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Candidates for guv talk school choice

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

by Paul Jablow

Joe Watkins, chairman of Students First, yesterday described the 2010 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race as the only such contest in the country in which both candidates supported school choice.

Whether or not this was the case, the joint appearance at the National Constitution Center of Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato was marked not by strong policy differences – both generally backed Watkins’ school choice advocacy group’s “wish list” – but by emphasis and nuance.

Corbett, the state attorney general, stressed the shortcomings of the state’s public schools, including low student achievement scores and high dropout rates. He devoted almost his entire speech to issues of choice such as charter schools. Evoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he called school choice “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Onorato, the Allegheny County executive, took a more holistic approach that included full funding for the public and charter schools. He said that contrary to some media reports, he was a longtime supporter of school choice both in his present position and as a Pittsburgh City Councilman.

He spoke of teachers as “part of the solution.” Corbett rarely mentioned them except to point out that he had been one for a year.

“I think I learned more than they did,” Corbett joked. Both men noted that they had attended parochial schools and Onorato added that he sends his children to one.

The appearance – not a true debate since each man spoke for about 15 minutes and then took questions – was part of a half-day “Education Reform Efforts in Pennsylvania Conference.”

Both candidates expressed strong support for Senate Bill 1405, which would provide vouchers called Opportunity Scholarships for low-income students to attend non-public schools in districts with at least one chronically failing school.

But both Onorato and Corbett said – without elaborating – that the bill might need some changes and Corbett said he had questions about its constitutionality.

Similar legislation in other states have been criticized for subsidizing religious education, for taking money out of public schools, and for funding private schools that can’t or won’t accommodate most of the children who would be eligible to opt in.

Corbett also repeated his call for a statewide agency monitoring charter schools and reporting to the governor, while Onorato said he would consider creating such a body. And they both spoke of a potential conflict when school districts regulate charters and of the need to provide bricks-and-mortar support for charters.

The biggest differences came when the candidates discussed the public school system, with Onorato basically describing it as part of the solution for raising educational quality and Corbett as part of the problem.

Corbett started his speech with an anecdote about an unnamed Philadelphia 4th grader who was being bullied in a public school but thrived when his mother moved him to a charter and became a parent advocate there.

“In the past eight years,” he said, “we have seen education spending increase by 36 percent (statewide) while public schools have built up their reserves to $2.75 billion, an increase of 83 percent since [Gov. Ed] Rendell took office. You have to wonder how much money is making it to the student.”

He said that in Philadelphia, 73 percent of charters were meeting the state’s adequate yearly progress standards as against 59 percent of public schools.

Onorato stressed his four-point plan for educational improvement: early childhood education, “proper funding” for all public and charter schools, school choice, and Opportunity Grants.

Asked by one questioner about his endorsement by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, he said, “You can be endorsed by an organization without agreeing 100 percent with its positions.”

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