By Jeffrey Piccola
State Senator (R-15)
Sixteen years ago, Governor Tom Ridge launched the debate on school choice. He believed in the elevating power of competition and in giving parents the right to choose the best school for their child, regardless of arbitrary school district zones or their home zip code. He began a much-needed conversation in our Commonwealth – a debate that focused on the needs of children and taxpayers, and not the employment and turf of adults.
During that time, we achieved some successes in our pursuit of expanded choices for parents, with the enactment of our Charter School Law in 1997, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program in 2001, and the Cyber Charter Law in 2002. But the education establishment fought the Ridge school choice plan and each of these smaller innovations, enacted to benefit children and their families. Today, their arguments have remained the same. In the meantime, we have abandoned a generation of school kids who have been doomed to failure.
Sixteen years later, the establishment is back and once again working to block Pennsylvania families and their children’s path to a better education through Senate Bill 1, “The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act.” My colleague from Philadelphia, Senator Anthony Williams (D-8) and I have authored legislation on behalf of those families in our Commonwealth yearning for more choices and for rescue from the failure of the current education system in approximately 144 school buildings in Pennsylvania.
A number of other legislators – both Republicans and Democrats – have joined us in this crusade, including Governor Tom Corbett, and thousands of Pennsylvanians, who are fighting to redefine public education as a broad spectrum of choices that fit the needs of each child according to their parents’ decisions.
Senate Bill 1 will allow poor children trapped in their failing public school to take the state tax dollars devoted to them and apply them to the public or nonpublic school of their choice. The legislation also includes an important, and often overlooked, component to help the middle class by allowing more businesses to earn tax credits through scholarship donations to students. Funds for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program would be raised from $75 million to $100 million under the Williams/Piccola plan.
Supporters of school choice agree that Senate Bill 1 is not a silver bullet that will fix all of public education’s problems, but it will provide immediate rescue to children who right now are in burning buildings. Meanwhile, we waste valuable time debating in Harrisburg about the tired, old playbook of the education establishment, which calls for more time and more money to fix the persistent failure many of our schoolchildren are trapped in, with nowhere else to go.
The moral imperative in this current debate is clear. The establishment has run out of time. We have trapped and failed thousands of children and their families and failed the taxpayers who have paid for expensive failure with their hard-earned tax dollars.
Senate Bill 1 is not an attack on public education, as the opponents have attempted to frame it. We have many good schools in Pennsylvania and great teachers. Families blessed with resources move into those school districts and receive the benefit of a good education. That is the key, however– only those with sufficient resources have the power to execute choice.
We as a society must also confront this failure and recognize there is another way to rescue these children. That is where Senate Bill 1 is deeply rooted. Giving every child and family the opportunity to take a state voucher where they can have opportunity and academic achievement and, yes, a ticket to success in our society.
And while opponents of our legislation claim that a voucher is a ticket to nowhere, we know right now there are thousands of open seats in nonpublic schools, with teachers ready to educate the kids trapped in failure by virtue of their zip code.
In a budget of $26 billion for public education – a price tag that has doubled since we began this debate 16 years ago – there is room for school choice in Pennsylvania’s budget. Today, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student—$2,000 more than the national average and more than 39 other states. In some of our chronically underperforming public schools, taxpayers are paying nearly $20,000 per student. In the last eight years alone, public education funding rose 40 percent with very little to show in academic achievement.
Time is up for this tired old playbook. The Williams/Piccola plan represents a more efficient and moral way for the taxpayers to educate kids, recognizing that “one size does not fit all” and that our middle-income families deserve assistance consistent with our budgetary constraints. It also recognizes later — in year three — that low-income families across this Commonwealth who cannot move to good schools deserve a state voucher. We cannot in good conscience rescue kids from failing buildings and abandon those families who may be trapped in mediocre schools lacking the resources to move to a good school district.
The Williams/Piccola plan is not about protecting the turf and employment of adults in the vast public education enterprise but in providing children with educational opportunity and the chance to succeed in our society. That is why it is under assault from the teachers’ unions and their allies, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. And the moral imperative driving Senate Bill 1 makes it our No. 1 priority.
Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R-15, Dauphin/York Counties), is a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 1and Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Last week PoliticsPA published this commentary piece by State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-17), who opposes the measure.