Elmer Smith: Freedom from public education?

Posted: July 29, 2011

STATE REP. Mark Longietti shuffled through his sheaf of papers and pulled up the study that summed up his concerns about expanding school choice.

"What these studies show," Longietti concluded, "is that vouchers have not improved public school outcomes."

In fact, the studies he referred to, in particular one by the University of Arizona, showed that children in voucher schools in Wisconsin had done significantly worse on standardized tests than kids in traditional public schools.

Took 20 years for Wisconsin to even require testing for children in voucher schools. When results confirmed that the schools weren't working, it prompted immediate action: Wisconsin introduced legislation to outlaw the tests and expand voucher schools.

Because nobody on either side of the issue listens to anyone on the other side. Mostly, those who are for or against the expansion of publicly financed school choice have already heard enough.

Sharon Cherubin of Unite PA, a school-choice lobbying group, listened respectfully to Longietti's statistics. But she had already identified the enemy.

Parents, she said, "want to be liberated from the [public school] bureaucracy that has held them hostage," she said. "They want freedom!"

I wanted freedom after sitting through parts of a two-day "hearing" of the House Education Committee at Temple University. Rep. Paul Clymer, who chaired the public session, billed it as an informational meeting.

But bills by Reps. Tom Killion and James Roebuck were what prompted the session and the hidden agenda was the fate of the now-dormant Senate Bill 1, the latest attempt to fund vouchers in Pennsylvania.

There were no surprises. The 18 witnesses took their usual positions. The eight lawmakers looked attentive. Then everybody returned to their corners to prepare for the next round.

For now, at least, SB1 is on life support. "It's not going anywhere," Roebuck said.

The bill would provide up to $5,000 per child for low-income students in the state's 144 lowest-performing schools if they transferred to private or charter schools. But legislators in districts that don't have a lot of low-performing schools or low-income students saw nothing in it for them.

"They kept on tweaking it," Roebuck said, "until they got the income eligibility up to about what a state rep makes, about $75,000."

In effect, they tweaked it until it was too pricey for a state that just slashed education spending from kindergarten to graduate school.

The fallback position for lawmakers who want to free their people from the "bureaucracy that has held them hostage" is the broad expansion of charters.

Killion's bill would allow applicants for charter schools in the 10 lowest-performing districts to bypass local school boards and apply to a state commission or to "self-selected institutions of higher education" for their charters.

The bill, according to the draft, would "streamline the process by which charters are formed, evaluated and renewed . . . and paid."

Well, that's just ducky. In a state where charter regulation is so lax that some charter operators have written rent checks to themselves and can hold staff meetings at family reunions, do we really want less regulation?

Lawrence Feinberg, of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, could hardly keep his seat at the witness table.

What some in the Legislature are really about, he said, "is to selectively dismantle" public schools and send the money "to the privateers." Relaxing charter regulations sends "unmonitored public money into private hands," he said. "When we spend taxpayers' money in the public school districts, people get to confront us. At least they have a say."

They should have that say at the local level. No commission in Harrisburg or "self-selected institutions of higher learning," should allocate tax dollars. If the people want freedom from the bureaucracy holding them hostage, they should at least be able to say so in a public forum.


Send email to smithel@phillynews. com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ ElmerSmith

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