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Lenny McAllister: 'Children's Fund' advocates should focus on choice

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, 3:30 p.m.

The people of Allegheny County care deeply about the next generation. Just look how many locals canvassed for the recent ballot measure to establish an $18 million Children’s Fund for pre-K, after-school programs and nutritious meals.

I learned about this measure when my son’s friend asked me to sign a petition to get the measure on the November ballot. Like many non-homeowners, the young man simply viewed his vote and support as helping underprivileged kids get a better education.

But when we read the full details, we discovered that the Children’s Fund relied exclusively on increasing property taxes to form an unaccountable bureaucracy.

I explained how similar tax hikes have caused an exodus of Allegheny County residents to Fayette and Butler counties over the years. When taxpayers and homeowners flee Pittsburgh’s suburbs, and renters start outnumbering owners, it’s not just city revenues that suffer. Public safety and school quality also plummet, as in Penn Hills and Wilkinsburg.

The young man collecting signatures was sharp enough to recognize that raising taxes on homeowners to fund a new layer of bureaucracy is a self-defeating way to improve schools for the poor. He resolved not to collect another signature. I was pleased to note that many Allegheny County voters were just as sharp. On Election Day, the measure was defeated , albeit by a slim 17,000-vote margin of 3 percent .

Multimillion-dollar expenditures must be approached responsibly, and even tax-and-spend proponents like SEIU and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers voiced concerns about transparency. Meanwhile, homeowners rightly complained about unfair exploitation.

We can do better. Pennsylvania already has solutions to improve educational outcomes with proven results — while saving taxpayers money.

It’s called school choice. We’ve been benefitting from it for nearly two decades.

Our state’s tax credit scholarship programs, for example, allow businesses to give back to the local community. These tax-deductible scholarships enable thousands of children to attend schools that fit their needs better than the public school dictated by their ZIP codes. The result is improved assessment outcomes and a savings of over 85 percent of education costs, amounting to more than $1.7 billion in savings from 2002-14.

Unfortunately, the Wolf administration favors more spending, and higher taxes, over choice. The governor even made funding for these scholarships a bargaining chip in his 2015 budget stalemate — despite the programs’ immense popularity.

Last year, nearly 53,000 student applications were denied due to program limits. We should be beating the drums to raise the limits on these proven solutions, not seeking higher taxes to fund more bureaucracy.

The Klein family of Erie affirms the life-changing impact of school choice. Their only public school option was a “Focus School” — officially marked as an institution in crisis. But Bailey, the oldest of three boys, received a tax credit scholarship from Junior Achievement, which his mom, Amy, describes as “the key to his success.” He now attends Penn State’s Honors Program on a full ride, making the Dean’s List every semester.

Imagine where Bailey would be without school choice. “I would have jumped through flaming hoops to give my sons these opportunities,” says Amy. “It’s a shame to hear politics threatens this program each year.”

Let’s shift the paradigm away from expanding bureaucracies and toward student-based education funding. That will truly accomplish the goals Children’s Fund advocates espouse.

Lenny McAllister is director of entrepreneur engagement for Western Pennsylvania for the Commonwealth Foundation.

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