Williams, Piccola Call School Choice a Civil Rights Issue
State Senators Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin and York) unveiled their plan today for school vouchers, calling it “the civil rights movement of this century.”
Williams hammered the point home in a statement to the media.
“Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids in failing urban schools is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the ‘60s,” Williams said.
“Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? All kids deserve access to a great education –regardless of race, income or zip code. Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”
The plan calls for a three-year phase-in. In the first year, only low-income students currently attending persistently failing schools would be eligible for a grant. In the second year, low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of those schools, but currently attending private schools, would be eligible; and in the third year, all low-income students regardless of school district would be eligible.
“Low-income” is defined as families whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level – a family of four would qualify at $28,665.
The Williams-Piccola plan would give scholarships to families meeting certain income limits for either public or private schools. The bill–Senate Bill 1 to reflect its priority status— also includes an increase of $25 million in the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, bringing the total tax credits available under EITC to $100 million.
The legislation has the symbolic priority of being Senate Bill 1.
Public Education advocates, predictably, are critical of the plan. They note that private and parochial schools are not an option for many students, especially those with special needs that require more costly accommodations.
“They are the ones who decide which students they’ll accept and which students they won’t,” said Wythe Keever, a PSEA spokesman told the Patriot News. “So the voucher has been accurately called a ticket to nowhere for many students because that’s exactly what it is. There’s no guarantees that any school is going to accept them with a voucher.”
Cost is also an issue.
“Before we start funding a new government program that would be very expensive, we need to take a hard look at what can make a difference in terms of improving education,” Keever said.
Still, vouchers have long been a Republican priority. And with total GOP control of state government, advocates for school choice know that this may be their best chance ever.