HARRISBURG — School choice is advancing in Pennsylvania, even as a public school voucher plan remains stuck in legislative limbo.
As the New Year dawns over the state Capitol, lawmakers and lobbyists are geared up for another fight over the creation of a public school voucher program aimed at providing educational options for the children of low-income families who are enrolled in failing public schools.
For advocates of school choice initiatives, vouchers are the brass ring that remains out of reach — a hope that was rekindled last year when Republicans took control of all three branches of the legislative process.
“It’s one step at a time. Pennsylvania is not a state where big things get done quickly and we know that,” said Ana Puig, head of the Bucks County-based Kitchen Table Patriots, a tea party group, and a lobbyist for school choice advocacy group Freedom Works.
The state Senate passed a voucher bill in November, but attempts to get it through the state House in December failed.
But while vouchers get most of the ink — as they have since they were first proposed by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1996 — the educational options available to Pennsylvania families today has expanded dramatically in 20 years.
Pennsylvania boasts a robust charter school system that includes cyber charter schools; the Education
Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC, which provides an average scholarship of $1,000 to low-income families who want their children to attend private schools; and rules that allow parents to teach their students at home.
The key is to improve education options, said Ken Kilpatrick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which represents charter schools in the state.
“It's families making a choice about what school will give my child the best educational future," Kilpatrick said. “Competition is forcing districts to think about how they can improve.”
The numbers speak for themselves.
This year, more than 90,000 students are enrolled in charter or cyber charter schools, and an additional 38,000 students take advantage of the EITC to defray the cost of a private education. Another 20,000 students are being home schooled this year.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA, the state’s largest teachers union, has led the opposition to vouchers — as they led the opposition to charter schools 15 years ago.
After the state Senate voted 27-22 to approve the voucher bill in October, PSEA President Michael Crossey explained that the union opposes vouchers because they drain resources from public schools.
“Public schools educate every student who comes through their doors and are accountable for everything they do and every nickel they spend,” Crossey said. “This voucher bill spends the taxpayers’ money on schools and programs that don’t live by those rules. It is a terrible choice that couldn’t come at a worse time."
One thing is certain: the debate over school choice in Pennsylvania is more visible now than ever before, thanks in part of the successes of charter schools and the EITC.
But it has also become more complicated.
In 1997 — when vouchers failed but paved the way for the creation of charter schools and the EITC — the debate was about providing greater educational choices for families and students.
Now, the arguments have become less focused.
For some, school choice is still grounded in the idea that competition drives innovation and growth.
For others, it is necessary to rein in education spending that has ballooned to $26 billion annually in Pennsylvania while student performance has flat lined.
And for others, it's a chance to bust the unions that operate within public schools.
The newest and one of the most potent arguments for advancing school choice in Pennsylvania has been pressed forward by state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and a handful of urban lawmakers who see the issue as the next step in the civil rights movement.
Williams, whose Senate district includes West Philadelphia and some of the worst performing, violence-riddled schools in the state, made educational choice the cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign last year. He has never shied away from the fact that most of Pennsylvania’s failing schools are in urban environments and minority neighborhoods.
Though Williams lost his bid for governor, he opened a new front in the school choice battle with the help of more than $3 million in donations from Students First, a national political action committee dedicated to expanding choice.
But not all urban Democrats share Williams’ view.
State Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, minority chair of the House Education Committee, supports expanding educational options but said he believes those options should be limited to the public sector to ensure fairness and equality of opportunity for all students.
“In a system like Philadelphia, you have to have a variety of options,” Roebuck said Wednesday. “But my concern is that when you move it out of the public system, none of that is subject to regulation.”
Casting the voucher debate as an issue of civil rights is a mischaracterization, he said, because private schools can choose which students to accept.
Though Corbett has taken heat from some on the right — including the Wall Street Journal — for failing to achieve the passage of public school vouchers in his first year in office, he has guided vouchers closer to passage than at any time since 1997.
Ridge failed to get vouchers passed then, but the push paved the way for other successes.
The state in 1997 authorized the creation of charter schools, which operate more like private schools but still exist within the public school system. Pennsylvania has more than 150 brick-and-mortar charter schools and 13 cyber charter schools, which were separately authorized in 2002.
Although there have been notorious examples of charter schools that failed to meet state guidelines while making profits off local school districts, a demand for their services clearly exists.
According to the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, the existing schools carry a 30,000-student waiting list.
Corbett wants to allow the state to authorize new charter schools directly, rather than going through school districts, in an attempt to meet that demand.
In 2002, Pennsylvania created the EITC program, which is funded through corporate tax contributions.
The tax credit program is widely considered a success — the PSEA’s official position is it neither supports nor opposes it. Last year, in a vote of 190-7, the state House approved a bill to increase the cap on the EITC program to $200 million annually.
“I think EITC is the signature program in Pennsylvania when it comes to school choice,”said state Rep. Tom Quigley, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill expanding the program last year. “It seems like all parties have been satisfied with it.”
The state Senate has yet to take it up the EITC expansion, and Corbett wants to see it rolled together with vouchers and a series of academic and financial reforms to the state’s charter school system.