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HOLMAN: PSSA Results Show Students Need a Lifeline from Failing Schools and Special Interests

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) released statewide scores from spring’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams. The results are damning.

A mere 22 percent of Pennsylvania eighth-grade students achieve proficiency or better in mathematics, while only 56 percent did so in language arts. Fourth-grade students did not fare much better, with 52 percent proficient in language arts and 42 percent proficient in mathematics. Proficiency rates across both grades and both subjects have declined from pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

It’s unacceptable that our education system fails to teach students basic reading and math. The PSSA data is just the latest evidence that students are struggling to recover from the haphazard and prolonged shutdown of public schools during COVID-19.

Released in October, the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or Nation’s Report Card, also shows significant decreases in reading and math proficiencies of Pennsylvania’s fourth- and eighth-grade students. But report card results for Catholic schools—which were among the quickest to re-open—far exceed the national public school average in NAEP testing.

Families must hold accountable those responsible for extended public school closures that too often put special interests—not student needs—first.

From the start of the pandemic, government union executives consistently advocated for school closures. According to Education Next, 40 percent of educators reported that labor leaders stood in the way of returning to in-person schooling.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten’s suggested language was directly adopted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) overly restrictive school reopening policies. Locally, in Central Bucks School District, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) pressured Superintendent John Kopicki to defy the advice of Bucks County Health Director David Damsker and maintain onerous restrictions.

Union pressure worked—and kept students out of the classroom.

Since then, school union executives have refused to take any responsibility for their role in causing learning loss. Weingarten began by lying about AFT’s role in school closures and attempted to rewrite history by claiming that her union was in favor of reopening. Bill Senavaitis, the head of the Central Bucks School District Education Association, left his position after public outrage over his actions. However, he was re-promoted by the PSEA.

Even as students are struggling, government unions are concerned more with advancing their political and ideological agenda than improving educational quality. Union executives increasingly take public stances on controversial political issues such as abortion and gun control—which have nothing to do with getting our students back on track.

Government unions focus on the money, arguing that increasing school funding leads to better student outcomes. Pennsylvania currently ranks eighth in the nation for per student education funding at nearly $20,000 per student, with the average Pennsylvania public school receiving $3,942 more per student than the national average. Furthermore, school district reserve funds have increased by more than 30 percent since 2013.

Even if the government unions got more money, it would not improve the quality of education students receive. Decades of annual funding increases in Pennsylvania—without reforms or accountability—has not delivered better results.

So, what’s the solution for learning loss? In Pennsylvania, there is a proposed legislative solution to immediately get students in a better educational environment.

The Lifeline Scholarship Program would provide parents with a restricted-use scholarship account if their child attends a school in the bottom 15 percent of underperforming public schools. This scholarship account is equal to about a third of the public-school spending per student, meaning that school districts would keep the remainder of the funding despite not having to educate the scholarship recipient.

A version of this program passed the state House last spring. Furthermore, Governor-elect Shapiro has indicated that he supports the initiative. In 2023, our legislature should act swiftly to put Lifeline Scholarships on Shapiro’s desk.

After the devastating learning loss suffered during the pandemic, students need immediate relief. Rather than giving into the demands of teachers’ unions—who have consistently been on the wrong side of this issue—policymakers should look to empower students.

Lifeline Scholarships offer students the relief they need, giving them an opportunity to achieve a quality education.

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