Pennsylvania Needs To Emulate Indiana’s School Choice Plan

Another school year is underway and true school choice in Pennsylvania is still far from becoming a reality.  Meanwhile, neighboring Ohio’s school choice program keeps growing and Indiana just instituted the nation’s broadest voucher program.  A major attempt to enact vouchers in the Commonwealth was made by the Senate last spring, and had support from Governor Corbett, but unfortunately, failed to gain traction in the House.


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Perfection as Enemy of Improvement?

In an April 17 editorial, the Post- Gazette chastised Pennsylvania’s voucher advocates as promising more than they can deliver. The editorial lists reasons why the voucher plan might not be as successful as advocates believe or suggest they will be. Okay, maybe vouchers are not the end all and be all answer to government funded education problems.

But good grief, look at the horrendous trail of broken promises brought to us by public schools. Many school districts across this Commonwealth are a disgrace when it comes to the academic achievement of students and the amount of money spent to accomplish their pathetic results. High dropout rates are common, which means huge amounts of money have been wasted trying to get people to the dropout age-people who, in many cases, are far below literacy and numeracy levels for their age. There is low achievement by vast numbers who do graduate but score far below the national averages on SAT tests and require remedial education of they pursue higher education.

And the editorial writer is concerned that vouchers won’t make everyone Phi Beta Kappa scholars? This is the clearest example of the true liberal mind. Claim to be for the little guy and the poor and the helpless and support wasteful, expensive government programs to solve the world’s perceived inequities. But the problem for them is that vouchers do work to improve educational opportunities and they do result in better outcomes. Besides they are used all over the world so as to allow parents and students to select schools that work best for them and their goals. It is a freedom issue and it is a moral issue. Letting people choose is always good. Keeping kids trapped in a failing school when there could be avenues to a better is a moral travesty that leads to wasted lives that need not have been wasted.

So for the liberal their true objectives are revealed when they fight vouchers or demean them. They do not put the interests of children first as they claim. They put the interests of big government and powerful groups who benefit from the status quo ahead of the children. Enough said.

Time to Give School Choice a Serious Look

Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court has ruled the law authorizing Duquesne high school students to be sent to neighboring districts is unconstitutional. They wrote in their opinion that the law was so narrowly constructed, applying only to the Duquesne School District, that it amounted to "special legislation" which violates the state constitution. They are remanding the matter back to Commonwealth Court. But the big question remains: what happens to these students?

During the debate to close Duquesne High School in 2007, state law was crafted which stipulated that the students’ options were constrained to districts within a three-mile radius of their home district. The end result had 160 students transfer to West Mifflin and 72 to East Allegheny. Attorneys argued at that time the law was so narrowly defined, that it would only apply to Duquesne and no other district across the state–and the Supreme Court upheld that argument three years later.

The legislators who constructed the law will attempt to come up with new language that will not run afoul of the Constitution. Here’s a better idea: vouchers. Craft a law that offers vouchers to these students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Their district has obviously failed them, so give them a chance to find one where they can achieve success. If they are happy in the new districts, let them stay. If not, give them a chance to find another opportunity. Vouchers have been successful in many places where they have been tried–usually the answer to failing schools like Duquesne–so why not give it a serious look?

A Better Use for $200k

According to published reports several anonymous foundations have decided to offer $200k over the next five years to the Pittsburgh Public Schools in order to pay taxes on a life insurance benefit to the current Superintendent. According to the District’s Solicitor the Federal tax code "requires the recipient to pay taxes on employer-paid life insurance premiums in the short term, even if the recipient won’t receive the benefits for years to come".

Consider that this past October, when the District extended a new contract with the Superintendent, a news article pointed out that the agreement included "An increase-from about $12,500 to about $28,700- [in] the district’s annual contribution to a life insurance policy of his choosing. As before, the district also will provide him a separate $400,000 term life insurance policy…[and] a one-time payment of $16,150. The agreement doesn’t explain that payment, but [the Superintendent] said it, too, is for life insurance".

Rather than extend $200k for taxes on top of what appear to be quite generous benefits, a better use of the money-certainly one that would deliver long term benefits-would be for the foundations to offer scholarships of $10k for four years for five students to attend the private or parochial school of their family’s choosing.

This would be a very targeted program and would certainly be criticized as leaving much of the district’s enrollment out, but what would be more preferable: giving some students choice, or helping to pay the taxes on a life insurance policy for the District’s highest official?

Pittsburgh Magnet Schools Educate Better

What an unsurprising report finding. Pittsburgh’s magnet schools show higher levels of achievement than non-magnet schools. An easily predicted result.

Can anyone with a modicum of common sense have any doubts as to why this happens? Magnet schools are schools of choice. Parents who care about their children’s education will make sacrifices to get their students into these schools. When parents care about education, children are more likely to place value on learning.

Too bad all schools in the City are not and cannot be magnet schools. But here is another way to offer choice to parents and students. Create a district voucher or scholarship program that will allow Pittsburgh’s parents to opt out of public schools in favor of a private school or home school. Second, allow and facilitate the creation of more charter schools that can serve as magnet schools.

Given the disaster that masquerades as education for far too many of Pittsburgh’s children, why not do something noble such as actually creating change that will improve learning instead of the endless series of dead end efforts to fix what cannot be fixed?