Inquirer Editorial: State helped make this mess

Posted: January 10, 2012

The latest meltdown in the Chester Upland school system is a sweeping indictment of the State Department of Education, which has allowed the Delaware County district to persistently remain one of the worst in Pennsylvania.

The district says it will run out of money and not be able to pay teachers and support staff after Wednesday. Union members last week said they would nonetheless stay on the job for as long as they are able.

This sorry state of affairs could have been avoided. The district, reeling from state budget cuts this fiscal year, made a reasonable appeal to the state for an $18.7 million advance payment of the state funding that it expects to receive in June.

But the Corbett administration so far has refused to help. Instead, Education Secretary Ron Tamalis sent the district a letter in December that blamed it for its predicament. What Tomalis left out is the state's failure to take a stronger role in Chester Upland's finances before they got so far out of whack.

In its treatment of the district, not only has the state seemingly lost sight of its role as the ultimate provider of a thorough and efficient education for every Pennsylvania child, it has also made the woefully mismanaged Chester Upland district a poster child for much of what's wrong in urban public education today.

For 16 years, the district was operated by several different state entities. Control of the district was returned to a locally elected board in 2010. But as recently as last June, the district was under the strict fiscal oversight of the state. So how can the state act as if it bears no responsibility for the district's financial woes?

The Democratic administration of Gov. Ed Rendell didn't stop the district from amassing $85 million in bond debt to pay operational costs, a reckless move that continues to have dire financial consequences. The earlier Republican administration of Gov. Mark Schweiker can be blamed for decisions that paved the way for millions in district funds to be siphoned off for charter schools.

Today, Chester Upland has the highest percentage of children in charter schools in Pennsylvania, roughly 3,025 students, and it spends about 40 percent of its budget on payments to charters. Left behind in the crumbling regular schools are 3,650 students who are unable or unwilling to flee. Their state test scores and graduation rates are abysmal.

With money running out and the situation worsening, it's time to consider radical measures that can only be orchestrated by the state. Perhaps it should shut down Chester Upland and send its students to nearby districts. Or maybe go to a New Orleans-type model in which almost all students attend charters.

Either move would require adequate funding and time. Waiting for action are hundreds of children sentenced to an inferior education.

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