.

To me, it’s not how much we spend on education.  Rather, it’s how those moneys are being spent.  Snap your fingers:  each second, we spend $856 in federal, state, and local taxes in support of education.  It’s more than 70 other nations’ GNPs.

If education is about the child, let’s make it about the child.  When we talk about children’s health, we want the absolute best.  As education is the foundation to children’s futures, the quality of that education is equally – or more – important:  quality schools, better outcomes, and professional educators.