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Pa. school choice bill tests traditional views, definition of ‘needy’ students


Pennsylvania’s proposed school choice bill is being sold as an opportunity for the economically challenged to leave underperforming schools. The plan is innocuous enough: Progressive and labor groups have ramped up support for mobile benefits like health care and retirement plans that aren’t tied to any employer. Can’t needy students have the same privilege with tax dollars subsidizing enrollment at the school of their parents’ choice?

Freedom to choose, welcoming the market’s guiding hand to pare down prices and force veritable monopolies to improve their services — short of state management, liberals welcome these classical economic fixes to the many inequities in the consumer market, be it health care or internet access. So why the animus when legislation attempts to shift dollars from an already failing school system to private schools? After all, they have no choice but to perform well lest they want angry parents to take their five-digit tuition payments elsewhere.

With Senate Bill 1, the Keystone State’s potentially tidal legislation was never exclusively about low-income students, and those devil-in-the-detail specifics go a long way toward making education groups hostile. But a surprising number of Democrats, and even a few labor groups, back the legislation, muddling what could have easily been a private interests versus public labor battle.

“The reality is, school choice supporters and teacher’s unions simply disagree on school choice, hence the inherent conflict,” says Andrew Campanella, director of communications for the major school choice organization American Federation for Children. “But I’d venture to say that if you asked most education reformers, they’d agree with public educators that teachers deserve to be paid more money. We think teachers deserve respect. And certainly, we believe that teaching is a noble, honorable, transformational profession.”

The emphasis on teachers’ unions is intentional. Labor unions like the Pennsylvania chapter of American Federation of Teachers (PA-AFT) cannot forgive a piece of legislation that allows public tax dollars to go unaccounted for. The most recent iteration of SB 1 does include language that would force private schools participating in the voucher program to track students using the public funds, but the proposed law doesn’t insist on any one metric.

“There is no accountability for private and religious schools, “ says Pat Halpin-Murphy, director of government relations for PA-AFT. “[They] can give any test they want. You have nothing to compare it to the Pennsylvania System of State Assessments.”

Without a standardized test that can gauge student knowledge compared to other students across the state, parents and administrators have no real way of knowing how their children in private schools measure up, Halpin-Murphy argues.

For Sen. Anthony H. Williams, synchronizing data to track student performance is a means to an end, the latest barometer signaling new developments in the education reform landscape and nothing else. He is one of the two authors of SB 1 and perhaps its greatest moral defender in Pennsylvania. As a Democrat representing part of Philadelphia, a city with roughly two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s failing schools, his legislative output addresses issues specific to working class needs. A recent bill he authored, SB 119, would provide more funding and outreach to intergenerational caretakers of children whose parents have left the scene. That’s not to say his constituency is exclusively made up of the lower rungs: Lansdowne in Delaware County has a median household income of $59,973 while the national figure is at $51,425; Norwood homes bring in $55,530 and Prospect Park is even wealthier with a median household income of $71,651.

“Our task at hand is to produce classes of graduating thinkers and creators, because that is what our modern economy demands,” says Williams, “A voucher program is a tailored remedy for a specific, targeted issue.” And though he’s quick to praise successful public schools, he says, “there is obvious, systemic failure, that should end – today. SB1 is one effort toward that outcome.”

But whatever happened to the emphasis on low-income students? SB 1 has gone through several versions — the latest hammered out by state Senate leaders and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s office. One of its chief additions is an expansion of the income eligibility threshold. If passed, the statewide voucher program would welcome students of families with incomes 350 percent of the federal poverty line by the program’s fourth year of existence.

The original language of the bill would have provided vouchers based on incomes below 180 percent of the poverty line, which is the state’s benchmark for issuing in-school meal subsidies. Students of families with rising incomes that no longer earned below the annual wage limit would have been allowed to stay on the program pro-rata until the eighth grade. That means the latest version of the bill would permit households with incomes just under $80,000 to enroll.

The new version would also move away from the state’s targeted 144 failing schools by the third year, allowing any low-income student to participate in the program.

The success of voucher programs is underwhelming, as well. In the District of Columbia, test scores for students who’ve enrolled in the city’s voucher program were statistically no different in 2008 than students who weren’t eligible for the program. Parental approval was higher among participating students, though. Students involved in the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher scholarship programs also posted similar test results, all the while using fewer public dollars than local public schools. In D.C., however, graduation rates rose significantly, jumping 12-13 points (PDF) in the U.S. Department of Education’s evaluation of the District’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

But even those gains do not sway Halpin-Murphy of PA-AFT. Throughout the union’s outreach to legislators, she says the lack of accountability has been the most persistent issue. Regardless of a private school’s success, “if [they] don’t want to be accountable for taxpayer dollars, they shouldn’t take taxpayer dollars.”

Indeed, Williams explained some private schools are small and do not have the resources to offer special education programs. They may later see incentive in that as the market demands it. Stephen Herzenberg, economist and executive director of the progressive Keystone Research Center takes the issue of accountability further in an April op-ed. Explaining a decade-old tax credit program that rewards groups and parents for enrolling children in private schools, he writes, “The state isn’t even allowed to ask groups that receive tax credits for vouchers to provide information that would let us judge if they are a good investment. That’s right — a 2005 law forbids it.”

The millions that teachers unions pour into the legislative process is likely matched by the millions groups like American Federation for Children, making these two opposing factions the most well-healed. So is there any communication between the two to find common ground? Halpin-Murphy says she’s not aware of any attempt on her side or on theirs.

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