Teachers’ Unions Set ‘Blocking School Vouchers’ as Priority

Two sides to every coin . . . supporters call school vouchers a right; a matter of choice.  Opponents believe that the proposed voucher program is unconstitutional and will further erode the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The teacher union opposition to school vouchers became clearer this week when representatives from the two major unions brought their case to the state’s House Education Committee.  Representatives from Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and American Federation of Teachers of Pennsylvania (AFT-PA) told the Education Committee that the teacher unions were focusing on two major priorities for 2011 – budgetary assistance and blocking the proposed school voucher legislation.

Pennsylvania is loosing federal stimulus money, which will create a shortfall of $1 billion in education funding.  According to Gov. Corbett, the state is facing a $4 billion deficit in next year’s budget so education-spending cuts are expected. If you recall, Corbett and Democratic state senator Anthony Williams of Philadelphia (one of school voucher bill SB1 originators) supported school vouchers in their individual campaigns last year.  At this point, we do not know how steep the cuts in education spending will be and no one may know for sure until Corbett unveils his preliminary budget, which is expected to be delivered sometime in March.

Although the school voucher bill will have several hearings in the state House during the next couple of months, Corbett’s budget address in March may see the proposed legislation moving forward.  As the proposed SB1 now stands, it would direct over $50 million to the neediest families in the lowest-performing schools in the state.  The estimated cost of the program is less than 1% of the current education subsidy. 

Besides the school voucher program, the other major education issue that must be addressed by the state is the funding of the Public School Employee Retirement System (PSERS).  PSERS as currently designed is not sustainable and threatens to break the budget of school districts across the state.  Although the State Legislature recognized the significance of the PSERS funding problem last year, a long-term solution is needed.   

Anticipating a major battle ahead over the proposed school voucher legislation, the PSEA union, which represents 190,000+ teachers in Pennsylvania, has announced an 11% increase in dues for its members.

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  1. John, as we have discussed before, I have always wondered how vouchers would work as you would have a tremendous shifting of burden, in shear numbers alone, from a “bad” school to a “good” school. It seems impossible to fathom how, say, Conestoga or radnor or GV would accomodate the voucher students. I have to agree that under all the bs the bottom line here is a battle to eviscerate the unions. Maybe that is a good idea in and of itself. While we all want to see all kids get the most out of school, I just don’t see how vouchers would work.

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    citizenone Reply:

    I’m always amazed that someone can unequivocally state that “it’s not about school choice”, “it is impossible”, “the ideas is flawed” and “it can’t work” without providing one shred of supporting evidence.

    There is a huge body of evidence for and against vouchers. I don’t mind someone coming out against vouchers, but I’d hope for an informed discussion.

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    citizenone Reply:

    Here is some evidence, not opinions, that vouchers work. I’ll try to dig up the opposing view.

    School Vouchers in DC Produce Gains in Both Test Scores and Graduation Rates
    http://educationnext.org/school-vouchers-in-dc-produce-gains-in-both-test-scores-and-graduation-rates/

    Milwaukee Vouchers: 18% Graduation Edge Over Public Schools
    http://educationnext.org/milwaukee-vouchers-18-graduation-edge-over-public-schools/

    When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What’s the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs?
    http://www.edexcellence.net/publications-issues/publications/when-private-schools-take.html

    RESEARCH ON SCHOOL CHOICE
    http://www.schoolchoices.org/roo/research.htm

    School Choice in Milwaukee
    http://web.utk.edu/~dfolz/Milwaukee%20School%20Choice.pdf

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    citizenone Reply:

    I believe your understanding of the voucher program is flawed when you bring up capacity as an issue. There are several hundred private schools in Philadelphia already. They can expand. Not instantly, of course, but certainly over a multi-year period.

    Two decades ago there were few charter schools. Now over 16,000 Philadelphia area children attend charter schools. Give the kids a voucher and the capacity will appear.

    And let’s remember the voucher program never envisioned the targeted student population transferring to suburban schools like TE.

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  2. And the biggest losers in a voucher system: the poor kids who are already “left behind.” Involved parents in underperforming school districts will increasingly pull their kids, as many already do in Philadelphia for example, taking the initiative to apply to magnets and charters. Leaving the rest in the still bad school with the still bottom of the barrel teachers and administrators. There’s no “rising tide lifts all boats” apprach here.

