For the first time in more than a decade, school vouchers have a legitimate chance of becoming a reality in Pennsylvania. On Oct. 26, the state Senate voted 27-22 to approve Gov. Corbett’s education initiative. If SB 1 passes the House, it will undoubtedly be hailed by supporters as a victory for “school choice.” But a coalition representing students, parents and teachers have quite a different view of the bill.
“It is a wholesale transfer of funding already dedicated to public schools to the private sector,” says Beth Olanoff, executive director of PLUS and former director of the Office of Policy at the state Department of Education. “In effect, that is robbing poor Peter to pay poor Paul. And that’s just poor public policy.”
The Opportunity Scholarships and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act includes provisions for expanding charter schools and increasing funding for tax credits toward private school tuition. The most controversial feature of the bill, though, is the voucher proposal. In the first year, the bill would make vouchers available to low-income students in one of the bottom 143 performing schools on state math and reading tests; 88 of these schools are in Philadelphia. In the second year, eligibility would expand to include students enrolled in private schools but who live in the attendance zone of one of these 143 schools. And by the seventh year, it would include students in schools where 50 percent or more of the students scored below proficient on state tests.
For a family to qualify, they must have an income of 130 percent or less of the federal poverty line—or $29,000 for a family of four. A voucher could be worth from $5,765 to $13,905 depending on the school district.
Proponents of vouchers claim that by assisting with tuition expenses for private and parochial schools they would allow poor children in underperforming and dangerous schools to have a chance at a quality education. State Democratic Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a sponsor of SB 1, said in a statement on his official website, “It should be parents, not bureaucrats, who decide which environment is best for their children. And once they’ve made that decision, money the state makes available for that child’s education should follow him or her to that school.”
However, to “Pennsylvanians Opposed to Vouchers”—a coalition of state organizations including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT-PA), the Parent Teacher Association (PA-PTA), the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools (PLUS) and Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY)—the reality of vouchers is far less appealing than the rhetoric. Not only have vouchers proven ineffective in other states, they argue, but the bill would represent a bold step toward gutting an already vulnerable public education system.
Opponents criticize the bill on a number of fronts, but the focus is on three main points. First, they note that money is allocated to vouchers at the expense of public school districts. Estimated at approximately $100 million in the first two years and even more in subsequent years. “We’re talking about districts that are already underfunded to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per classroom,” says Olanoff.
Second, because of the provision in the bill that students already attending private or parochial schools will be eligible to receive vouchers, the money will likely not go to help students in underperforming public schools. As the Education Law Center points out, the state Senate’s own report on the bill estimates that 65.3 percent of all vouchers would go to students already in private or parochial schools. Meanwhile, only 7.6 percent would go to students in the 143 worst performing public schools. In effect, the bill would siphon off funds for public schools while not even providing the opportunities it purports to offer to students.
Third, PTA President Julie Lesitsky points out that the bill in fact runs counter to the concept of “school choice.” “We don’t feel that this bill has anything to do with parental choice because those schools are not mandated to take every student,” she says.
Not since Tom Ridge was governor has a vouchers bill been so close to passing in Pa. From 1996 to 1999, Ridge pushed for vouchers on three separate occasions, but the bill was narrowly shot down in the state House each time. Now, riding the recent wave of anti-public education, anti-teachers union, and anti-government spending sentiment, Corbett has reintroduced the idea. “With the Tea Party and the conservatives, this is an agenda item,” says Ted Kirsch, president of the AFT-PA. “When you’re talking about vouchers, you’re talking about privatization … talking about profits. There’s money in this game and that’s what’s behind it.”
And now former Philadelphia’s schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman has thrown her support behind the vouchers. At a Philadelphia Inquirer event last month, Ackermen said she believes it would take charter schools and vouchers to fix the school district. “I didn’t even see vouchers as a viable option until recently, because my work and my focus was on changing the system from within for parents,” Ackerman said. Proponents of the bill believe that Ackerman’s support will help bring attention to the cause.
Recent polling done by Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College has found opposition to vouchers in the state to be consistently above 60 percent. In addition, Public Citizens for Children and Youth has canvassed parents of children in public schools. According to Tai Marie Adams, co-director of Education Policy, the polling data is corroborated by their findings: “Along with what the polling shows, parents that we talk to are desperate to keep any funds—if there are any more funds available—in their public schools for their kids.”
And yet, despite this apparent public opposition to vouchers, the state government continues to trudge ahead with the proposal. Critics believe that this is due to the influence of pro-voucher monied interests in the political process. For example, during his failed run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010, Williams received as much as $5 million in campaign contributions from the pro-voucher PAC, Students First. “We don’t have the amount of money that the pro-voucher forces have in this battle,” Kirsch states frankly.
Whether the bill passes remains to be seen, as support for it in the House is lukewarm compared to the Senate. Nevertheless, the groups affiliated with “Pennsylvanians Opposed to Vouchers” are working to pressure state representatives and inform parents in the hope that Corbett’s voucher proposal suffers the same fate as those of Ridge.