Reinventing Education in Pennsylvania

A new assessment of the state of education in Pennsylvania

Written for the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, Harrisburg, Pa.

Pennsylvanians spent $9,830 per pupil on public schooling in 2000-01, and public school teachers there currently enjoy the highest salaries (when adjusted for cost-of-living) in the nation, at nearly $55,000 per year.

Yet, the verbal and mathematics SAT scores for the 71 percent of Pennsylvanian high-school seniors who take the SAT are below the average for the nation — ranking 45th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

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What to do? In "Reinventing Education in Pennsylvania," Coulson makes clear that higher spending is not the answer. He notes that despite dismal overall achievement results, there are exceptionally effective schools in Pennsylvania, which may hold the answers. Coulson finds that, contrary to common wisdom, schools that do exceptionally well don’t have particularly small class sizes. Neither do high-achieving schools correlate with abundant computer resources.

On the contrary, Coulson cites a host of studies, whose findings are borne out by Pennsylvania’s experience, showing that exceptional schools have strong leadership, set specific goals for themselves, and relentlessly pursue high achievement. In curriculum and teaching methods, such schools "...eschew the latest pedagogical fads and the unproven (or disproved) teaching philosophies pushed in many colleges of education." Instead, Coulson points out, excellent schools "...begin with methods known to effectively convey basic skills and then build up to more complex instruction from the solid base they are thus able to establish."

But such schools are the exception, rather than the rule. The reason for this, Coulson says, is the root of our public school problems: the monopoly status of our government education system, which is inimical to the autonomy, freedom of association, systematic incentives for excellence, unfettered expansion of good schools, closure of bad ones, and active parental involvement, without which no schools can prosper.

How to break up this monopoly? By creating a free market in education. "Children receive the best education," says Coulson, "when their parents become active consumers, both choosing and paying for that education themselves." But in order to establish such a free educational market, every Pennsylvania family must have the financial resources to participate in the educational marketplace.

To give parents that power, Coulson proposed a two-part plan he calls the "Pennsylvania Education Improvement Program." The first part would be a Parental Responsibility Tax Credit (PRTC), which allow parents to claim a non-refundable credit against state and county taxes worth 90 percent of the average cost of full-time schooling. The second part is aimed at helping those with lower incomes, whose taxes aren’t high enough to benefit from the PRTC. Coulson proposes an expansion of the existing scholarship provision of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would give lower income families all the help they need to fully participate in a free educational market in Pennsylvania.

"One hundred and fifty years is surely a long enough experiment with state monopoly schooling for Pennsylvanians to seriously consider alternatives," says Coulson. "The alternatives embodied by the PEIP is grounded in the most effective school systems in history — systems not only well-suited to serving the private needs of individual families, but to fulfilling the communal goals that we share as a society."

To view the entire Commonwealth Foundation publication, click on