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  3. Wow — an 11% increase in union dues (and they have fair share, which means every teacher pays them regardless of whether they join the union). This business of lobbying and buying votes must be expensive! Wonder if teachers would offer that amount towards their health care costs? Not without a fight! But the union says it — no one can protest.

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    give it a rest Reply:

    NO one seems to care about this comment, but I agree. Increasing the teachers dues by 11% goes by without a blink, but let a school board suggest that the teachers pay a higher copay and it’s a strike issue. Doesn’t anyone else have a problem with the lack of shared sacrifices FOR the kids…

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  4. Just some additional information here. It is not only the unions who are opposing vouchers. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is opposing this vouchers effort because it will pull money from schools in a time when schools are already anticipating massive cuts AND the PSBA wants charter schools to have accountability. Currently, the charter schools do not have to meet the NCLB standards or the Pennsylvania state standards. Seems to me until charter schools and private schools have the same accountability, no public money should be spent.

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    citizenone Reply:

    What does the public think about vouchers?

    From a PSBA survey:
    Would you favor or oppose giving public money to parents so they can send their children to a private school of their own choosing instead of to their local public school?
    Favor:28%
    Oppose:67%
    Undecided 5%

    From a Commonwealth Foundation survey:
    Would you support or oppose education vouchers, which help parents pay the costs at the school of their choice?
    50% Support
    30% Oppose
    20% Not sure

    Do 28% or 50% of Pennsylvanians support vouchers? It all depends on the question.

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    Constitutional Reply:

    It does not matter if 100% of Pennsylvanians are for vouchers. They are unconstitutional and will never survive the legal challenge.

    The whole idea seriously violates the separation of church and state. Poor families will never be able to choose non-sectarian private schools. They have no transportation and few, if any, such schools are located in their neighborhoods. Also, the vouchers will never cover the cost of tuition to such schools. The poor will be restricted to “choosing” sectarian religious schools, mostly parochial schools because of access and affordability. Such schools inevitably proselytize. Public money will directly pay for that, an impermissible violation of several provisions of the Pennsylvania constitution. (Article III, sections 15,29, and 30).

    In a broader sense, I am also quite appalled that few bloggers here seem to be concerned about the violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. It was Thomas Jefferson himself who coined the phrase “wall of separation of church and state” stating in an 1802 letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury Connecticut that the purpose of the First Amendment was to “build a wall of separation between church and state”. (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 281, A.Libscomb, ed., 1904). In Reynolds v. United States, Chief Justice Waite, writing for the Court characterized the phrase as “almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment.” (Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145,164 (1879). That idea has informed Supreme Court jurisprudence ever since. The separation of church and state is an important bulwark of freedom and is not to be cast aside so easily.

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    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Thank you. Personally, I have a hard time with the voucher discussion because I cannot move past the ‘separation of church & state’ issue. I can’t get on the other side of separation of church & state — for that reason, I don’t see how it is possible for state legislators to realistically consider SB1.

    flyersfan Reply:

    pattye you may not agree with publlic funds going to a religious based school or any private school that is non religious, and I feel uncomfortable with that too, but the original intent of separation of church and state I believe has nothing to do with this. The state gives tax advantage to houses of worship, yes all of them but some of these houses of worship may spew ideologies not consistent with what you or I believe. Do you think their tax exempt status should be revoked?

  5. Kathie, you are right. The root cause of poor education is economic. Poverty. The cycle has to be broken. Children having children.. no fathers in the home. Unemployment, drugs. Culture of poverty.. At least for the kids you are speaking about.

    When Bill Cosby spoke out he was considered an Uncle Tom. But he was right.

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  6. From the PSBA website:

    State constitutional obstacles to taxpayer-funded tuition voucher programs
    It is important to keep debate about proposals for taxpayer-funded tuition voucher programs focused on the many public policy considerations against the idea, but such proposals also face what seem to be insurmountable legal obstacles due to several explicit provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution

    Voucher advocates often claim, incorrectly, that the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) upholding the Cleveland, Ohio voucher program put an end to any question about the constitutionality of voucher programs. Zelman examined whether a voucher program that allowed vouchers to be used for sectarian as well as non-sectarian schools constituted a governmental “establishment of religion” for purposes of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    However, Pennsylvania’s state Constitution is far more restrictive than the federal constitution when it comes to government aid to education or religious schools, and presents far greater legal obstacles to voucher programs. Although the general religious freedom provision in Article I, Section 3 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution has been compared to the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” Sections 15, 29 and 30 of Article III set forth the following more specific restrictions:

    § 15. Public school money not available to sectarian schools. No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.

