Some School Choice-ers Have Defeatist Attitude

There's never been a better opportunity for real reform. So why are some legislators being so timid?

“Since 1995 the average mathematics score for fourth-graders jumped 11 points. At this rate we catch up with Singapore in a little over 80 years . . . assuming they don’t improve.”
– Norman R. Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin

Let’s keep that quote from a recent George Will column in mind as the school choice debate unfolds.

Even in a bad housing market, if someone were to initially offer his home at the lowest acceptable price, he would be called an idiot. And rightly so.

Likewise, negotiators never come to the table with their bottom line proposal. Doing so would be pointless — obviously — since they would be leaving themselves no negotiating room.

It’s Business 101: you set the bar high, and work downward, if need be. It doesn’t get any simpler.

Which makes the current school choice bill in the State Senate, SB 1, all the more puzzling. Since true choice would be made available only to low-income students, and that’s after a three-year phase-in, the bill would be almost totally ineffectual, affecting an extremely small number of primarily urban students.

Given that Pennsylvania students rank near the bottom in several important categories, such as SAT scores, the only way to right the ship is to enact a statewide, comprehensive school choice program. Since choice only works if the vast majority of students and schools are able to participate, and there seem to be the votes for that type of program, why the bar is being set so artificially low remains a mystery.

But a good bet is that sponsors Jeff Piccola (R) and Anthony Williams (D) simply didn’t do their homework on the makeup of the new legislature, choosing to dust off an old bill rather than craft a better, more inclusive one.

Because of its limited scope, it’s a bill many view as destined to fail. To think suburban and rural legislators will put up a tough vote for SB 1 — despite none of their constituents realizing school choice — and, as a reward, face well-financed union-backed opponents in next year’s elections is just naïve.

So it is somewhat surprising that some school choice advocates on the right have reacted so illogically to Freindly Fire’s criticism of that bill (as detailed in last week’s column).

If that defeatist attitude is pervasive within the ranks of the Republican base, one thing is certain: the entire agenda of new Governor Tom Corbett and the GOP-dominated House and Senate will be jeopardized. It’s like being pregnant — you are or you aren’t. You either push hard to truly solve the state’s unprecedented problems, or you willingly give up your political leverage, compromising your way to meaningless solutions via the Business as Usual approach.

And anyone who thinks the budget deficit, pension bomb and liquor privatization issues can be solved by bowing to insider tactics rooted in political minutia is just whistling Dixie.

While education should never be a partisan issue, school choice is more widely supported by Republicans. So if you can’t pass meaningful legislation with solid GOP majorities in both chambers and a very friendly governor, you might as well pack it up and turn off the lights.

So let’s take a look at the misguided talking points some proponents are advocating:

SB 1 helps a wide range of students.

The sponsors’ rhetoric simply doesn’t match the substance. Senators Piccola and Williams talk a great game, saying all the right things: “We are ready to challenge any…who oppose freedom,” “the civil rights movement of this century,” “…all kids deserve access to a great education – regardless of race, income or zip code,” and “providing access to a quality education for every child is the most important issue facing our state.”

Last time I checked, the Civil Rights movement created equality for all people, not just some –which is why the sponsors’ talk rings so hollow. How can you state that “all kids” and “every child” need access to a great education when this program is so limited in scope? Where is the “freedom” in that? Leaving the vast majority of students out in the cold is not exactly benefitting “all.”

This is the best school choice bill we can hope for at this time.

Says who? The sponsors? Uhh…no. The legislature was sworn in on January 4, and the bill was introduced January 11. So are we to believe that the bill was written and a preliminary vote count taken in less than seven days? Of course not.

Rather than wait to introduce a meaningful bill, Piccola and Williams jumped the gun with a worthless piece of legislation that, even if passed, will affect virtually no positive change and only bury Pennsylvania that much further. We don’t have another decade to waste.

We don’t have the votes to pass it, since it didn’t pass in…the mid 90’s when it “failed miserably.”

Honest to God, I couldn’t make up that level of irrationality. This point is so wrong, on so many levels, that it almost doesn’t deserve a response. But here are the facts.

Comparing the climate for school choice from 1995 and 2011 is ridiculous, for three reasons.

