Dec 12, 2010

Does Pennsylvania really need 500 school districts?

(Originally Published as a Op-ed by The Patriot-News)

Many people statewide are stepping up efforts to take school boards to task for what they see as shortcomings in their management, teacher compensation and student achievement.

Many justifiably decry the continuous rise in property taxes that are undeniably a burden, particularly to those on fixed incomes. Some have said that they will not tolerate additional school tax increases. That sounds great, but do the common suggested solutions really solve the problem? And are the taxpayers really addressing the right audience? Instead of writing to school boards, perhaps taxpayers should be talking to their neighbors.

We, the citizens of Pennsylvania, know the real problem and it is us. We are 200 years behind the times, and we haven’t demanded enough from our political leadership. The real root of the tax problem is our failure to pressure our state representatives to make a serious attack on a broken system.

Our current setup is more suited to our agrarian and small-town roots than the reality of the geography and challenges of today’s Pennsylvania and a globally competitive economy. Our leaders seem in thrall to teachers unions on the one hand or self-absorbed and parochial school boards and taxpayers on the other. What will it take to get them to tell us hard truths that if we want more successful outcomes and a fairer funding system, somebody has to give up power, somebody will pay more and something must be done differently? Let’s stop posturing and taking the easy and ineffectual route of pushing school boards to cut programs for our kids and blaming our hardworking teachers.

How about we begin to push one another and our state and local representatives to address the real culprit, the silly little boxes we’ve clung to for so long with 500 school districts and 2,566 municipalities in one state. It’s absurd. We look ridiculous. We are ridiculous. If we are as passionate about fixing this tax crunch as we claim we are, why don’t we take the next logical step and have one school district for each county?

We cling to our little boxes. David Rusk, national expert on revitalization and author of “Cities Without Suburbs,” called these 2,566 municipalities “rocket fuel for separatism.” At some point, we’ll realize we’re all in the same boat, and we’ll begin working together for the benefit of all our children.

Until I hear a demand for the unity that is the only true route to tax relief and educational achievement for all, I can’t take too seriously the demands voiced by taxpayers in any district. If we really want lower taxes, we’re going to have to stop maintaining our separatism and stop thinking of this tax issue as an isolated problem. Inelastic borders will always be inelastic borders no matter how much we criticize the teachers, advocate simplistic solutions such as outsourcing or push for cuts of student programs. The only solution to inelastic borders is no borders at all.

Here’s what our political leaders are afraid to tell you: We have way too many political leaders. What in Maryland would be a simple neighborhood association is an entire little government in our state, a government with offices, equipment, systems, vehicles and personnel just like the other dozens of municipalities in each county. Redundancy is inefficient and wasteful.

No one wants to see any municipal leaders lose their jobs, but that is certainly preferable to continuing poor scholastic performance and ever-increasing taxes.
And it’s not just the tax burden that’s serious.There are kids throughout our state who are being shortchanged, and we’re missing out when they don’t reach their potential. Even when some students do excel, we lose again because they often move out of Pennsylvania once they’re out of school.

Why do our young people leave their home state at a rate much higher than the national average? Is it because they don’t want to live in a state where its citizens lazily allow their competitiveness to be strangled by an antiquated system? And with so many of our young people leaving, don’t we run the risk of becoming a state largely devoid of youthful talent, energy and ingenuity?

United we stand, and divided we fall. If we want to save money, we’re going to have to face reality right now and stop segregating ourselves and our kids. The little boxes we cling too just cost too much.

WILLIAM H. SWARTZ III of York is president of Sherman Property Management Inc. and was on the Metro York task force that explored opportunities to foster government cooperation.

No comments:

Post a Comment