The struggles in Harrisburg’s public schools are a symptom of Pa.’s neglect for education | Opinion

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By Jill Sunday Bartoli

It’s been with great sadness recently that I’ve read arguments that the Harrisburg School District is dragging down the rest of Pennsylvania’s capital city.

I’ve spent the last six years as a substitute teacher at Harrisburg High School. And I have had the opportunity to meet so many excellent, dedicated teachers and talented, creative students at both the John Harris and SciTech campus.

Their successes and achievement have been in spite of our legislators’ refusal to fully fund their schools, and in spite of the racially tinged negative portrayals of their schools by the media and the public.

The research is clear that economic factors affect student achievement on standardized tests. It is equally clear that that poverty and homelessness drive failure rates and produce lower grades.

The quality and existence of affordable housing, family sustaining jobs, transportation, good healthcare, healthy food, opportunities for high quality early childhood education and after school programs, mental health supports for children and parents all affect school achievement.

Should the state take control of the Harrisburg School District, or should democracy run its course?

This is rarely mentioned in the media. Nor is the very high child and family poverty rate in Harrisburg, or the fact that our legislative policies and refusal to invest have re-segregated our city communities and schools.

Yet there has been little debate on these factors. Even more disturbing is the the lack of legislative support for the schools and those communities with multiple challenges to overcome.

Even in my hometown of Carlisle, Pa., the local school district has been forced to outsource teachers’ aides. That is directly attributable to state lawmakers’ refusal to return to the 50 percent state investment in public education that we once had, and that other states have now.

Legislators have also forced our public school districts to fully fund charter schools and cyber-charter schools, none of which have met the quality and achievement levels of our traditional public schools.

As citizens we should be appalled that our legislators’ policies are further segregating our schools through housing policies and further bankrupting our public schools through refusing to fully invest in them.

Diverting much needed funds to profitable private companies at the expense of our children is as reprehensible as refusing to meet the critically needed 50 percent investment that would better serve our children and their hard working teachers.

It would also prevent the ever rising property taxes that have been making up for what legislators refuse to do.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

As citizens we can come together to defend our children’s constitutional right to a quality education—for all of our children.

Auditor general calls on Harrisburg School District to act with ‘greater degree of transparency’

Segregated, underfunded public schools are not what we believe in as a democratic society with liberty and justice for all. Our legislators would prefer to pit us against each other by focusing their policies on unborn children.  Then we don’t see the multiple ways they are neglecting, disadvantaging and abusing the children in our midst.

Let’s not be divided. Let’s unify, and demand that the values that unite us as a caring community are honestly and fairly represented.

Jill Sunday Bartoli, a longtime substitute teacher in the Harrisburg schools, is a former professor at Elizabethtown College. She writes from Carlisle, Pa.

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