What’s Wrong With Pennsylvania’s School Choice Bill?

Pretty much everything. Here's how to fix it—and get it passed

The school choice bill in the Pennsylvania Senate is significantly flawed legislation which should never have been introduced. Rather than craft a new bill to reflect the positions of the current legislature and Governor—both far more receptive to comprehensive school choice than their predecessors—the prime sponsors didn’t do their homework and jumped the gun by dusting off outdated legislation. As a direct result, Senate Bill 1 is effectively dead-on-arrival.

Since SB 1 was introduced a mere week after the new legislature was sworn in, no preliminary vote count was conducted during those seven days. Therefore, statements that SB 1 is “the best we can hope for at this time” and “school choice can be expanded incrementally in the coming years” are fallacies based on the musings of out-of-touch ivory-tower proponents naively setting the bar artificially low. Incomprehensibly, they are throwing in the towel before the fight has even begun. [SIGNUPS]

Here are the facts that show why statewide school choice is needed, and suggestions on how to accomplish that goal:

1) Pennsylvania students are 42nd in SAT scores, and rank low in literacy, graduation rates and rates of students continuing to college. Their performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam has not improved. And most startling, nearly half of all 11th graders are not proficient in math and reading. This cannot be attributed to just the poor-performing urban schools pulling down scores, but is a testament to an across-the-board educational failure.

Advocating school choice for only low-income students results in the default perception that education is adequate everywhere else, which, based on the results of PSSA standardized test scores, is not remotely accurate. We cannot afford to waste another decade, forsaking our children—our future—because some choose to ignore the widespread failure occurring on a daily basis.

2) Pennsylvania spends $26 billion per year on education—more per student than 39 other states—an amount which has doubled since 1996. Despite a drop of 27,000 students over the last 10 years, the public school system had added 33,000 employees in that time. Therefore, by definition, increased funding, added personnel and decreased class size have not improved student achievement.

3) Teachers’ salaries and benefits rank among the highest in the nation, yet Pennsylvania leads the nation every year in school strikes—more than all other states combined.

4) The components in SB 1 were derived during a prior legislative session with a Democratic House and an anti-school choice governor (Rendell). But the current legislature has 13 more House Republicans than last session, giving the GOP a 10-seat majority. While education should never be partisan, it is no secret that Republicans are much more favorable to choice than Democrats. And Governor Corbett made school choice a cornerstone of his campaign. Combined with the pro-school choice positions of several Democrats, including Senator Anthony Williams, passage of comprehensive choice is eminently obtainable. (And if Williams and his colleagues won’t support statewide school choice, but only a program only for low-income families, their motivations will be questioned and their credibility severely undermined).

5) With a legislature approximately 80 percent different (and one clearly less open to choice), no votes from the Black Caucus, and only a one-seat House Republican majority, the statewide school choice effort in 1995 failed by a mere three votes. Given the night-and-day differences between then and now, it is indisputable that political will from Governor Corbett and legislative leaders could, should and would result in the nation’s most comprehensive and inclusive school choice program, one which will save taxpayer money.

6) The argument that school choice will take money away from the public schools is not just wrong, but irrelevant. The only thing we should EVER be concerned with is the children. Schools don’t get jobs and lead nations; people do. The funding should follow the child, not the system—a brilliant aspect of SB 1, where parents designate the school to which the state subsidy will be applied.

Following are the steps necessary to ensure that meaningful school choice is passed in Pennsylvania:

A) SB 1 must be rewritten and introduced as a new bill or a separate bill needs to be introduced in the House. Grassroots organizations cannot support flawed legislation with the hope or “promise” that it will be amended at a future date.

B) The bill must make school choice available to all students, regardless of family income. This type of comprehensive program is the only way to bring accountability and competition to all schools, public and non-public alike. Our dire situation demands no less.

C) The provision for public schools to “opt out,” as is permitted in SB 1, must be stricken. Opting out will result in the public school establishment’s “Good Old Boys” network to kick in, guaranteeing that the vast majority of schools won’t participate. If that occurs, school choice is meaningless.

D) The bill should contain strengthened language that no additional regulations may be imposed on non-public schools. Current government requirements are adequate and unobtrusive, such as core curriculum and length of school year. Vouchers or subsidies do not lead to additional regulation, as the highly successful post World War II GI Bill attests, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so such language will alleviate this issue.

E) While government should not impose tuition mandates on non-public schools, the possibility of inflated tuition costs at these schools is an area of concern. Language can be written that limits the subsidy (which cannot exceed tuition cost) to a maximum two percent increase per year, based on the tuition charged in the first year that school choice is enacted. This common sense solution would keep tuition inflation in check while keeping government out of private school decision-making.

F) Expanding the Educational Improvement Tax Credit is a positive step, as the program has seen positive results. But to be clear, the EITC is not school choice since parents do not control their tax dollars; the scholarships, which average $1000, are doled out by organizations and schools. Parental control is significantly limited, unlike a true statewide school choice program.

Like any controversial issue, the school choice debate lends itself to misinformation, half-truths and personal attacks. Pennsylvanians should not be hypnotized by the complexities of education reform, but rather focus on what is indisputable: our government-run public school system is a monopoly with no incentive to change, and only competition can begin to reverse decades of educational failure.

Comprehensive school choice provides that free-market solution, and, when passed, will be a model for the nation. Failure to do so will destroy another generation’s chances for success.

UPDATE: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia just announced that it will be closing seven more schools, a trend that has been occurring for decades. Despite some disingenuous critics who label any choice program as a “bailout of the Catholic Schools,” it is no secret that non-public schools would significantly benefit from comprehensive school choice legislation. And the more non-public schools there are, the more competition there is.

These school closings — four of which are in Philadelphia –reinforce Freindly Fire’s earlier-stated position that Senate Bill 1’s effectiveness will be extremely limited, not just because it caters only to low income families, but for the simple reason that fewer and fewer schools remain as alternatives to the current monopolistic system.

And to repudiate yet another fallacious argument that school choice costs taxpayer money (when in fact it would save it), consider the following:

The seven schools had a cumulative projected enrollment of 857 students next year. Based on dwindling number of non-public schools, assume that half will attend public schools. At an average cost of $15,000 per student, per year to educate one student in the public schools, these 428 students will cost taxpayers an additional $6,427,500 per year. If each student has, on average, six years of grade school remaining, the cost rises to over $38 million.

And of course, that figure does not reflect inflation, nor the huge costs of hiring more teachers, funding additional pensions, building more classrooms, buying more textbooks, and increasing busing.

Pennsylvania can’t afford NOT to enact school choice.

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.