The East Penn School district administration has asked to hire a school resource officer (SRO) for Emmaus High School, at a total cost of approximately $100,000 annually. An SRO is a police officer who has additional training in working with juveniles and schools. To me there are three main questions that should be answered in order to form an educated opinion about this request:
Over this past week, I've written three different pieces in which I share what I learned myself in trying to answer each of these three questions. I did my best to find all of the research and data available on SROs, and evaluate this research both in terms of its quality and its relevance to the particular conditions we have here in our district. I outline the answers I discovered in the following posts:
What I learned in a nutshell: Contrary to what we might assume by watching the news, our schools are very safe. Indeed, they are MORE safe today than they were ten and even twenty years ago. At Emmaus High School, the number of serious behavioral incidents are not going up; if anything, they are declining. At the same time, the (limited) data we have on the effectiveness of SROs shows that they can increase the PERCEPTION of safety, but do not increase the REAL safety of schools. So while we may all want to make our schools even safer than they are, an SRO is unlikely to do that. And finally, the research shows that SROs have the effect of criminalizing student behavior that is best handled by school officials rather than the police. Moreover, SROs can both undermine the authority of other school officials and expose the district to greater legal liability. All of this is true even if SROs are highly trained, well-intentioned, and carefully supervised. The Emmaus Police Department, Macungie Police Department and the State Police all do an excellent job already keeping our schools safe.
The district administration has put a great deal of careful thought, time and effort into the SRO proposal. I appreciate the work they have done in developing it, and acknowledge the important experience many on the district’s leadership team have had with SROs in other districts. They have also reviewed many reports and studies, but have-- in my judgment-- relied on those that are of lower quality (relying on perceptions rather than objective data, for example) or that speak to less central questions (for example, the best way to develop an SRO contract) in advocating for the new position.
My daughter will attend Emmaus High School next year. And so there is naturally a part of me that says YES-- put a police officer in every hallway! But I am committed to making evidence-based decisions for our district, and that kind of gut reaction doesn’t make for good public policy. Conditions in the district could change, or new research could emerge about the benefits of an SRO, that would lead me to reconsider. But right now, based on the evidence, I do not support hiring one for East Penn.
I received a very flashy advertisement in the mail today from Commonwealth Connections Academy, a cyber charter school that enrolls more students in our district than any other. It promises a lot: engaged learning, talented teachers, an award-winning curriculum, and more. And it promises-- 3 different times on the single flyer-- to deliver all of this “tuition-free.”
Follow the Money
But here’s the rub: Commonwealth Connections Academy doesn’t actually provide the educational services they advertise. Instead, they outsource education to Pearson, a London-based multinational corporation that made more than $1.4 billion in profits last year. And by “tuition-free,” they mean that the money they pay Pearson comes from local taxpayers-- a total of more than $63 million in 2011-2012. Based on enrollment figures and state-mandated charter school reimbursement payments, I estimate East Penn School District taxpayers alone will be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars for Commonwealth Connections Academy this year.
How is this possible? Political connections help. Their seven member school board includes Jerry Birmelin, a political consultant and former PA representative in Harrisburg, and Kevin Shivers, a Harrisburg lobbyist with experience in the PA governor’s office. Their board president, David Taylor, is executive director of a corporate lobbying group with experience on former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum’s staff. In terms of transparency, they provide much less information and public access to their operations than most public school districts. They have not posted meeting agendas to their website in almost a year; they provide no meeting minutes or information on their budget at all; and of the ten "public meetings” they have scheduled for the 2013-2014 school year, six are in reality only telephone calls.
Poor Educational Outcomes
The result? The Commonwealth Connections Academy touts high levels of parent satisfaction. But their school performance profile tells a different story. Last year they scored an abysmal 54.6, putting them in the lowest category of performance established by the state (by contrast, Emmaus High School’s score was 92.5). So taxpayers lose and students lose. The state performance scores are certainly not the only way to measure educational quality, but this huge disparity is hard to ignore. It seems the real achievement of Commonwealth Connections Academy is limited mostly to funneling public money to private corporate interests.
