Inspired by a recent Supreme Court decision involving school choice in Montana, a longtime public educator turned Catholic school principal is leading a charge to pressure state lawmakers to take up the issue in Pennsylvania to save his struggling community.
Tom Smith is the principal of Bishop McCort Catholic High School nestled in the valley of Johnstown, once a booming steel town and, like much of Appalachia, now trying to rebound from decades of population loss and poverty.
“About 300 yards away from our school is a failing school district,” Smith told Fox News. “The district has struggled with a lot over the past 20 years, and I don’t believe it’s the fault of the teachers, it’s the fault of the system.”
“The answer is not pumping more money into the system,” Smith said. The cost of educating one student at the local Johnstown school district is $15,000, according to the principal. The cost of educating one student at Bishop McCort is $12,000, though tuition is offset by alumni donors and priced at $7,000.
The downtown Johnstown area, without its wealthier outskirts, has been ranked the poorest town in Pennsylvania, with a population of under 25,000. Typical households in Johnstown bring in $24,924 per year — less than half the $59,445 state median household income — and bear more than three times the poverty rate of the state overall, according to a report.
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Smith worked in a public school system for 17 years before becoming a Catholic school principal. His daughters grew up in the public school system before deciding private would be better suited to their needs, but he said he is constantly forced to turn away families who ask him for help to send their children to his school. “A lot of times they can’t afford $100, 200 a month, they just can’t do it. I wish I could help them but I can’t.”
The Johnstown school district ranks 488th out of 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, according to US News. “We’ve got to save those kids,” Smith said.
Last week, Smith arranged a meeting with a number of state lawmakers from the region. He shared his pitch with them and they discussed whether, as a first step, what happened in Montana was possible in Pennsylvania.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a statewide ban on taxpayer funding for religious schools. In a 5-4 ruling, the court essentially backed a Montana tax-credit scholarship program that gave residents up to a $150 credit for donating to private scholarship organizations, helping students pay for their choice of private schools.
“I think both sides were educated,” state Rep. Jim Rigby said, according to the Tribune-Democrat. However, Rigby said a key difference was that Pennsylvania’s constitution stipulates that the state must fund public education. But Smith said public schools would benefit from reworking the system as well.
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“If families did leave the public school system, we could reduce the class sizes for them,” said Smith. “Colorado has it, Florida has it, Arizona has it.” Students in Colorado can request to attend any public school, and Florida and Arizona allow tax credit donations to scholarship children at private schools.
But one counter-argument is that rewiring the financials of education will drag impoverished schools further down. Smith said that studies show that in areas that offer school choice, 3% to 5% take advantage of it. “Maybe you’re losing one to two jobs at the public school but you’re saving 100 jobs at the private school. And those public school teachers can come work for us.”
Smith said that the major roadblock is that Democratic politicians are beholden to teachers’ unions, who in addition to fears of job loss cite issues with separation of church and state. “I am a fan to some degree of teachers’ unions — I used to be a member of one. But what’s happening right now in our schools is not right. Quite frankly, I think they have too much control and the parents have zero.”
Smith plans to go to Harrisburg to take the issue up with the state’s House and Senate education committees. “They can listen to the teachers unions all they want but they only have one side of the story. Let’s hear the other side of the story.”
“If the money goes to the parent, there is no separation of church and state issue,” Smith continued. “The parent decides. If you get an unemployment check from the government they’re not telling you how to spend it. People that receive welfare assistance, do they tell you how to spend that? Stimulus checks? Absolutely not. That’s how it goes with vouchers or school choice initiatives.”
Smith said that shopping for schools should be much like shopping for anything else. “It is a ridiculous thought that if I go buy something at T.J. Maxx, Walmart gets the income for it. So if I don’t buy it at Walmart they’re still going to get the money. That’s a ridiculous concept. It’s un-American.”
As the debate rages on about whether children are more at-risk when returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic or remaining isolated with remote learning at home, some districts still have yet to announce their back-to-school plan. The debate over school choice has returned to the spotlight.
President Trump has called it the civil rights issue of “all-time in this country” and cited the issue as a second-term priority. Like Smith, Trump has insisted education money should follow the student, allowing them to return to open schools if they feel safe and continue remote learning at other schools if not.
Smith said that his school missed one day of educating its students in the transition to online schooling at the start of the pandemic. Local public schools, he said, took weeks to have their online programs up-and-running and most made classes pass-fail.
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“We did that because we had to, and we’re very proud about that.” Smith said. “Other kids sat and waited. And there’s a vast difference between a pass failing grade and a real academic grade with a percentage.”