“We are all in this together” had a regrettably short shelf-life as a modern national anthem. In an era when politics is driven by dark impulses of division far more than the illuminating virtues of unity, a mere cameo appearance by the spirit of collective action is not surprising. But it surely is disappointing and discouraging given the mounting social and economic challenges ahead of us.
Nevertheless, Pennsylvania is free to employ and benefit from the “one for all, and all for one” approach to policymaking. What better place to begin than the complicated issue area most people identify as paramount in the policy universe – education?
Educators, advocates, parents, and taxpayers have long identified glaring deficiencies in the current education structure. Insufficient funding. Inequitable distribution of state dollars. Too much testing and teaching to the test. Stifling state mandates crowding out local initiatives and sucking the oxygen from innovation. Mixed results on integrating costly technology into the classroom. Wide disparities in local resources, including broadband access. A local tax structure heavily dependent on property taxes, a levy many taxpayers despise and denounce.
Coronavirus has not caused any of the policy ailments afflicting public education. The health crisis has widened the fissures and increased the degree of difficulty in fixing them. Pennsylvania will fail the test of leadership if only the changes the pandemic makes unavoidable are on the table. Erasing traditional assumptions of what public education must look like affords the chance to make more sweeping changes advantageous to students and teachers.
There seems little doubt education moving forward will feature a broader component of online instruction. While a notable development, the early returns from the end of the school year indicated that going online will exacerbate the disparities in education opportunity and performance. Lack of access plagues urban and rural areas. Anecdotal evidence suggests private and religious schools did a far better job in providing online lessons than the better-financed public schools. One prominent educator, asked for lessons learned, said that students who are engaged in the classroom generally engage online. Those less motivated in the classroom are harder to connect and involve at home.
These factors provide imperative to take a fresh look at a little discussed constricting factor. School districts should be redrawn and reduced in number. More than a decade ago, a governor proposed reducing the number of school districts. The plan was dead on delivery. Time to exhume the notion, and then act on it, thoughtfully and decisively.
Consider this parallel. Every ten years, a constitutionally-mandated redistricting of legislative seats is conducted to reflect changes in population. In reality, the exercise additionally incorporates economic and social changes that either prompted or tagged along with the population shifts. Whatever one thinks of the mechanism used or the tilt of the result, the purpose of legislative redistricting is indisputably positive – to fairly distribute political power across communities.
Those same changes in population, economy, and society also occur across the school district map. Yet, with only minor exceptions, those district lines have been locked in place for upwards of fifty years.
For decades, education advocates have heavily invested energy into securing an overhaul of the state education funding formula. The evidence for doing so grows more compelling. Optimism is rising that the courts will scrap the education funding system as unconstitutional. If that unfolds, once the fireworks of celebration burn out, a harsh realization will set in. The best successor formula is never going to compensate for or catch up with all the inequalities. Devising a new plan will hazard the same educational, economic, political, and financial complications that led to the crazy-quilt system we currently operate under.
The best education reform outcome will still fall short because there are too many districts operating within boundaries that lock in their disadvantages. Remember, the education map is moored in no overarching principle. There is nothing magical about 500 school districts. There is no coherent theme in their composition. Some urban districts match city lines. Others pull in the suburbs, so population shifts are less disruptive. There are districts within which the interests of the larger community dominate the smaller communities. Recall Lincoln’s famous admonition about a house divided? There is really nothing standing in way of crafting a school district map that better reflects and addresses the instructional and financial disparities. Apart from tradition, tradition, tradition, that is.
When Ed Rendell was governor, he recommended 100 school districts. The goals of saving structural costs and yielding operational efficiencies were valid ones. Cutting the number of high-paid administrators and putting the money toward attracting and retaining capable instructors is just one prominent advantage. In retrospect, Rendell likely erred in picking a nice round target number. In any event, raging controversies over the state budget and larger issues rendered the audience for this dramatic step too small to generate momentum. Spending political capital could not do the job.
Any exercise in redrawing district lines will have to take into account fixed factors, such as the locations of schools and transportation routes. But the most significant variable that comes into play is the nature of the tax base and where trends are heading.
A common objection to tinkering with districts is typically sports rivalries that double as community rivalries. Who can say what scholastic sports will look like going forward? The coronavirus timeout is a window in which athletics and rivalries are not the pivot for education decisionmaking.
How could school district realignment be carried out? Start with putting this monumental undertaking in the hands of a broad-based commission, inclusionary of the education interests, experts, and disinterested parties. All the professional groups and entities should be represented. It has to be representative of the state’s overall demographic, including age. The idea that quality education is divorced from politics is fantasy. So the administration should have several seats, with at least one expert in special education and another in technical education. Each legislative caucus also gets a seat.
Here is a ready example of how this can play out. Fulton County is one of our smallest in population and area. It has three school districts, when economy of scale argues for one. Being bound by mountains to the east and west would preclude further consolidation. That is the sort of analysis that can be conducted everywhere. The key is to shoot for improved function, not to meet a numerical target. After all, no one worried about round numbers when the commonwealth ended up with sixty-seven counties.
Now, the most reasonable and intelligent plan will have many more detractors than supporters. Well to-do districts have spurned incentives to take on struggling neighbors. So submitting a new map to a statewide referendum pretty much means the coffin can be ready at the outset. The same would be true of any plan submitted for an up-or-down legislative vote. But in the anti-intellectual, anti-establishment environment of the present, folks are not going to trust any blue-ribbon commission, even if sponsored by Pabst.
How to get accountability then? The same way Michigan achieved property tax relief decades ago. Do two plans, the whole enchilada and a more modest shift, and then have the legislature pick: Door #1 or Door #2. Granted, this offers no default option for sticking with what we have. This is about securing a difficult and elusive solution, not playing Don Quixote for dramatic arts credit.
Any set of lines is going to have its arbitrary aspects. Attitudinal change is needed as well. School district lines do not have to be mini Berlin Walls. By allowing for more sharing of services and programs across the lines, and having families school shopping rather than neighborhood shopping based on school district reputation, we can reverse the march toward greater disparity. If anyone has made a case that administrative bloat and mountains of required reports have improved public education, it has escaped notice.
Upwards of twenty school districts already cross county lines. This indicates that adhering to county lines is not somehow sacrosanct. And there is an established and functional mechanism for reconciling taxes in multi-county districts. This opens up a remapping effort to better solutions.
Will redistricting schools prove difficult, contentious, unpredictable, and time-consuming? As Sarah Palin would say, you betcha. The easiest thing in the world is to assemble a list of objections and obstacles that system defenders will depict as insurmountable. Union contracts, school debt, disparities in the age and utility of school buildings, larger districts being less responsive, and so on. Of course when we survey the mound of complaints about school districts being unresponsive to family and community concerns now, small districts are more a guarantee in the abstract than in actual practice.
It will be equally daunting to reconfigure school taxation and funding. If these two challenges are taken together, some problems and objections can be minimized. Perhaps the road to education progress will be less strewn with crater-sized political potholes. The goal is to shape districts that are more educationally and economically sustainable than the balkanized collection of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Our state cannot afford to perpetuate a system where the trademarks are high cost, widely variant student performance, and systemic discrimination that deprives too many students of true opportunity to achieve and excel.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.