    § 29. Appropriations for public assistance. No appropriation shall be made for charitable, educational or benevolent purposes to any person or community nor to any denominational and sectarian institution, corporation or association: Provided, That appropriations may be made for pensions or gratuities for military service and to blind persons twenty-one years of age and upwards and for assistance to mothers having dependent children and to aged persons without adequate means of support and in the form of scholarship grants or loans for higher educational purposes to residents of the Commonwealth enrolled in institutions of higher learning except that no scholarship, grants or loans for higher educational purposes shall be given to persons enrolled in a theological seminary or school of theology.

    § 30. Charitable and educational appropriations. No appropriation shall be made to any charitable or educational institution not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth, other than normal schools established by law for the professional training of teachers for the public schools of the State, except by a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each House.

    The language underlined above in §29 relating to scholarship grants for higher education was added by a constitutional amendment in 1963, because it was believed that otherwise the Constitution would preclude the Commonwealth from establishing the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). In fact, the legislation establishing PHEAA expressly provided that it would go into effect only if the electorate approved the referendum proposing that constitutional amendment. See, 24 P.S. §5112.

    As a result, we now have a specific constitutional provision that allows appropriations for scholarship grants or loans for higher education purposes only. It is difficult to see how a program of scholarship grants for elementary and secondary education purposes could be lawfully enacted without a constitutional amendment similarly specific to such programs.

    Considering these provisions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has drawn a constitutional line allowing tax-funded programs that provide in-kind support to non-public school students, such as transportation to and from school, loans of textbooks or other instructional materials to such students, and provision of “Act 89” auxiliary services by intermediate unit staff (e.g., guidance; counseling and testing services; psychological services; visual services; remedial services; speech and hearing services, etc.). See, Springfield School District v. Comm. Dept. of Education, 483 Pa. 539, 397 A.2d 1154 (1979). However, the Court in Springfield stressed that this was permissible only because: “the limitations provided in Article III, Sections 15 and 29 apply only when state funds flow to the sectarian school or institution. In the cases before us, no state monies reach the coffers of these church-affiliated schools.”

    The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also seems likely to be greatly troubled by two other unavoidable aspects of voucher proposals. The first is that for all practical purposes a voucher-funded education for low-income families is available only if a family is willing to submit to mandatory participation in religious instruction or worship services and exposure to proselytizing as conditions of accepting that tax-funded benefit.

    Consider that nationally, about 76% of non-public schools are Catholic or other religious schools enrolling about 81% of all non-public school students (those percentages tend to be higher in the Northeastern U.S.). In most existing voucher programs, the vast majority of voucher students attend those religious schools, as high as 96% in Cleveland. But is that because voucher families freely chose such schools for their children, or is it because financially, non-sectarian schools are simply out of reach, even with a voucher?

    Nationally, in 2008 annual tuition among non-public schools averaged $8,549, with averages of $6,018 for Catholic schools, $7,117 for other religious schools, and $17, 316 for non-sectarian private schools. Non-public secondary level tuition generally is higher than elementary level tuition, averaging $10,549 for all non-public schools, and with averages of $7,826 for Catholic secondary schools, $10,493 for other religious schools, and $27,302 for non-sectarian private secondary schools. Thus, even if a voucher was worth as much as the 2008-2009 average per pupil instructional expenditure among Pennsylvania public schools ($7, 472.76), that amount still would provide only a fraction of the tuition typically charged by non-sectarian private schools. The end result is that for all practical purposes a voucher offers a government benefit to low-income families only if they are willing to submit to the mandatory participation in religious instruction and religious exercises typical in sectarian schools.

    The second aspect likely to be deeply troubling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is another simple reality: if taxpayer-funded vouchers are used to pay the full amount of tuition at sectarian schools, a portion of those tax dollars necessarily will go to pay the cost of delivering religious instruction and conducting religious services. Separating out that portion may be impossible at most religious schools, which tend to claim that their religious message is interwoven throughout the delivery of all instruction. That comprehensive infusion of message also is why provisions sometimes included in voucher legislation allowing voucher students to opt out of religious programming have been criticized as unworkable or unrealistic.

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  7. Some of the comments asked how vouchers would impact TE, Radnor, Lower Merion, etc. If you read the bill, it is clear that no public school would be forced to accept students with vouchers. (For one thing, the voucher would not cover the full tuition cost for a student, so there are funding issues for public schools accepting voucher students.) The majority of the students with vouchers will attend a local private school.

