Jeff Piccola: The Biggest Political Whiner of Them All

Senator Piccola can’t pass his school choice bill, so he’s killing other reforms

Spring is here, and that means water ice. As the man at the counter placed his order, the total came to $4.30. The clerk—a suburban high-school-aged girl—mistakenly rang it up as 43 cents. No problem. Mistakes happen.

All she had to do was subtract 43 cents from $4.30 and ring up the difference, and we’d be that much closer to our Italian ice. Life would be good.

Except that the line stood still. Turns out the girl was having a major problem—not with the cash register, but the math. After conferring with her colleagues (and presumably a manager), it was determined that such a complex mathematical equation was just too difficult to mentally solve, so she just rang it up as a flat $2 and called it a final sale.

Hey, no one’s saying it’s easy to do calculations in your head with a long line of impatient gelati-crazed kids (and adults), but we’re also not talking about the complex mathematical equations Will solved in Good Will Hunting.

This situation is normally blown off by a public that buries its head in the sand simply as an aberration, not reflective of America’s educational achievement. Wrong. Our water ice clerk’s performance is not the exception, but the norm.

The United States ranks near the bottom of all educational categories against its industrialized competitors, and Pennsylvania is even worse: Almost half of ALL eleventh graders cannot pass the state’s proficiency tests in reading and math. That’s not just an inner-city problem, but a statewide one.

So with education reform being such an integral part of last year’s GOP campaigns, and the Republicans sweeping to power by winning control of the Governor’s office and both state legislative chambers, it was a foregone conclusion that such reforms would be passed, with school choice leading the way.

But that didn’t happen, as that effort has been derailed—deliberately. Not by the teachers’ unions mind you, but by the biggest political whiner of them all, Mr. School Choice himself—Republican Senator Jeff Piccola.


Pop quiz: name the politicians who said the following diametrically opposed statements about the EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credit), a successful decade-old program that gives tax credits to businesses that contribute to school choice scholarships:

A) “I have always been a stalwart supporter of the EITC program, and that’s why I recently introduced a measure to (upwardly) adjust the allowable household income for eligible families.”

B) “I can only speak for the Education Committee and it’s not coming out of there … it’s dead on arrival.” (Referring to Montgomery County State Rep. Tom Quigley’s EITC expansion bill that just passed the House by a 190-to-7 vote.)

Answers: Jeff Piccola and … Jeff Piccola.

You see, Piccola, chairman of the Education Committee, has been leading the charge on Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), which is weak school-choice legislation written last year while Rendell and the Democrats were in control and not reworked to reflect a school-choice governor (Tom Corbett) and the new GOP-controlled House.

Despite untold millions spent by deep-pocketed SB 1 supporters—many of whom demonized the majority of conservatives (their allies, no less) who simply wanted a better, more inclusive bill rather than settling for one that only affected very low-income students—the bill died this spring.

And the reasons for its death could fill a book on what NOT to do in politics.

It never dawned on these Harrisburg know-it-alls to actually count votes before they shot off their mouths about SB 1’s virtually guaranteed passage. So when a number of GOP senators announced they were not on board with the bill as it was written, jeopardizing its chances of success, it would have made good political sense to ask them what their concerns were, in a genuine attempt to understand their issues, and if possible, win their support.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, the SB 1 forces, now desperate to keep the issue alive since their wealthy friends might soon be turning off the money spigot, launched a series of brazenly stupid PR campaigns ostensibly designed to win over the wayward Republican senators. Their strategy? Produce misleading (and anonymous) phone calls, newspaper ads, radio commercials and deceitful direct mail pieces plastered with messages like, “Shame on You, Senator.”

Not exactly the way to endear the targeted pol to your side. The result? Scratch off even more Republicans.

So with the prospects of SB 1 going the way of the dodo, it was left to the House to do the heavy education-reform lifting, which it did with its near-unanimous vote to expand the EITC.

Given that the EITC was clearly the only bill with life, why would Piccola kill a concept he supports (EITC expansion is also in his SB 1) by declaring the House bill “DOA”? Especially when it would be absolutely guaranteed to pass the full Senate and be signed into law by the Governor?

Selfishness. If Piccola can’t have it his way, with his name on the bill he wants, he’ll settle for nothing. Curiously, that is exactly the charge leveled by SB 1 zealots against those trying to craft a more inclusive bill.

So much for education reform being all about “the kids.”

Piccola’s ineptitude has directly led to three things:

1) The Republican Party is now viewed—correctly—as obstructionist. Abandoning its campaign promise of reforming education and turning its back on parents and their children who would benefit from the House bill does not benefit the GOP heading into an election year where Democrats will be much more competitive.

2) The children—our future—are the biggest victims, pawns in the chess game Piccola is playing to garner headlines and accolades. Piccola, who as committee chairman has the sole power to release the EITC bill from his committee for a full Senate vote, may have won this political round—if you can call that a “win”—but in doing so, he’s turned his back on Pennsylvania’s students. When nearly half our high school juniors cannot read and add, and a solution is carelessly disregarded, we are all losers.

3) The perception that all politicians are greedy, self-interested hacks has been further reinforced in the minds of Pennsylvanians. That’s a shame, because there really are many elected officials who put in an honest day’s work, fighting for the right reasons, not to satisfy their personal agendas—like Rep. Quigley and Chester County Rep. Curt Schroder, another educational reform leader fighting for ALL Pennsylvania students.

What happens now? Maybe SB 1, if amended to truly include the middle class, has a shot in the fall. Or possibly, if enough pressure can be brought upon Piccola and the hypocrites who staunchly support the EITC but are noticeably silent on Piccola’s DOA strategy, the EITC will be voted upon by the Senate this spring. But that window is closing fast.

Neither may occur, in which case meaningful education reform will not take place for a minimum of two years, as nothing controversial will be initiated during the 2012 election cycle.

Above all, one thing is certain. If education reform—be it school choice, EITC, teacher strikes or a host of other issues—hinges on Jeff Piccola’s political prowess, the prospects for success are about as great as the water ice clerk winning a Fields Medal in Math.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, 30 countries and all 50 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