By Rob Boston
Good news from Pennsylvania: A hotly contested school voucher plan has failed to pass the state House of Representatives.
Gov. Tom Corbett has been pushing this legislation since he was elected in 2010. Under the scheme, vouchers were aimed at families earning no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($41,000 for a family of four) whose children attend schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance.
As my colleague Simon Brown noted in this month’s Church & State, a phalanx of right-wing, anti-public school groups joined forces with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the state to press for the bill. They played hardball. At one point, Catholic officials in Pittsburgh even tried to strong-arm needy parents who had received scholarships into lobbying for the bill.
The pro-voucher forces managed to push the legislation through the Pennsylvania Senate in October, and members of the House found themselves under intense lobbying.
But it wasn’t enough. When it became apparent that vouchers could not clear the House, supporters removed the provision from an education-related bill. An amendment to that bill that would have expanded the state’s tax-credit plan – a boondoggle that supports private schools through backdoor channels – faced a House vote late Wednesday night and fell short, 105-90.
It’s unclear what will happen next. Corbett has vowed to push vouchers again next year, but some lawmakers say there’s no point.
“It’s highly unlikely that it would be reconsidered at any time during this current session,” Stan Saylor, the House Republican whip, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “We gave it a try. At some point, you have to recognize that the votes aren’t there and say: ‘OK, let’s move on to the other important issues.’”
Good idea. And perhaps those issues should include doing something to improve public education in the state. Since taking office, Corbett has slashed more than $900 million from the public education budget. But even as he cut public schools to the bone, Corbett schemed to force taxpayers to fund religious and other private schools.
Under the plan, private schools would have received a windfall of taxpayer aid but little meaningful oversight. Private schools would have retained the right to refuse admission to or expel any student. Even with a voucher, the “choice” always belongs to those who own and operate private schools.
I’m a native of Pennsylvania, and I know that there are some areas of the state where public education is troubled. Not surprisingly, those schools tend to be in areas plagued with serious problems – chronic poverty, joblessness, crime and so on. Allowing a tiny percentage of kids to leave these schools does nothing to address the underlying issues that trouble these communities, nor does it help lift up the entire population.
Vouchers are a gimmick. They are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Now that this bill has been defeated, it’s time for Pennsylvania legislators to get serious and look at real education reform.
Americans United’s Delaware Valley Chapter was pleased to be part of the coalition that worked against vouchers in the Keystone State. Of course, we have no intention of letting our guard down. We’ll keep a close eye on Pennsylvania – and all of the other states – and we’ll speak out loudly against any plan to force taxpayers to pay for someone else’s religion.