    Unless the state came up with more funding, districts such as TE couldn’t afford to admit voucher students since the voucher covers only about 50% of the total cost of educating a student. Given the cost pressures, it’s unlikely that any Suburban school districts will proactively vote to admit voucher students. So the language in the bill about vouchers providing a choice to attend another public school does ring hollow to me at this point as it depends on a public school being willing to take the children.

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    citizenone Reply:

    Mr. Petersen says, “There is/was NO WAY the legislation could force a district to take students without the required funding.”

    I agree, but there are dozens, probably hundreds of schools, that will gladly educate these kids in failing public schools for a fraction of what the public school system demands.

    I addressed the question of adequate funding days ago – actually in response to one of Mr. Petersen’s posts. Here it is again:

    Let’s take the example of a student wanting to enroll in the Phila private school of City Center Academy. http://www.citycenteracademy.org/admission_tuition-fees.php
    Tuition is $6,900 per year. Without the voucher program the family must either come up with the money themselves or apply for financial aid. With the voucher program the funds from the Phila school district WILL COVER THE FULL COST OF TUITION with some left over to be returned to the taxpayer. Don’t like this example? Then choose from any one of the other 726 Philadelphia private schools.
    http://www.greatschools.org/pennsylvania/philadelphia/private/schools/

    Mr. Petersen says, “Capacity is absolutely a relevant part of the equation. That will result in requiring additional capacity in schools getting inflows and idle capacity in schools with outflows.”

    Let’ see, one system has idle capacity and the other system needs additional capacity. Hmmmm… maybe there is a solution there.

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    Constitutional Reply:

    Regarding capacity – did you read the excerpt I provided from the PSBA website? Among other things, it shows that 76% of all private schools are Catholic parochial or other religious schools, which enroll about 81% of all private school students. There is very little non-sectarian private school capacity available.

    Non-religious private schools mostly consist of the more exclusive suburban schools that charge tuition far above that of parochial schools – many charge $30k per year.

    These schools are out of reach for the poorest families even with the assistance of vouchers. Moreover, these better quality private schools are not located in poor urban areas and unless tansportation is also provided (and who pays for that?) the poor kids in urban areas like Philadelphia will not be able to attend these schools for this additional reason as well.

    The idea that private schools are of equal or better quality and are cheaper to boot is simply not true. Again, the voucher scheme is totally incapable of even beginning to address the problems in our educational system.

    By the way, while I often disagree with Mr. Petersen, I agree with most of the comments by John Petersen on this topic, with the exception that I strongly disagree with his assessment that the constitutional issue is not significant. It is quite significant – probably a deal-killer.

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    give it a rest Reply:

    TESD Policy 5116 – non resident students

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  8. Mainlinetaxpayer comments,”Seems to me until charter schools and private schools have the same accountability, no public money should be spent.”

    I agree.

    Just to differentiate – charter schools are held acountable by the school districts or state agencies that approved them, while private schools enjoy far less public scrutiny.

    Columbia University reviewed 20 years of research on school voucher programs (2008) and concluded that at best, students showed relatively small gains in achievement. That includes 18 voucher progams in 12 states.

    In my opinion, PA Senate’s Bill 1 represents a band-aid approach to a gaping wound. A “lucky” few students (family income below $28, 665) will qualify and their school choices limited by the dollars made available by the state ($8-9,000 depending on news sources).

    Meanwhile failing schools will be given the equivalent of a kick in the pants – no help in the form of training or support for struggling teachers and administrators who work with the most needy children and the most entrenched problems associated with poverty.

    Corbett and his Republican majority may view vouchers as a way to limit union power, cause many teachers to lose their jobs and lower pension costs. But that’s just flexing majority muscle and playing politics. It does not relieve the governor and the state legislature of their responsibility to provide a good quality public education for each child in Pennsylvania. And to direct educational funding based on what’s best for children, targeted to investments that have had proven results in failing schools.

    More importantly, school choice is already being provided by charter schools, which have the full support of former Governor Rendell. In his view,” this system stays under the review and oversight of the public school system – as it should be.’

    Provide better teacher training and expand charter schools before diverting taxpayer dollars from the public school system.

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    citizenone Reply:

    kate says, “Columbia University reviewed 20 years of research on school voucher programs (2008) and concluded that at best, students showed relatively small gains in achievement. That includes 18 voucher programs in 12 states.”

