Over the past few weeks an ambiguous advertisement evoking the civil rights struggle of the 1960s has been popping up in newspapers across Pennsylvania. The advertisement features a picture depicting one of many standoffs in public school integration, and carries the message, “Someone New is Blocking the School House Door.”
Likening the current school choice debate with school segregation, the advertisement, sponsored by the Center for Education Reform and a number of non-profit education organizations primarily based in Philadelphia, is being used to promote a tuition voucher system that would give more options to families with students in failing schools. The legislation, proposed by Philadelphia Sen. Anthony Williams and Dauphin Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, would give low-income parents a state education subsidy to be used at their choice of a public, private or charter school.
“African-American students make up a disproportionate percentage of students in failing schools. While we have spent a large portion of money in urban schools those schools are still not adequately performing,” Williams said. “The only reason students attend those schools is because of their zip code.”
In honor of National School Choice Week, concerned parents, students and community leaders from Pittsburgh joined others from across the state for a school choice rally at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Jan. 25. Students First, a non-profit whose members support the expansion of charter, cyber and magnet schools and merit pay for teachers, hosted the rally.
“Today we moved a step closer to ensuring every Pennsylvania student has access to a high-quality education. Opportunity Scholarships will provide low-income families with children in under-performing schools with the resources they need to choose a high-performing public or private school alternative—and this legislation couldn’t come at a better time,” said Joe Watkins, chairman of Students First. “We applaud Senator Williams and Senator Piccola for their leadership, and we urge their colleagues to quickly pass this legislation so that Pennsylvania’s families have access to the great school options they deserve.”
Opponents of tuition vouchers, an idea also supported by Governor Tom Corbett, worry they will take even more money away from public school districts already suffering from financial strain, further crippling not only failing schools but all or most public schools. Hardy explained that although state money will be used for the vouchers, federal and city money will remain with the district.
“If it’s a bad school it shouldn’t have the money. There still may be students left in that building, and the local portion of funding still remains,” Williams said. “Any bad school should shut down.”
Other opponents worry the tuition vouchers won’t reach the students who are most in need, those students whose parents do not play an active role in their education.
“This is not the first generation where we have parents who are not connected with their children’s education. Despite that and you can point to people like Oprah Winfrey, you can point to a number of African-Americans who thrived academically. These students who are focused on a better life will find a way to benefit if they have other options available to them,” Williams said. “Does it mean all students will understand what a voucher means? Absolutely not, but those who have an active interest will have the opportunity.”
The legislation would also give an additional $25 million to a tax credit program that provides tax breaks to businesses who grant tuition scholarships for children in low-income families.