‘Thorough and efficient'

| 29 Sep 2011 | 09:16

    To the editor: Although the state constitution requires state oversight of a “thorough and efficient” public education program, you might be surprised to discover that this upcoming school year marks the very first time in the history of the Commonwealth that we are actually going to conduct a statewide “costing out” study for our system of public education. Don’t ask me to explain why it has taken so long to do something so fundamental. In the 2004-05 school year, the last we have fully audited statements for, we spent $17 billion to educate over 1.8 million students across 501 school districts in Pennsylvania, and yet we haven’t bothered to figure out how much it should cost to give any particular student a decent education. Some districts spend as low as $6,000 per pupil while others spend more than $16,000 per student. In an average elementary school classroom, that disparity translates into about a quarter of million dollars per class per year. That’s more than just a few extra crayons or laptops. It’s a moral outrage. Special interests on all sides of the education issue have sometimes worried that “facts” could undermine their respective positions. Yet in recent years the increasing pressures over both inequity in school funding and performances accountability have compelled a majority of states to attempt to systematically define their public education standards. With the recent approval of the 2006-07 state budget, which included a $650,000 appropriation for such an official costing out study, Pennsylvania finally joins this list of 38 responsible state governments. If this particular education reform has any single birthplace in Pennsylvania, it would probably be in the city of Allentown. Here is where a group of business, education and community leaders agreed to finance a costing-out study specifically for the Allentown School District. The results were stunning. The report estimated that Allentown public schools were underfunded by more than $30 million a year to meet state per pupil spending averages and upwards of $75 million a year to truly leave none of its special needs students behind. Now perhaps you can see why reform groups’in particular have finally mobilized around the principle of getting the facts out. Meeting these benchmarks of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act quite obviously requires additional investment in education. But we are currently without the real information we need to wisely make those investments. More than just a study, costing out is a necessary process for those of us who seek to rescue the NCLB from becoming one of the worst unfunded mandates in American history, and more importantly, seek to meet our constitutional mandate for public education. Costing out is not a blank check for public education. Once you begin to break down broad value statements, such as the state constitution’s “thorough and efficient” clause, into component parts, then you open the door to identifying both best practices and cost-savings measures. Those of us promoting the costing-out process, and those of us who believe strongly in education reform, understand this study is also a first step toward greater fiscal accountability. Rep. Michael R. Veon Democrat, Beaver County