We Need Meaningful Charter School Reform
I’m picking on this particular school only because I received such slick marketing materials from them. Many other cyber charters are similar. The money that goes to schools like Commonwealth Connections Academy comes directly out of our pockets in the form of higher taxes. And every dollar the district is required to send to such poor-performing cyber schools is a dollar taken out of the well-performing classrooms in our district. Why are we rewarding failure by punishing success?
I say all this even as I continue to believe that a diverse school ecosystem is good for kids and our community. Having different models of education provide a natural laboratory for new ideas and innovation. Different kinds of schools can offer both parents and students a wider range of opportunities to find an educational approach that fits their values and learning style. But the current charter school law in Pennsylvania is being exploited by political insiders for financial gain. This was not-- I hope-- the original intent of the law. And such exploitation harms not only traditional public schools, but also those brick-and-mortar charter schools that seek the best possible outcomes for students and taxpayers, rather than corporate shareholders.
How can we best keep taxes as low as possible while maintaining excellent schools in our district? A key part of any balanced, responsible answer to this question is the need for better regional planning and smart growth policies in our boroughs and townships. Uncontrolled growth creates more costs to taxpayers than the additional tax revenue it generates. The school district is hit particularly hard, as they must expand programs, hire new teachers, and in some cases build new schools to accommodate the families that move in to unchecked housing developments.
Ron Beitler recently made this point in a blog post discussing how preserving green space helps keep local property taxes low. Economic impact studies consistently show that building new housing subdivisions cost local taxpayers between $1.04 and $1.67 for every new $1 in revenue they generate (depending on the type of housing, its location, etc.). The private developers who build wherever and whenever they can do not bear these costs, taxpayers do...forever.
Fiscal responsibility means paying attention to facts about what policies lead to higher taxes. Reigning in uncontrolled tract home development is one of the many things our community can do to stop rising school costs.
(For more information about the economic benefits of smart growth, see the recent "Building Better Budgets" report that summarizes the findings of 17 different studies nationwide.)
The Diary of Anne Frank is a brilliant, harrowing, and ultimately heart-wrenching account of a Jewish girl's attempt to escape the Nazis and the Holocaust during WWII. Last May, a parent in Michigan asked her district to eliminate this famous book from the curriculum, arguing that one short passage in the 320-page diary is too sexually explicit for students.
This same logic was used last fall here in the East Penn District in demanding two books be removed from the long list of summer reading options given to parents and students (Prep and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). One of my opponents called those who were uncomfortable with such censorship "hateful Marxists promoting an agenda designed to corrupt our children."
I don't believe name calling is the proper way to address differences of opinion. But more importantly, I believe parents should be the primary decision-makers concerning what their children read, not school district administrators. In the case of our own district, the East Penn summer reading list explicitly states that teachers "encourage parents to read...book descriptions carefully with their children and assist them in selecting interesting, appropriate titles." We should empower parents to make informed decisions about books by noting potentially objectionable material in the descriptions on this list, not banning books from the list altogether.
I have deep concerns about the slippery slope of censorship. The First Amendment is critical to our democracy precisely because it recognizes that there is no one, objective standard that speech can be judged against. If one filthy passage in a novel makes the whole work "objectionable," then how long does the passage have to be? What words or descriptions are "pornographic" and which are merely uncomfortable? And what about "objectionable" political ideas? Or religious ideas? Should we ban from the curriculum all those books that are objectionable to someone in any of these ways too?
Katherine Paterson, author of the prize-winning (and much banned) book A Bridge to Terabithia perhaps puts it best when she writes:
"All of us can think of a book...that we hope none of our children or any other children have taken off the shelf. But if I have the right to remove that book from the shelf - that work I abhor - then you also have exactly the same right and so does everyone else. And then we have no books left on the shelf for any of us."
