The big stories about how school funding affects kids in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania usually appear in the large metropolitan newspapers. Therefore the stories revolve about the cities and some suburbs. Since our organization, PARSS (Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools) represents schools and districts that never make the large papers or other media outlets, our problems remain hidden in the pages of the Oil City Derrick, the Clarion News or the Punxsutawney Spirit. Yes that town from Groundhog Day.
Someone has said when a rural town dies; it is always a quiet death. The lack of funds from the state for our schools has an instant effect on what goes on daily in rural and small schools. Here is a small example of how that works. Fannett-Metal School District in Franklin County has about 500 students K-12. That number could probably fit into one bathroom in a city high school. Jim Duffey, the superintendent of that school district is a straight forward honest guy. When he tells you something, you are almost condemned to see that he is telling you the truth.
Because of the unpredictable way in which schools are financed in Pennsylvania, he is never certain about how much money he will be getting. Since there has been a trend to cut funding, he has had to make some really hard decisions. I learned of this first cut from a former student at Fannett-Metal. The entire music program was removed from the school. That program consisted of a 32 year veteran teacher. That person had to be let go. In another cut, Jim had to eliminate a few teachers at the high school level. That meant that students could not be afforded to take certain courses. Because of the cuts, the school district had to lower its graduation requirements from 27 credits to 24 credits. This, in a time when we are trying to raise standards.
The new School Profile numbers came out the other day and they are desultory. Our scores for most of the state in some of the variables have gone down. All this at a time when the state is asking the school districts to raise their standards. The answer from on high is that districts were not used to this new way of looking at things.
Let’s try and see why. Here is a very simple case. I am sure you know what advanced placement courses are (AP). Take them and pass the test (with a 4 or 5 score) and you can get college credit for them. Let’s think now. How many courses are there in some of our wealthy districts? Are there more than zero or one? Of course there are. The numbers are staggering. We also have schools in rural areas that do not have even one AP course. PARSS got some dough a few years ago to train teachers in some rural schools how to teach AP courses. Many of the districts in that effort had none to one or two.
It does not take a great deal of money to mess up a small and rural school. The cry for consolidation would make these districts more efficient, right? How would combining two 300 square mile school districts make those districts more efficient? Would one 600 square mile district do it? How about a 900 square mile district (Clinton County) fare if combining with a neighbor? Let’s leave that alone for a while.
All of those who spoke at the news conference this morning are suffering. However, those in rural areas will suffer in silence. As with the original case in 1991, the public really did not have any idea of what was happening. Hopefully, with the p.r. that has been generated to date about this new case, we will all get a good shot at helping ALL children in Pennsylvania.