Vouchers for education has the look of an idea whose time has come in
After a decade in exile, the idea has new currency, thanks mostly to the arrival of Gov. Tom Corbett, who favors vouchers.
There always has been considerable support for vouchers in the legislature. But, Gov. Ed Rendell opposed them, preferring to invest state money in public education.
In this state, vouchers have been synonymous with Catholic education and most of the support in the past has come from Catholic parents, educators and bishops, who lobbied long and hard into the 1990's to get vouchers passed into law. They came thisclose under Gov. Tom Ridge but failed.
Now, vouchers are dressed in a new suit. Under a plan advanced by state Sens. Jeff Piccola and Anthony Hardy Williams, they would be directed to poor children in under-performing schools.
Williams, a black Democrat from
In brief, the idea is to give "Opportunity Scholarships" of up to $9,000 to the parents of children in the state's 144 lowest performing public schools. The program is targeted to low-income families. (A family of four with an annual income of under $29,000 would be eligible.) Eventually, the aid would be expanded to all low-income families, regardless of the schools their children attend.
There's a curious aspect to SB1. It does not exist. Williams and Piccola held a news conference in mid-month to announce it. A rally has already been held in
It's not an inconsequential matter, given the political and legal hurdles to vouchers. Vouchers are a lovely idea in theory -- the ultimate expression of school choice whereby parents get the right (and the cash) to pick where their children will be educated. But, the devil is in the details.
Let's begin with the legal. Like most other states,
The amendment is named after 19th century U.S. Rep. James G. Blaine of
In other states, voucher supports have gotten around these the
It's inevitable that any voucher plan passed into law will be challenged in the courts. To hurry up that process, the Williams-Piccola proposal gives the state Supreme Court original jurisdiction in the case.
By crafting it so that it applies only to low-income students, it doesn't offer help to Catholic school parents in the state, most of whom are working class or middle class and therefore ineligible for vouchers.
Can a voucher law pass without the lobbying of Catholic parents and the Church? I don't know, but I do know it won't make it easier. And any proposal crafted to help Catholic parents would exponentially raise the cost of the program -- something the state is not looking to do in this time of budget deficits.
The second issue is: How realistic is this offer of school choice?
Consider the particulars in
If you gave them each a $9,000 voucher tomorrow, where could they go with it?
There's no existing system with the capacity to handle anywhere close to that number.
Consider the alternatives:
There are numerous charter schools in the city, but they already have long waiting lists, and the
Some of the region's private schools are under-capacity, but they have academic admission criteria -- they would only be interested in taking in the students who are performing at or above grade level, which is a small slice of this population. Also, tuition at most of these schools averages in the low-to-mid-$20,000s per year, far above the capacity of poor parents to handle.
The city's Catholic schools have extra seats -- about 12,000 of them in elementary schools alone. But are these parochial schools equipped to handle a influx of poor, non-Catholic students, most of whom are performing below their grade level? That's asking them to do (at per pupil spending of about $2,600 years a year) what the public schools have failed to do spending triple that amount. (They might do it for $9,000 but the proposal limits the amount of the voucher to the actual tuition charged by the school.)
In reality, only a relative handful of those 55,000 students would be able to avail themselves of the vouchers, which is good news for that handful.
But what about the rest? For the rest, the Williams-Piccola proposal gives them a key that will not open any door.