A quick glance at the American Library Association's list of most frequently banned books is a reminder of just how empty our shelves and reading lists might be if we try to eliminate everything to which anyone objects.
As I go door to door, concern over the new Common Core standards is one of the most frequent issues raised by the people I meet. I've learned a great deal these last few months about Common Core by talking to community members, asking questions of educational professionals, and research into its history on my own.
I am a skeptic of Common Core standards based on what I've learned. There is no research demonstrating the standards will improve the quality of education in our classrooms. And they are likely to contribute to the ongoing problem of relying on high-stakes standardized testing in the schools.
I may write more about these problems in a future post. But to be honest, right now I am even more concerned about the misunderstandings of Common Core that are coming to dominate discussion of it. There are plenty of good reasons to be skeptical of Common Core, so there is no need to perpetuate false ones. Three myths in particular stand out to me:
Myth #1: Common Core is a federal mandate
This is perhaps the most common misunderstanding. Common Core standards originated in efforts by state governors, not the federal government. They are not, nor ever have been, an initiative of the federal government. The standards are also completely voluntary; no state has been forced to adopt them. They are therefore in no way a "mandate". Common Core represents neither a federal takeover of local education nor a replacement of the (federal) No Child Left Behind Act. Sadly, this myth has grown because some people use it deliberately to score political points. They know that "federal mandate" is a buzzword that is good at generating community opposition, so they apply this label to the Common Core not because it is true but because it is useful to pushing a particular political ideology.
Myth #2: Common Core is a new curriculum
Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum. It consists of a list of knowledge and skills that students should have at different grade levels. Local school districts are still free to choose their own textbooks and reading lists. Teachers remain free to teach the knowledge and skills contained in the standards in any way they see fit. To be sure, any set of standards is going to influence what materials are used and how teachers teach. I had to learn more about the difference between "standards" and "curriculum" myself when I began learning more about the Common Core. I'm glad I did, as any intelligent discussion of their place in the schools requires an understanding of this distinction.
Myth #3: Common Core covers everything taught in school
Common Core standards have been developed for only two subjects: math and reading. They do not address science, social studies, or any other topics covered in the curriculum. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the Common Core, they are limited to just two subjects.
We need accurate facts to make good decisions for our schools
Surveys show that most people don't know very much about Common Core. A national poll this past summer showed that less than one third of Americans had even heard of the Common Core. Worse, many who had heard of the standards held factually incorrect views of how they were created and where they came from. The lack of knowledge about the Common Core makes it even easier for these three common myths to persist. One of the core platforms in my campaign is that we-- as a community-- need to make decisions about our schools using objective and accurate facts. The current debate over Common Core is a great example of how this is currently not the case.
Whether you are a Common Core skeptic or supporter, I think we should all agree that the debate over the standards should be based on a clear-eyed understanding of what Common Core actually is, and not myths and political slogans about it.
To learn more about Common Core, start by going straight to the source: The Common Core Standards Initiative. You might also find critical columns published in the New York Times and the Washington Post this past summer useful. Or, for something more local, this opinion piece by George Ball, chairman of the Bucks County-based Burpee seed company.
I'll be working hard over the coming month to introduce myself to as many people in the community as possible. No matter how much time I devote to going door-to-door, however, I won't be able to meet everyone personally. That's why I've put together the short video below to introduce myself "virtually" to others. The clip is a little goofy, but it lets people know why I'm running and some of the issues that are important. Please forward it along to those who have not met me before!
The East Penn School district budget is of great concern to those of us taxpayers who fund it. But in the heat of debates over the proper levels and sources of funding, it is easy to lose sight of some of the fiscal discipline that the current East Penn administration and school board have provided this community in recent years.
As the graph below shows, our school district tax rate is among the lowest in the county. Only Southern Lehigh and Parkland enjoy lower school taxes:
If you look at how much money is spent per child in the district, East Penn has one of the lowest per pupil expenditures in Lehigh County too. And we are below the overall state average in this measure:
What about administrative costs? We are also below the state average on this measure. According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, East Penn employed only one administrator ("manager") per 211 students, compared to the state average of 163 students per administrator.
