Pennsylvania is about to get a new governor, and there will be a lot of new faces in the legislature when it reconvenes in January. Fiscal issues, specifically the state's $5 billion plus structural budget deficit, will dominate debate. But the issue of school choice is showing signs of rising rapidly to the top of the agenda.
School choice is an issue that has been around for a while. Governor Tom Ridge made it one of his legislative priorities, but failed to get any meaningful program enacted. The Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) allowing businesses to partially deduct contributions to schools was passed, but the program falls short of full blown school choice.
In recent months a unique political coalition has been building in Harrisburg that could lead to the passage of significant school choice legislation in the upcoming session of the general assembly. State Senator Anthony Williams of Philadelphia made school choice the centerpiece of his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He failed to gain that nomination, but did succeed in energizing the issue.
The issue of school choice unites diverse groups. Senator Williams represents an urban area of largely African-American students who are stuck in underperforming government schools. Williams recognizes that the key to economic advancement, and the route to solving urban social ills, is through better education. The current system has failed to produce results, so the senator is seeking change.
Also in the coalition are free market conservatives who believe that education, like any other service, will improve if there is competition. State Senator Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) is one of the leading conservatives in the senate and he has become chairman of the powerful Senate Education Committee. Piccola is a long-time advocate of school reform and is now in a position to move legislation. He has already begun the process. There is the strong possibility school choice could be designated Senate Bill # 1, which signifies its importance on the agenda for the new legislative session.
The next governor of Penn's Woods will also be a school choice supporter. Both Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato are on record as supporting school choice. They have differing views on what a final bill might look like, but either would move the ball forward.
The need for significant, structural change in Pennsylvania's education system is readily apparent. The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Pittsburgh recently conducted a study comparing Scholastic Aptitude Test scores from 1998 to those taken in 2010. Reading scores actually decreased during that period from an average score of 497 to an average score of 495. Math scores increased minimally from 495 in 1998 to 501 in 2010.
During that same period of time, spending on public education in government-run schools increased by 76% while enrollment remained essentially flat. The Allegheny Institute concluded: "In short, a near 76 percent jump in spending over the last decade or so has produced essentially no improvement in the academic achievement of Pennsylvania's public school graduates."
As Pennsylvania struggles to emerge from the economic recession employers also say the quality of K-12 education in the commonwealth is not giving them better prepared graduates. A recent Lincoln Institute poll of employers found 46% feel the quality of public education in Pennsylvania has remained about the same over the past five years, 30% say it has gotten worse and 14% say it has gotten better.
Taxpayers are paying a premium price for government-run public schools that at best are not improving and in many, particularly urban areas, are failing to prepare our children for productive roles in both the economy and in society. That is why support is building in Harrisburg to empower parents with the option of choosing to send their child or children to public schools in districts other than the one in which they live, to a private school, a charter school, cyber charter school or to a parochial school.
But, powerful interests, specifically the Pennsylvania State Education Association will fight hard to protect the status quo. The teachers' union is among the most effective special interest groups in the state. But given the failure of government-run schools to produce better results with the ever increasing dollars they have been given, a critical mass of support may have been reached that will finally result in meaningful school choice options that will allow Pennsylvania students to reach their full academic potential.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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