State senators push state bill on school choice

| Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

HARRISBURG — A coalition of conservative Republicans and Philadelphia Democrats on Tuesday urged lawmakers to pass school choice legislation, as two senators introduced the chamber's first bill of the session before a crowd of several hundred children and parents at the state Capitol.

The effort by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin County, and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, represents the best chance in recent history to enact a law that would enable parents to use state subsidies from public schools as tuition vouchers at private or parochial schools, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett supports school choice, which at least two other Republican governors — Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Florida's Rick Scott — are advocating. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, four states have statewide choice programs: Ohio, Maine, Vermont and Louisiana.

Milwaukee and Washington have programs. A few states have voucher programs for special-needs children. Seven states including Pennsylvania have programs that provide tax credits for corporations paying for scholarships at private schools. Eleven states have legislation under way to establish tax-credit programs, said Josh Cunningham of the national conference.

The coalition of white Republicans and black Democrats from Philadelphia adds a new dynamic to the legislation, which former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge was unable to push through the General Assembly in the 1990s.

"It shows you what happens when an idea is so strong that it cuts across ideological and party lines," said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation and a school choice proponent.

Another twist is support from some segments of Tea Party activists.

"We have the Tea Party involved, but there's a lot of push-back from some Tea Party people," said Ana Puig, co-chair of The Kitchen Table Patriots in Bucks County. "They see it as a hand-out (to low-income families). I don't see it that way."

Under the bill, low-income students from certain failing schools would get vouchers during the first year. By the third year, all low-income students would be eligible for vouchers regardless of their school district.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers oppose the idea. The school boards group said it opposes using tax money for private school education. In a teleconference with reporters last week, Stuart Knade, the association's chief counsel, said the voucher proposal violates the state constitution by using money raised for public schools to support a sectarian school.

"They'll say we don't need choice, we just need more time," Williams told those attending the rally. "I guess 50 years isn't enough time. They'll say we need more money. I guess $26 billion isn't enough. They'll tell you if (parents) take this money, the buildings will close. Failing buildings should close."

It's time to end incremental change in education, Williams said. As a candidate in the Democratic primary for governor last year, Williams focused attention on school choice through his TV campaign ads.

Amanda Wingrove, 36, of Champion in Fayette County came to the rally because she is a mother and finance director of the Champion Christian School. She has three children attending the school and relies on the state's tax credit program to pay the tuition.

"We're looking forward to seeing more kids attending private schools, and we were here to contact our local representatives," she said.

The crowd cheered wildly when Dawn Chavous, director of the group Students First, revealed that Sen. Leanna Washington, D-Philadelphia, signed on as a co-sponsor of S.B. 1, the school choice legislation. Washington said she opposed the idea 16 years ago.

"Today it's not about me. It's about them," Washington said, pointing to children at the rally.

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