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With Corbett in office, voucher debate is back

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

Recently inaugurated Republican Gov. Tom Corbett kicked off his term by declaring his second week in office "Pennsylvania School Choice Week," signaling that his educational priorities will diverge markedly from those of former Gov. Rendell.

School vouchers never went far during Democrat Rendell’s eight-year tenure, after getting a vigorous airing in the previous two terms of Republican Tom Ridge, who failed to get a bill passed in three tries.

But with state control seesawing back to a Republican administration, the voucher debate is again front and center.

Legislation to make vouchers available to low-income students, Senate Bill 1, is co-sponsored by Senate Education Committee chairman Jeffrey Piccola and Philadelphia Democratic Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams. It is being fast-tracked in the legislature.

The governor’s pronouncements about education in his first weeks in office have focused on "choice," while he has been silent on policies important to Rendell, including expanding pre-kindergarten, increasing the state share of education expenditures, and making spending among districts more equitable.

With Harrisburg facing a deficit topping $4 billion and Corbett vowing no tax increases, even Rendell said it was unrealistic to think that state education spending would continue to rise.

Before leaving office, however, he urged Corbett to "hold education harmless," but got no commitment.

Corbett has also been silent about Rendell’s contention that increased spending during his term paid off in consistently rising test scores.

Instead, he has turned the focus back to charter schools and vouchers.

"If a school is not providing an adequate education, the money should follow the students," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley told The Inquirer. Corbett "believes it should be the students first, parents second, and teachers third. Today, the educational establishment has put teachers first and students third."

Vouchers allow students to use state funds to attend private schools, including religious schools, or public schools outside their district. Under this proposed bill, the per-student subsidy that the state normally gives to the student’s district could instead be used towards tuition.

Who’s choosing whom?

Rendell argued that vouchers would not necessarily guarantee a student a private school education because they can turn away applicants.

Corbett, however, believes vouchers represent the next step in education reform. "Our educational system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition and choice," he said in his inaugural address.

In a statement declaring school choice week in the state (to coincide with National School Choice Week), Corbett said that "choice isn’t about choosing one model over another, it’s about giving families the freedom to choose the school – public, private, charter, religious, secular – that will help their children learn and grow."

As in the past, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the state’s teacher unions are opposed.

"Creating a separate education system does nothing to address inadequacies or issues with the existing public school system," said a PSBA statement. "Rather than remove a select few, disadvantaged students from a school that may be underperforming, why not assist public schools to correct or increase their capacity to correct problems so that all students are able to thrive?"

Vouchers and achievement

National experts say that there is no evidence that vouchers are an effective strategy for improving the educational outcomes for low-income children.

Jack Jennings, the president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, said that while a few studies funded by voucher proponents have found some sporadic test score increases for students attending voucher schools, "there is no solid evidence that there is consistent improvement."

A recent review of the literature by Philadelphia-based Research for Action drew a similar conclusion: "Reputable research on voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. indicates that they produce few if any statistically significant effects on student achievement."

Voucher proponents "have expected that with competition, with choice, you’re going to get … results favorable to vouchers, and that hasn’t happened," said Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Studies have shown vouchers do provide families with more choices, he said, but "if you say it will improve equity, improve achievement, reduce costs, we don’t have strong evidence."

Senate Bill 1 would phase in a voucher program for children in low-income families over three years. It would also increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which provides tax breaks to corporations that donate to a private scholarship fund, from $50 million to $75 million.

Williams, who proposed a similar bill last year, told a voucher rally in the Capitol Rotunda on January 25 that "today is the beginning of the next civil rights movement of this nation." Many participants carried signs with the 1963 image of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace preventing Black students from entering the University of Alabama, and the slogan, "Someone new is blocking the school house door."

Ronald Tomalis, Corbett’s new secretary of education worked in the Ridge administration under Education Secretary Eugene Hickok, who led the failed voucher efforts in the 1990s. He also worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the George W. Bush administration.

Despite solid gubernatorial support, the voucher legislation is not a political slam dunk. In the 1990s, many rural legislators didn’t see the benefit of vouchers to their constituents and felt the proposals would benefit mostly low-income residents of Philadelphia and Catholic schools.

A statewide public opinion poll conducted by Terry Madonna Opinion Research found that two-thirds of adult Pennsylvanians oppose taxpayer-funded voucher programs. PSBA released a statement highlighting the survey results, saying that while some studies have shown public support for a voucher system, support drops greatly when the term "taxpayer-funded" was included.

The survey found that opposition to vouchers does not fall on racial or geographic lines. It also found that while more Democrats oppose vouchers than do Republicans, majorities in both parties oppose them.

Any legislation is also likely to come under immediate court challenge.

The Pennsylvania constitution, like 38 other state constitutions, has an amendment that prohibits the use of state funds for religiously affiliated education. But while a statewide voucher program in Florida has repeatedly been ruled unconstitutional, programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. have not been. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that voucher programs do not violate the federal constitution.