Lifeline Scholarships can help reduce absenteeism, school violence | #schoolsaftey

Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. is right: For students within the Philadelphia School District, attendance is a life-and-death issue, particularly for students of color in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

It’s no secret that Philadelphia district schools are failing academically — 135 of the district’s 217 schools are “low achieving” and fall within the bottom 15% of the state’s schools based on statewide testing.

What isn’t well advertised are the other difficulties facing these low-performing schools. According to Pennsylvania Department of Education data, students in these schools are twice as likely to experience violence — including assaults, threats, weapon possession, theft, and fighting — than their peers at the top-performing 85% of schools.

Daily attendance rates among the entire Philadelphia School District are about 63%. Among Philadelphia charter schools, the daily attendance rate is more than 71%. Philadelphia Archdiocese high schools have a daily attendance rate of nearly 93%.

ABC News lists Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School as one of the most dangerous in the country. Yet, when West Oak Lane’s Building 12 high school closed because of asbestos, students were relocated to Strawberry Mansion. Only a few dozen showed up. Why were kids forced into an already troubled school when there were viable, safer alternatives?

Violence and overcrowding are the reasons Hunting Park resident Monica Parilla pulled her daughter from her school. Parilla believed her fifth grader was too young to be dealing with daily backpack searches.

“The city — because of the safety concerns — is normalizing what is not normal for these children. I don’t think it’s correct; I don’t think it’s right,” Parilla said. “Private school makes it a little more simpler because they feel safe. They trust their teachers and their peers a little bit more.”

Parilla’s three school-age kids now attend Hunting Park Christian Academy and Little Flower Catholic High School in Philadelphia, but the financial commitment isn’t easy on her or her family. Yearly tuition for the schools is $6,350 and $10,175, respectively.

Parilla shouldn’t have to struggle financially to send her kids to schools that offer better alternatives. There are over 250,000 students statewide — the majority of whom are low-income and students of color — in the bottom 15% of failing schools. The School District has known this for years, yet hasn’t taken steps to act. Meanwhile, the teachers’ union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, actively opposes expanding tax credit scholarships for kids.

Parilla got her kids out of the system. But what about all the other parents with kids trapped in violent schools? The low rate of student attendance is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem. If the Philadelphia School District won’t do what is right and give these kids district scholarships to other schools, the governor can act.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has the chance to follow through on the support he expressed for Lifeline Scholarships on the campaign trail by signing them into law. The Lifeline proposal — passed by the Pennsylvania House in 2022 — would help students in the most troubled and underperforming schools. Lifeline Scholarships would help families pay for private schools, relieving the financial burden that makes a private school education unobtainable for many.

We know that opportunity scholarships work: 71% of Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia recipients are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches and attend underperforming public schools. Of those scholarship recipients, 98% graduate high school on time with test score results that far exceed those in the School District.

One argument against Lifeline Scholarships is that they would take funding from public schools. That’s a myth. Shapiro and state lawmakers can create a new line item in the soon-to-be-passed budget to fund educational savings accounts or create a special fund. No public education dollars need to be used.

It’s time for adults to stop making excuses — and for children to have opportunities. The most frustrating thing for everyone involved — especially parents — is that this is something both Republican leadership and the Democratic governor support. Shapiro can take a divided General Assembly and expand tax credit scholarships in the budget process.

There is already support on both sides of the aisle.

Last year, Democratic State Rep. Amen Brown voted for Lifeline Scholarships. Pennsylvania Republicans support Lifeline Scholarships. Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, the highest-ranking Republican lawmaker in Pennsylvania, is ready to make Lifeline Scholarships — and increasing current tax credit programs — her top priority. Republican House minority leaders are also on board.

Yet, teachers’ unions oppose charter schools and Lifeline Scholarships, which is why Shapiro must act by the June 30 budget deadline to bring his party along. Our children need strong leaders not to be absent from this fight.

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