    And I thought kate was opposed to vouchers. She has just posted evidence that vouchers improve student achievement. Couple that with the fact that private schools educate students at a fraction of the cost of public schools and we have a winning combination. No wonder the PSEA has increased their lobbying efforts.

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    give it a rest Reply:

    Private schools do not educate students at a fraction of the cost….they educate the students that they WANT to educate, so they don’t accept students that cost more than they budget. Yes — the teacher’s union does force up costs in public schools, but so do IEPs and all sorts of services that many children deserve, and can only get from a public school or a specialized educational program subsidized by their public school.

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    kate Reply:

    CitizenOne,
    Please reread what I wrote. I am opposed to public funds being diverted to private schools. Research shows that vouchers have made very little difference in educational outcomes. To me that means vouchers are not the answer to systemic problems.

    Give it a Rest. is correct. Private schools -like Baldwin, Agnes Irwin, Shipley, Episcopal etc -charge more than the T/E per pupil cost in tuition and fees and handpick their students.

    They won’t be accepting vouchers in place of their tuition unless the applicants are academic stars – and even then, their numbers will be very limited.

    Parochial schools charge less but offer far fewer course options, larger class size, and fewer resources . They also pay their teachers significantly less than public school teachers and offer them a modest benefits package by comparison.

    Where do you think teachers with superior credentials want to work? In districts like T/E or private/parochial schools?

    As taxpayers, we get what we pay for. There may be potential cost savings that will not affect educational programs in T/E but overall, our system works well. We need to fight to keep it that way.

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    give it a rest Reply:

    **They won’t be accepting vouchers in place of their tuition unless the applicants are academic stars – and even then, their numbers will be very limited.**

    We would like to think that they would accept the academic superstars, but I would hazard a guess that it is the athletic superstars with some academic skill level that will be their targets. So we really need to leave the independents schools out of the equation. Episcopal is more than $30K for their Upper School, and they don’t keep life long students whose families have an economic downturn. Out you go if you cannot write the check. (And likewise, out you go if you need services we don’t intend to provide — like kids with severe ADD or OCD, despite a lifetime history in the independent school).

    give it a rest Reply:

    Charter schools are funded by the taxpayer. Somehow in all this voucher discussion, we have ignored the fact that charter schools are basically voucher funded — just that the credit is not identified per child.

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  9. Hi Folks –

    Good to see this spirited and informed discussion.

    The Keystone State Education Coalition is a statewide grass roots public education advocacy group.

    We have been following the voucher issue closely and there is a great deal of information available on our website at KeystoneStateEducationCoalition.org

    It includes links to studies and research, press coverage, OP/EDs and editorials.

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    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Thank you Larry. As a reference point, Larry is school board member (since 1999) for the School District of Haverford Township. Understanding the stance of teachers’ unions and some school board members, I would be interested in your personal opinion on the proposed voucher program legislation (SB1). I noted that you represent the Haverford School District as the Legislative Liaison and have interfaced with the State’s House and Senate Education Committees. Your expert opinion in the discussion would be invaluable . . . hope you will comment further. And thank you for reading Community Matters.

    [Reply]

  10. One last comment on vouchers:

    Version offers a link to an interesting article on the academic performance of American students over the last 50 years.

    (http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/02/american-schools-are-better-50-years-ago

    It provides insight into the myth and the reality and compares math and science test scores of U.S. students to those from other countries.

    To quote the author:

    “One thing that’s pretty clear,…is that America does a terrible job of educating low-income students…… We’ll never know for sure if there are better ways of educating our children unless we try lots of things and see what works. Still, the one metric that’s always crystal clear, no matter who’s doing the measuring, is that school performance plummets when the concentration of low-income kids gets above 50% or so. This suggests — though it doesn’t prove — THAT THE REAL PROBLEM IS POVERTY, NOT TERRIBLE SCHOOLS. Unfortunately, that’s an even harder problem to solve than schools by themselves.

    Short-term,. can vouchers provide a way out of a failing schools where more than half the students live iin poverty? Does the state owe it to these kids to try this alternative? What about successful public/ charter programs that have addressed problems assocated with poverty right in the community and kept their kids in neighborhood schools? Is this a better alternative?

    Does this proposed voucher program invest all of its taxpayer dollars to help poor kids get up and out of their neighborhoods while ignoring the problems that plague their neighborhoods? Is that a more cost-effective solution?

    Long-term, I don’t think so.

    [Reply]

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