First, the legislature itself is at least 70 to 80 percent different now versus then. Second, despite the Republican wave of 1994, the State House remained Democratic — by one vote. It took Rep. Tom Stish’s switch to give the GOP control and the ability to push school choice in that chamber.

But the wave of 2010 was a different story. Thirteen seats flipped, giving the GOP a 10-seat majority — and a mandate to reform the system. And the Republican caucus is more conservative than it was fifteen years ago, with increased support for school choice.

Third, the acceptance of school choice is much more widespread than it was in the 90s — a span of time where, not coincidentally, more and more schools have declined academically or closed altogether; Pennsylvania students continue to lag behind their national and global competitors.

With so many elements between those two time periods being night and day, any attempt at comparison is simply insulting.

And for the record, statewide school choice missed passage by no more than five votes in 1995 — a far cry from “failing miserably.” That is indisputable, and stated from first-hand experience, as Yours Truly was the Executive Director of the REACH Alliance at the time, the statewide organization pushing school choice. Oh, and Williams, a state representative at the time, was a NO vote.

And the question proponents of SB 1 cannot answer: has anyone done an actual vote count?

Here’s the answer: no. Not the leaders, and not the grassroots activists, for the simple reason that there hasn’t been enough time to do so. So why advocates would criticize efforts to expand the bill without even undertaking the most basic step — counting votes — is mindboggling and counterproductive.

What is Senator Williams’ position on full school choice?

He certainly says all the right things about expanding choice, but it seems that none of the critics has actually asked Williams his position on a comprehensive program. If he doesn’t support it, why not? Why should choice be available to some but not all? Any type of exclusivity dooms the bill before it’s out of the gate, as is evidenced by the growing number of pro-school choicers who are against this bill.

But if Williams does support a larger program, that’s gravy. And since Williams would most likely bring additional Democrats with him, the likelihood of passing an expanded bill would be extremely high — hence, the obtuseness of not attempting a more inclusive bill.

This bill helps the middle class through the expanded EITC.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) is a nice program on the margins, and without a doubt has helped many families and kept some schools from closing, but it is NOT school choice; those labeling it as such do a great disservice to true choice.

The EITC allows businesses to give money to a non-profit scholarship organization or educational improvement program and receive a tax credit for that donation. Families with a household income under $60,000 would be eligible (plus $10,000 per child), and the program stops once $100 million worth of tax credits are doled out by the state. ($75 million is dedicated to the scholarship program).

The educational improvement aspect has nothing to do with school choice, so that’s irrelevant to the choice discussion.

Scholarship organizations must be granted approval from the state; upon meeting that requirement, they then solicit business donations to fund the scholarships.

For many businesses, participation in the EITC is based on the economy, so a struggling company may cut back or eliminate their contributions altogether. Additionally, the EITC is also more subject to reduced funding by the legislature (as happened in 2009) than a statewide school choice program.

And not to be critical of the EITC, but if it has been so successful, why have so many schools closed since its inception a decade ago?

One aspect of SB 1 is very appealing: rather than just a voucher, the state subsidy that would have been directed to a student’s home school district could be applied to the public, private or parochial school of their choice, not to exceed the cost of tuition. In some districts, that number could be as high as $10,000. Since the average total cost to educate a student per year is $14,000, a statewide choice program could provide a very significant cost savings. (As a comparison, the average EITC scholarship is just above $1000).

With school choice, parents receive some of their tax money back to choose their child’s school; with the EITC, they don’t get any money back directly (the scholarship entity controls it), and are more limited in the schools from which to choose.

Arguing that the EITC is the savior to middle class families simply has no merit.


The mentality that school choice must be obtained “one slice at a time” versus going for the “whole loaf” is a flawed one. The votes should be there to pass statewide school choice now, but the political reality is such that most legislators will only give choice one vote. There is nothing attractive about facing the wrath of the well-funded teachers’ unions year after year until full choice can be implemented, especially in light of all the other tough votes they will have to make.

With increasing public sentiment advocating school choice, favorable and diverse majorities in the House and Senate, and a committed governor, the time for meaningful reform is upon us.

Thinking back to the quote that started this column, it’s now or never, so let’s do it right.

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, 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 nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX.  He can be reached at