School Choice Non Debate

Sen. Tony Williams was a no-show—again

The Great School Choice Debate, hosted by The Independence Hall Tea Party Association on March 6, was a passionate discussion of Senate Bill 1, the school choice bill currently in the state senate. At issue was whether SB 1, a limited-scope bill granting a voucher to low-income families (in which the state subsidy would follow the child, not the school), is the only legislation achievable at this time, or whether a broader, more comprehensive bill can be passed.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the healthy debate that it should have been because Senator Anthony Williams, one of the bill’s prime sponsors and a confirmed panelist, arrived well after the event had ended. It seems he was misinformed of the time, despite everyone else getting it right. [SIGNUP]

Although mistakes happen, it is curious that this is the second time in one month that the senator committed to a school choice discussion, and failed to show. Some may chalk that up to bad staffing, but others who have been around politics don’t believe in such coincidence.

Regardless, the discussion was lively, civil and productive, with all the participants in agreement that school choice was crucial, the only measure that would bring competition and accountability to our failed school system. The panelists were:

-Reverend Joe Watkins, former Lt. Gov. candidate, MSNBC commentator and Executive Director of the Students First organization.
-Dom Giordano, talk-show host extraordinaire on 1210 WPHT, the region’s largest talk-radio station. Giordano was slated to be the moderator, but sat with Watkins so the discussion wouldn’t be lopsided.
-State Representative Curt Schroder, a proponent of statewide school choice. Schroder was a House member in the mid-’90s when a comprehensive school choice bill barely missed passage;
-Yours truly, author of numerous columns and participant in several television segments advocating school choice, including why SB 1 is flawed legislation that will most likely fail if it is not amended in the House to expand choice. I was also Executive Director of the REACH Alliance, the preeminent statewide school choice organization, during the school choice battles in the 90’s.

*****

Before the Pennsylvania dialogue began, New Jersey state senator Michael Doherty discussed his state’s efforts to pass education reform. Doherty explained that, while more expansive tax credit programs and school choice would be ideal, they simply weren’t possible given the sizable Democratic majorities in that state’s House and Senate. He said that they had to settle for what was politically possible.

And that’s exactly why the defeatist attitude of some SB 1 proponents is so incomprehensible. To say that a bill limited only to low-income families is the best we can hope for is simply inaccurate.

Which is why something doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Rational political observers have stated that, if they didn’t know better, it would seem, for some reason, there has been undue influence to kill any effort to expand the bill.

Either that, or legislators don’t want to do the work necessary to come up with better legislation.

I had the opportunity to speak with Senator Williams after the non-debate, and while I came away with some good news, I also left with a lot more skepticism.

Williams claimed that the legislation for comprehensive, statewide school choice failed in 1995 by a single vote, a point on which I wholeheartedly agree.

I then asked him if he would support a more expanded version of school choice than is currently offered in SB 1, and he stated that he would (great news), but that “it would not pass,” (a perplexing statement).

And therein lies the problem. There is absolutely nothing on which that assumption can be made, and, in fact, the opposite is undisputedly true.

Let’s forget our biases for or against school choice, and focus just on the political realities between 1995 and now.

Despite the Republican wave of 1994, the State House remained Democratic by one vote. It took a party switch to give control to the GOP — and the ability to push school choice in that chamber. 

In the time span since, the legislature has experienced a turnover of at least 70 percent.

Fast forward to the wave of 2010, when 13 seats flipped and the GOP gained a 10-seat majority. And not only are there more conservative legislators, but the public is much more accepting of school choice.

As an added benefit, Williams will most likely bring several more Democratic legislators with him who were previously “No” votes.

So let’s follow this logic. Fact: the statewide school choice bill fell one vote short in 1995, when the House had a one seat Republican majority. Fact: the House now has a 10 vote GOP majority. Fact: the electorate is much more understanding of the need for this legislation. Fact: the Republican Governor has stated his support for statewide school choice. Fact: Williams brings additional Democratic votes.

Given these facts, the passage of comprehensive school choice legislation should be a slam dunk.

Instead, with no actual vote count having been taken, the white towel has been thrown in before the fight has begun.

The “we can only get school choice incrementally” argument is based on a number of false assumptions, such as the House and Governorship remaining in Republican hands over the next several cycles, the legislature actually agreeing to take up such a controversial issue year after year while facing the wrath of well-funded teachers unions, and that a limited program will produce noticeable improvements. And if a limited program is judged to be only a marginal improvement, the entire program could be jeopardized, nullifying the one-slice-at-a-time argument.

Here’s the bottom line: the forces standing in the way of progress by deliberately ignoring all the political signs need to stop being part of the problem.

Pennsylvania cannot improve its economic position by graduating functional illiterates, which is exactly what we are doing. Half of the state’s 11th graders cannot read or write proficiently.

It’s time, once and for all, to take our heads out of the sand and do the right thing for our children — all of them. Failure to do so will simply waste another decade and forsake our future.

And what a terrible “choice” that would be.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including
The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com.

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