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Voucher movement is alive, growing in PA

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The progress of the voucher movement in Pennsylvania reminds me of an old adage that my neighbor shared with me the first time I planted ivy in my garden. Ivy sleeps when you first plant it. After a while it starts to creep. Eventually it leaps all over your garden. Like ivy, the voucher movement’s roots have begun to take hold and gain attention in the future landscape of Pennsylvania schooling.

During his term as governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge worked mightily to plant vouchers into the educational landscape of the state. Three times without success he attempted to pass legislation to enable the use of state funds to pay for vouchers to private schools. After these initial defeats, the voucher movement has seemingly slept through several legislative seasons.

Recently, however, it has crept back onto the scene. State Sen. Anthony Williams, who is a strong advocate for the use of public funds to finance vouchers, has been active in bringing this issue to the forefront of Pennsylvania politics. In his recent run for the governor, Williams received millions from a handful of wealthy investment fund managers. His main campaign contributors, these individuals are strong proponents of vouchers. Earlier, I posted a piece in which I raised questions as to why these rich men were so enthusiastically supporting Williams’ election bid.

Not long after Williams’ defeat in the primary elections, two other seemingly unrelated events occurred.

  1. A newly formed advocacy group, “The Philadelphia School Project”, announced its intention to raise 100 million dollars in order to recognize and reward public and private schools that are performing well. Details about how these potential funds would be distributed are scarce. A principal member of this group is the wife of one of the wealthy men who supported Williams’ campaign. There has been speculation that this project may actually be a back-door attempt to provide vouchers through the use of business tax credits.
  2. A report from the Pew Charitable Trusts stated that parents in Philadelphia are looking for more school choice than the already plentiful options available since the state takeover of the District.

Both of these developments will surely provide talking points for those who are paving the road to an enactment of voucher legislation. Foremost among these advocates is Tom Corbett, the Republican Party’s nominee for governor, who has stated his strong support for the use of vouchers. Prior to Corbett’s announcement of his pro-voucher stance, Williams introduced Senate Bill 1405: The Opportunities Scholarship Act. If enacted, it would authorize the expenditure of state tax funds in order to create a broad voucher program.

Williams’ rhetoric has been strident concerning the need to provide Philadelphia’s parents with relief from a school system that he portrays as a wreck. His argument for vouchers was recently aired in an interview on the local Fox News morning show.

Williams’ campaign to bring vouchers to Pennsylvania is having an immediate effect in the governor’s race. Dan Onorato, who defeated Williams in the Democratic primary, recently announced his support for the use of vouchers with Williams at his side. With both major candidates for governor now supporting the use of vouchers, the Opportunities Scholarship Act is likely to leap forward.

Sleep, creep, and leap: the voucher movement, like ivy, is alive and growing in our state.

Budgets of school districts across Pennsylvania may be adversely affected if Senate Bill 1405 is enacted into law. Before any decision is made to use public funds to finance private educational institutions, a robust public dialogue should be conducted to determine what constitutes a good educational policy that will best serve the needs of every child. As we prepare to enter the fall campaign for governor, those who seek to hold this office should be among the main participants in this discussion.

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