From the Education Law Center (http://www.elc-pa.org):
By Baruch Kintisch
Something is wrong with how voucher supporters are pursuing their desired “revolution” in education. It’s turning out to be an anti-American revolution. Senate Bill 1 (http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2011&sind=0&body=S&type=B&BN=0001) is the legislation proposed to create a voucher program for Pennsylvania. The bill would spend more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars on tuition for students at private and religious schools.
S.B. 1 and the recent actions of its supporters are inconsistent with the values held by most Pennsylvanians and with some of our most cherished American traditions.
Local accountability vs. bigger state government — Pennsylvanians value their local public schools and want a robust locally controlled education system run by elected school boards. Throughout American history, strong public schools open to all children have been the backbone of our social, economic and political well-being. S.B. 1 violates these long-held values and traditions. It greatly expands the size and cost of government.
More than $1 billion will be spent on vouchers in the first few years, giving the money to private and religious institutions not open or accountable to the public. The bill gives away the public funds without even asking the nonpublic schools to show they are successful or are outperforming the public schools.
The state also will spend at least $1 million each year just on the administrative operations of the voucher program. The bill proposes creating a large new bureaucracy in Harrisburg called the Education Opportunity Board.
The increased size and cost of government will take place whether the board has independent powers over vouchers or, as being considered by Gov. Corbett, the board has an advisory role and most of the new bureaucratic functions take place within the Department of Education.
Gift of taxpayer dollars for private interests — The supporters of S.B. 1 have repeatedly claimed that the vouchers are needed to help disadvantaged children trapped in underperforming public schools. But the official calculations of the Senate show that only 8 percent of the vouchers are expected to be used by low-income students to get out of failing public schools. Most of the money will be a direct gift used to pay for the tuition of students already enrolled in private and religious schools.
In short, S.B. 1 is a “bait and switch.” It is not the right way to improve educational opportunities for struggling students. It’s just a giveaway — a transfer of public money from schools operated by locally elected citizens into the coffers of unaccountable private and religious organizations.
Political wheeling and dealing — While considering the voucher legislation, it looks as if the General Assembly has returned to its old ways of secret backroom deals and political favors and payoffs. Pennsylvania voters have repeatedly rejected this kind of un-American policy-making, but it still goes on and on.
We know about some of these deals. In order to obtain the votes of some senators, a “middle class” voucher was added to the bill, benefiting children who are not poor and not in failing schools. Meanwhile, the Senate Committees on Education and Appropriations rejected amendments to stop children with disabilities from being shut out of the voucher system.
And for the last three weeks, Gov. Corbett and Senate leaders have been meeting in private to make changes to the bill. Major amendments will probably be unveiled a few hours or days before a final vote in the Senate.
The most outrageous step is yet to come. Plans are being considered to deny the House of Representatives the opportunity to debate, amend or vote on S.B. 1. Instead, the voucher legislation, almost 60 pages long, might be hidden in an “omnibus school code bill” containing lots of other education measures. House members will be asked to vote up or down on the entire package, which could contain plenty of “goodies” that no one will want to vote against.
Violating the Constitution — If it sounds to you like the shenanigans involving S.B. 1 should be unconstitutional, you would be right. The Pennsylvania Constitution directly prohibits the use of public money for religious schools. In addition, various civil rights laws make it illegal for a state to set up a system that does not provide equal access and benefits to all students, including children with disabilities.
Public education will get stronger only if Harrisburg officials allow local communities to control their own school systems and then hold them accountable for results. That’s the American way, without billion-dollar giveaways, top-down political interference or trendy state-controlled “revolutions.” Vouchers are the wrong choice for Pennsylvania.
BARUCH KINTISCH is director of policy advocacy and senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, a statewide nonprofit legal advocacy and educational organization.