Pennsylvania lacks a long-term plan for preserving and strengthening its 3,300 public schools, which serve 1.8 million children in the commonwealth. Leadership and commitment are absent on the key issues. And the reform proposals getting the most attention often ignore the changes needed to improve teaching and learning at the classroom level, especially for struggling students.

First, some background. Following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), there was a push for every school district to raise academic outcomes for students, especially for disadvantaged children. As a result, student assessment results in Pennsylvania improved for children with disabilities (298 percent increase since 2001), English language learners (217 percent), and students in poverty (211 percent).

For nearly 10 years, state education policy focused on improving services and supports within public schools for students with the greatest achievement gaps. This kind of serious reform costs money. Children at risk for educational failure often need more individualized instruction, a supplemental or adapted curriculum, extra tutoring, counseling services, special education programs and accommodations for disabilities, and English language programs for immigrants.

Despite the improvements made since 2001, many students still do not have an equal opportunity to learn. The school districts that started the farthest behind still have a long way to go. Most importantly, a large resource gap still exists between rich and poor schools. Such a large gap makes a big difference and is not fair to students struggling in underfunded schools.

Here are three key questions about the state agenda for public education in Pennsylvania.

What is the role of state funding?

Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis has stated that money does not matter in public education. Some legislators say that former Gov. Edward G. Rendell was overly generous with funding for Philadelphia and other urban districts. Gov. Tom Corbett signed a budget for the next school year that makes big cuts in education funding, especially for the poorest schools.

The truth is that the wealthiest schools spend up to twice as much per student as the poorest schools. For example, Lower Merion School District, with only 7.1 percent of its students in poverty, spends $23,133 per student and achieves a 74 percent passing rate on state exams for students in poverty. The Philadelphia School District has 61.4 percent of its students in poverty, spends $12,222 per student, and achieves a 51 percent passing rate on state exams for students in poverty.

It is ridiculous to claim that such funding gaps have no impact on student learning. Underfunded schools have larger class sizes, less experienced teachers, fewer computers, outdated or nonexistent science labs and libraries, and a shortage of tutoring and counseling services.

The role of state funding should be to narrow these gaps so that learning opportunities are equivalent for all children. But high-poverty communities do not have the local wealth or the tax base to do it on their own. This means that impoverished rural areas, urban schools, many declining first-line suburbs, fast-growing districts and other under-funded public schools must get the biggest slices of the annual state funding pie.

State officials could choose to ignore these facts and make school funding decisions based primarily on political considerations. If this continues to happen, we will all pay the price in terms of higher rates of drop-outs, unemployment, crime, welfare dependency and civic discord. Over the long run, research shows that public schools are Pennsylvania’s best investment and the backbone of healthy communities.

How much should we depend on charter schools?

In the last days of June, the General Assembly almost adopted comprehensive and costly reforms to the charter school system. Bills were considered that would eliminate restrictions on expanding the number of charter schools, cyber charter schools, and student enrollment in both kinds of charters. School districts would no longer be in charge of decisions about charter schools, although they would continue to pay for them. A new state agency would be created to approve, monitor and renew charters throughout the state. Debate on these bills will continue later this year.

The actual performance of charter schools and cyber charters does not justify allowing such a massive expansion. Over the last decade, charter schools generally have done worse than district-run public schools in Pennsylvania. A higher percentage of charter schools (39 percent) are failing to meet state academic standards, compared to district-run public schools (25 percent). Some charter school operators have gone out of business or have been indicted for financial problems.

Some charter schools have certainly done an excellent job. Certainly, too, charter schools can serve an important role by experimenting on a small scale with new educational models, free from many rules and restrictions found in traditional public schools. In fact, the ultimate purpose of charter schools should be to conduct such experiments and make the lessons learned available to the regular public schools, not to grow unchecked or to permanently replace district-run schools.

Some charter school reforms are needed, but not the ones included in the legislation introduced to date. Supervision by local school boards over charter schools should be strengthened. New standards are needed to increase communication about effective educational practices between charter administrators and local school officials. In addition, charter schools must be more inclusive of children with disabilities, English language learners, and other students with special needs.

Should the state fund vouchers and tax credits at nonpublic schools?

During 2011, the General Assembly has considered several bills to establish a new program giving state funding for students to use as tuition vouchers at private and religious schools. Most of these bills also include a large expansion of the existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC), which gives tax reductions to businesses for making contributions used primarily by students for tuition at nonpublic schools. Final votes are expected on these bills later in the year.

There are several problems with these proposals. First, the cost of tuition vouchers and EITC expansion is immense, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The state cannot afford this, especially while facing budget deficits and making cuts to other vital programs and services.

Second, the state’s experimentation with “school choice” has been a failure to date. Student performance in charter schools is worse than in regular public schools. And the state has collected no data at all about the performance of students receiving tuition assistance through the EITC program. Until it fixes the current school choice programs, the state should not expand them or create new programs.

Third, the proposals for tuition vouchers and EITC expansion would benefit mostly students who are already attending private and religious schools. The supporters of these bills claim that they are motivated by the needs of students in failing public schools. But the voucher and EITC bills would give far more money to children already in non-public schools. Thus, the “school choice” proposals would not improve options for the neediest students and would amount to a giveaway of taxpayer dollars to private and religious organizations. This is not just bad public policy but also violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Fourth, voucher and EITC proposals do nothing to guarantee options for the neediest students. The bills would allow private and religious schools to reject any and all applications for enrollment. In addition, the bills specifically allow nonpublic schools to exclude children with disabilities, English language learners and other challenging students.

Reform Options That Deserve Attention

Public schools throughout Pennsylvania have improved in recent years, but require continued support. State and local policies must prioritize the needs of disadvantaged students and schools. Elected officials must not ignore these vital needs or pay lip service while really seeking to benefit other interests.

Instead of political proposals for more charters, vouchers and tax credits, much better school reform options deserve attention and support from state officials. Proposals should be developed to address the needs for greater parent involvement, stronger school accountability, increased teacher quality, a healthier and safer school climate and adequate funding distribution. These local and state policy reforms are not headline-grabbers, but will achieve real improvements in teaching and learning at the classroom level.

Attorneys and the legal community should engage in these matters because the strength of our public schools will determine the civic and economic well-being of our region. Litigation may ultimately be needed to challenge flawed state policies that expand gaps in resources and diminish opportunities to learn, especially for disadvantaged children. But lawyers may have an even bigger impact by learning about these issues and encouraging education policy makers to focus on the real needs of students and their public schools.

Baruch Kintisch is the director of policy advocacy and senior staff attorney for the Education Law Center.