Philadelphia Metropolis


Vouchers for Education

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Vouchers for education has the look of an idea whose time has come in Pennsylvania.

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.Piccola Use This.jpg

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 Philadelphia, and Piccola, a white Republican from the Harrisburg area, have touted the their Senate Bill 1 as civil rights legislation.

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 Harrisburg to support it  But, there is no "it" yet -- no legislation, no words on paper, that explain exactly how this darn thing will work. 

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, Pennsylvania has its own version of the so-called Blaine Amendment, which is designed to prevent public money from flowing into non-public schools.

The amendment is named after 19th century U.S. Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine who tried to get an amendment against public aid to private schools added to the U.S. Constitution in the 1870's.  He failed, but many states picked up the cause and inserted similar language in their own constitutions.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, we have Article III, section 15, which simply states that: "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."

In other states, voucher supports have gotten around these the Blaine restrictions by casting the program not as aid to schools, but to parents. The vouchers go to them; they do with it what they wish. (They could, for instance, use it to send their children to another public school more to their liking.)

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.

Williams Use This.jpgThere are two deeper problems with the proposal.

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 Philadelphia. There are 55,000 students enrolled in the lowest-performing schools, as identified by the Williams-Piccola proposal. Here is a list of the schools nad their current enrollment.

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 Philadelphia School District has put caps on their expansion.

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.


-- TF








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