Tax increases? There will not be any school tax increase this year for East Penn taxpayers. Moreover, in the decade between 2001 and 2011, the overall increase in taxes was only 1% higher than the level of inflation (a compound annual rate of 3.4% compared to 2.4%).
None of this information should leave us sitting on our laurels. There are certainly many ways we can make the district more efficient and cut unnecessary costs. But I believe the discussion of how to do so will be most productive if we start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fiscal record of the district in the recent past.
It is also possible to cut too much; we should take a practical, rather than ideological, approach to taxes. Our schools deserve the support they need to continue to improve the quality of education. The crisis in the Allentown school system is a sober reminder of what can happen when public education lacks adequate funding.
One of the chief obstacles to making meaningful, positive improvements in the East Penn School district is a small but vocal minority in our community who insist on viewing the issues we face in largely partisan terms. The first question they ask is not whether a candidate, an idea, or a proposal is a good one, but whether or not it is "Republican" or "Democratic."
This is a foolhardy and dangerous approach. Foolhardy because most of the issues faced by public education and the taxpayers who support it are complex and require careful and balanced judgment based on facts. They cannot be successfully addressed with the tired and simplistic ideological sound bites of the political parties-- Republican or Democratic. Why would anyone want to use the model of partisan pettiness and gridlock that characterizes Washington DC and Harrisburg here in our local community?
But partisanship is also dangerous. A number of scientific studies published in just the last few months show how political partisanship actually clouds judgment and makes it difficult for people to express or act on accurate information. The studies demonstrate that people make less accurate assessments of the economy, neglect the soundness of arguments, and ignore their own personal experience in "Republican vs. Democratic" contexts compared to when political partisanship isn't an issue. Put simply, partisanship hurts our ability to make the best possible choices for our community.
Dr. Claude Fischer of the University of California summarizes this research on his blog. You can also access the individual research studies-- completed at Princeton, Northwestern, Columbia, Stanford, and Aarhus University-- directly through these links:
I'm proud that the many yards signs promoting my school board campaign are equally distributed in the front yards of Republicans and Democrats. And I am committed to meeting the challenges of the East Penn school district in a balanced, inclusive and fair way that reflects careful judgment of facts, not blind partisanship.
The East Penn School District, like any large bureaucracy, generates its share of waste and inefficiencies. As I've met community members in this campaign, teachers, custodians, maintenance staff, and others who work in the district have all shared with me specific examples of waste in the East Penn schools.
One of the best ways to combat this problem is to develop a culture (and a concrete procedure) that encourages all employees to report waste and inefficiency in a safe and constructive way. At the same time, the mantra of "cutting waste" will not magically cure the pressure on the public school budget. How should we think about the bigger issues? I would propose three basic principles in approaching the larger budget questions:
(1) A long-term approach to budgeting. Cutting $1,000 to fix a leaky roof from the budget today is short-sighted if it means we will have to pay $100,000 to repair the damage caused by the leak in a few years. (See my separate post on this subject.)
(2) Cost-cutting proposals should be specific. Calling for budget cuts in general makes for good political theater, but it takes both knowledge and leadership to propose actual cuts that might improve the district's finances.
(3) Balance. Fiscal responsibility must be balanced again the need of our community for excellent schools-- public education is itself an important pillar of our community's economic fortunes.
I've written a number of times about the need for schools to change in fundamental ways to meet the needs of today's society and economy. The information revolution poses significant challenges to some of the most basic ideas we all hold about public schools; ideas originally developed in the wake of the industrial revolution, a far different time.
Ken Robinson made this point several years ago in a talk that has been viewed by millions since he gave it in 2006. Sadly, little has been done to address the issues he raises in the seven years since. The talk is well worth its 12 minutes, if you haven't seen it already (and don't be distracted by the controversial claims he makes about ADHD in the middle; they are not central to his main point).