Last week in his annual budget address, Gov. Ed Rendell sent shock waves through the educational community when he announced plans to form a special commission that will formulate a plan to consolidate Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts into less than 100.
“Almost everyone agrees that Pennsylvania has far too many school districts, ” the governor said. “As of July, there will be 500 districts statewide. We just don’t need that many school districts, and more importantly, in today’s economy , we cannot afford them.”
Rendell believes that eliminating hundreds of superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, teachers, and other administrative costs will allow these new mega-districts to have superior bargaining power with contractual agents who serve the school system, which in the long run could save the individual taxpayer thousands of dollars in property taxes.
The most likely consolidating scenario is that there will be one county school district for each of the state’s 67 counties, with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh each having their own autonomous city school districts. Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia all operate successful public school systems in the same way. In fact, the Maryland Public School System was recently ranked as the best in America by Education Week.
Now, contrary to popular belief, transition to a county-wide school system would not mean that each county would have only one super-huge high school. In Maryland, each county has multiple high schools and the integrity of local neighborhood elementary schools remains the same as ours. The impact that such a plan would have on individual high schools in Schuylkill County is likely that smaller schools like Schuylkill Haven, Shenandoah Valley, Mahanoy Area, Panther Valley, Williams Valley, Tri Valley, and Minersville would be consumed into larger bordering schools like Blue Mountain, North Schuylkill, Tamaqua, Pine Grove, and Pottsville.
For the taxpayer, the results of consolidation would be mixed. Because the PA Constitution requires that all taxes levied be uniform, a county school district would be forced to tax at a flat rate to all residents. This poses a problem for some taxpayers and is an advantage to others. For example, residents of Shenandoah and Mahanoy City are likely to see millage decreases from their current rates of 45.3 and 41, respectively (which are the two highest in the county), because a larger school district means more residents to pay into the system which will lead to a millage decrease. However, residents of the current North Schuylkill school district will likely see an increase from their 26 mill rate (tied for lowest in the county) up to the current county average, which is 34 mills.
The biggest issue I see is the loss of local control over school curricula. No longer would area residents be elected by their fellow townsfolk to direct the operations of their neighborhood schools. Rather, all the schools within the county district would be overseen by a county-wide board of education. If that board was elected, it is likely that larger urban areas like Pottsville would hold the key to those board seats. Could you imagine the reaction of a board comprised of a majority of Pottsville residents telling Blue Mountain High School how to run its curriculum when Blue Mountain students continuously outperform Pottsville’s by a wide margin? Worse yet, if Pennsylvania followed Maryland and Virginia’s lead, the county boards would be appointed by either the governor or the county commissioners. That could lead to empty shirt politicians making educational decisions based on electoral math and other political considerations.
However it all pans out, it is clear that the big winner in the consolidation game would be the catholic school system. As private institutions, they would be unaffected by Rendell’s plan. They would continue to serve their local communities and be governed by advisory boards consisting of parents of the students, school administrators, and parish leaders. While the class sizes of area public schools will skyrocket, catholic schools like St. Ambrose in Orwigsburg and St. Jerome’s in Tamaqua will continue to enjoy a small and intimate classroom environment (usually 10-12 students), which will be very appealing to some parents who don’t want to see their children’s class of 30 get any larger. With increased enrollment, catholic schools will be able to drop tuition to more affordable rates, which will entice even more to make the change. As the cash flows in, catholic schools will be more willing to compete with the salaries of public schools and probably poach some of the best teachers from the public system. And it goes on and on and on . . . .
My sister-in-law is a teacher in Williams Valley School District. She graduated from a college in Maryland and did her student teaching there. She told me that their county system has been a boon for the local private schools as the best students and the best teachers all flock to those institutions for the smaller, lower key, and less stressful world of catholic education. Although she believes that consolidation will ultimately improve public education, she said that the catholic schools have the most to gain.
As a parent of two school-age children who attend catholic school, I am looking forward to consolidation. Now, not only will they receive a top-rate education, I may not have to pay top-dollar for it. Go Gov Go!!!