Commentary

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The millions school districts spend on charters could be spent preparing students for the jobs of the future

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By Merlyn Clarke
According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America, 89% of contractors were having difficulties finding workers trained for the jobs required on construction sites.

Pennsylvania Department of Education data indicate that there are 30 million jobs in the United States that do not require a bachelor’s degree but pay $55,000 or more.

It is not uncommon for people without a bachelor’s degree, but who possess skilled trades certifications, to earn more than college graduates. This, according to a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Clearly, education policies should be geared toward opening ways for more people to obtain the training that American industry needs while providing paths to family sustaining jobs for the American workforce.

Ironically,  for decades there has been an appreciation and recognition on the part of policy makers of the importance of technical education. Official policy calls for it and is supposed to provide for it.

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The Pennsylvania school code, for instance, reads as follows regarding career and technical education: “…career and technical education shall be made available to every student in the high school program (22 Pa Code § 4.23 (d)(1)).  Districts should not limit the attendance of students eligible for admission to a career and technical center (CTC).”

The language could not be more clear: high school students should not be limited in their ability to attend a career and technical school.  Yet the data show that in fact students experience limited opportunities to attend these schools.  The reason is simple:  there is limited capacity in the CTE schools.

One of the best kept secrets in Monroe County is the excellent Monroe Career and Technical Institute (MCTI), located in Bartonsville.  The school is supported by the four school districts in the county, East Stroudsburg, Pleasant Valley, Pocono Mountain, and Stroudsburg.

Each district, according to their overall size, has a student allotment that determines the number of students that each district can send to MCTI.  These numbers also dictate the amount of money each district is charged for their students to attend.  While so far, the overall capacity at the school will accommodate the total numbers of students each district may send, this obscures a more important issue.

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While MCTI offers 23 different career paths, not all students are interested in all these fields.  They need to be able to choose the field that interests them.

This is where the limits on student enrollment occur.  Many fields are not available because these programs are at capacity.  Students must be waitlisted until an opening in their desired field opens up, if it ever does. Career paths are geared to take three years. Many students cannot get into the programs they prefer in time to become certified in their preferred program. So the school code requirement that students should not be limited in their ability to attend a career and technical center is not being met.

In Monroe county, during the 2021 school year, some 320 students were waitlisted.  In order to meet the enrollment requirement, MCTI would need to be expanded.

In fact, there has been considerable talk about expanding the school to not only accommodate larger capacity in popular programs and increase the number of pathways being offered, but ideally, to convert the school into a full service high school. Such a conversion would have many advantages.

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Currently students who attend the school are only there for half-day. This means they must be transported to the school and back again during the day, thus spending up to two hours, mid-day riding a bus when they should be doing academic work. For students in East Stroudsburg North, for instance, this represents up to two hours a day on the bus.  Were this commute to be eliminated, no doubt enrollment would go up.

Moreover, if all classes were held at MCTI, technical and career classes could be aligned and connected with academic classes.  The conversion of the building would include expansion in overall capacity as well as enhanced program offerings .  From an educational point of view, there are virtually no downsides to such a conversion.

But, the obvious impediment to pursuing conversion of the school is the cost, which would require expanding the building, and providing the necessary additional staff. Estimates of the cost have been put at something like $25 million. None of the county school districts can afford to finance even their share of this expansion.

Unless the mandated expenses that school districts are forced to pay by the state were to be re-evaluated and adjusted.

There is currently a politically driven insistence on a form of “school choice,”  the idea that parents should be able to choose the school they wish to send their children to.

There are no limits on the number of families that may make this choice. To accommodate this choice policy, the state mandates–forces–school districts to pay tuition at any charter school, whether brick-and-mortar or cyber school, for any student who wishes to attend a charter school.

The tuition charges are arbitrarily determined, not by the charter school’s actual costs, but by the amount a school district spends per student in their own public schools .

The cost of providing this alternative education is staggering: in 2021, East Stroudsburg spent $8 million in charter school tuition.  Stroudsburg Area School District spent over $7 million; Pocono Mountain, over $8 million, and Pleasant Valley, over $7 million — some $30 million, all told, every year.

There is a great irony in the expenditures of these huge sums. While they expand choices for some students, they limit choices for others, including the choice that students could otherwise have to attend a CTE school, where they could  pursue a career path of their choice.

The media abounds with stories about the abuse of public money spent on charter schools: their poor performance, lack of accountability, the use of public money for advertising and political lobbying, funding formulas that incentivize charters to cherry pick their students, either to homogenize their student bodies, or to choose special education students who cost little to remediate. Charter school operators are enriched with taxpayer money.

In the meantime, many students who would like a real choice–the choice to pursue a career path at a CTE school that will translate into a good income with minimum post-secondary education expenses, have no such choice.

It’s time for the Legislature to stand up to the charter school lobbyists, put the interests of the students and taxpayers first, and direct some of these millions of dollars in public money to career and technical education.

The cost of converting MCTI to a full service high school could be paid for in one year out of districts’ general funds, without borrowing money or raising taxes – if they weren’t burdened with the $30 million that Monroe County school districts are forced to spend on charter schools every year.

Merlyn Clarke is a school director for the Stroudsburg Area School District in Stroudsburg, Pa. 

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