Tower of Babble

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

In January, at the dawn of the current legislative session, it appeared as if Pennsylvania was finally headed toward giving parents of children in failing schools the right of school choice. School choice had been designated as Senate Bill # 1, an appellation that indicated its priority status.

The legislature is now on the cusp of its summer recess and not only has school choice not been enacted into law, competing versions of the bill have been introduced and pro-school choice grassroots groups have split into bickering camps. Institutional foes of school choice, such as labor unions, have had to do little more than stand on the sidelines and watch the fratricide occur.

Focal point of the school choice debate remains Senate Bill # 1. Conceived in a bi-partisan alliance between Senator Jeff Piccola, a mid-state conservative Republican; and Senator Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, Senate Bill # 1 concentrates first on introducing school choice into failing schools, then expands the program over the course of several years.

As with most legislation, Senate Bill # 1 got watered down in committee. Already falling short of the universal school choice most advocates wanted, Senate Bill # 1 became the target of attack from grassroots groups wanting a stronger, not a weaker bill. The proposal emerged from committee, but has yet to be brought to a floor vote apparently because leaders don’t yet have enough votes to secure passage.

The lull in Senate action had a profound impact across the capitol rotunda in the House of Representatives. School choice is a highly controversial topic inciting strong passions. Divisions on the issue don’t fall along the normal partisan lines, but break more by geography and income. Voters in more wealthy, better performing public school districts are less supportive than those in poorer, underperforming districts because their children are getting good educations.

Worse, opponents of school choice demagogue the issue by stoking fears in better performing, largely suburban school districts that the quality of their schools will decline due to an influx of students fleeing the underperforming schools. There is a subtle and unconscionable racial overtone to this tactic that further debases the debate.

Against that backdrop the House passed an expansion of funding for the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program which allows businesses to take a tax deduction for contributing to schools. That move was supposed to be the House version of "school choice," but the diversion failed and was declared dead on arrival in the Senate.

In recent days two more school choice bills have been introduced, essentially moving the debate in opposite directions. Responding to school choice backers who want universal school choice, State Representative Curt Schroder (R-Chester) introduced a more expansive version without "income discrimination"; while State Representative Jim Christiana (R-Beaver) introduced a more restrictive, hybrid bill that would provide vouchers to low income families in failing schools combined with EITC expansion to assist middle income families.

All of this has created a modern day Tower of Babble within the school choice movement. There is clearly strong support for introducing an element of choice into Pennsylvania’s public school system which has consumed an ever-increasing amount of tax money without a corresponding improvement in educational achievement. But advocates have been unable to unite behind one proposal leaving the issue momentarily dead in the water.

Against this backdrop anger is building at the grassroots. Advocates have been working for decades to get school choice enacted and are seeing their best chance since the Ridge Administration slipping away. Groups such as Freedom Works are becoming more militant, with talk of political retribution in the form of primary challenges to Republican legislators moving to the candidate recruitment phase.

Most of the oxygen in Harrisburg has been consumed by dealing with the state’s $4.5 billion budget deficit, and with the budget deadline at hand, school choice has not yet risen to the top of the legislative agenda. The General Assembly will take the balance of the summer off, returning in September. Pennsylvania’s primary is early next year since it is a Presidential election year, so the campaigns get underway in January. There is a short window between Labor Day and Christmas for controversial issues to be addressed, after that the legislature becomes notoriously timid.

It is imperative that school choice advocates get together over the summer months and unify behind one course of action. Otherwise, the opportunity to rescue hundreds of thousands of children from failing schools and empower parents across Penn’s Woods with the right of choosing their child’s school will have been squandered.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is
[email protected].)

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