Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Pennsylvania Education Association

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

I wonder if the school voucher discussion is going to threaten the position of teacher unions, especially during contract negotiations. Gov. Tom Corbett is planning to make good on his campaign promise to move forward toward school vouchers for Pennsylvania parents. Contained in his inaugural address were the words, “Our education system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition, and choice in our education system.” Corbett issued a commitment to a voucher program, stating “Today’s Pennsylvania’s tradition of character and courage carries on in the single mother who works an extra job so she can send her children to a better school.”

However, pushing a school voucher program is not strictly a Republican initiative. Senators Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat and Republican Jeffrey Piccola from Daphin County have co-sponsored legislation that would give state money to poor students who want to transfer to a private school or another public school. In its current design, the Senate Bill 1 initially will only affect the 144 poorest-performing Pennsylvania schools. (101 of the schools are located in either Philadelphia or Delaware counties.) After two years, the program would expand to include all low-income students in the state. In the current budget year, the state is spending more than $9 billion on education, with more than $5.1 billion on basic education alone. This year the state is spending more than $14,000 per student in the public school system, though the amount per student fluctuates from district to district.

Sen. Williams believes that school choice is a civil rights issue. In a statement accompanying the introduction of the voucher bill, he states “Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue to the segregation of the ’60s. Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? … Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

Not surprising, the powerful state teacher unions and their supporters are not fans of a school voucher plan, claiming that this type of legislation amounts to abandonment of public school education. Can one argue that this type of school voucher plan actually removes financial support from the public school that need more support rather than less? Teacher unions worry about accountability for private and religious schools, which are not held to the same governance standard as public schools. What happens if school choice passes and a student leaves a failing school and does not improve at a charter or private school? Whose fault is it then?

Former Gov. Tom Ridge failed with his school choice initiative in the 1990s. Is there significant change in the political climate in 2011 to support a voucher initiative? If Philadelphia is any indicator, there seems to be a movement among parents in big cities wanting better (and safer) schools for their children. Historically, there has been support for unions in the big cities, but parents are tired of waiting for the public schools to improve. To succeed, Corbett and his legislative supporters will need to balance the interests of urban parents who want better schools for their children with the suburban parents (like those in the T/E school district) who believe that public school may not need to change.

I support the right of all children to attend ‘safe’ schools but as we know from news reports, that is not always possible in Philadelphia. Is a school voucher plan the only option for parents to keep their children safe from violence, gangs, drugs in some of Philadelphia’s inner city schools? Unsafe public school must change, but how?

Does anyone share my uneasiness that a school voucher program may potentially violate Article III, the separation of church and state, contained in the state’s constitution? A voucher system cannot regulate where the money goes . . . I would think that using state tax money for religious schools would violate the constitution.

Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could? I’m curious to hear what others think about a school voucher plan. Do you think that the school voucher discussion is going to affect the teacher contract negotiations, one way or the other?

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