Karen Heller: Vouchers are not for the kids

File photo: Students leave Spring Garden School in North Philadelphia in June. A school voucher bill is not about the students, says Inquirer columnist Karen Heller.
File photo: Students leave Spring Garden School in North Philadelphia in June. A school voucher bill is not about the students, says Inquirer columnist Karen Heller. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 30, 2011

Harrisburg is bankrupt in so many ways, and not just officially. When it comes to helping Philadelphia, funding public schools and social services, or banning assault weapons that have zip to do with hunting Bambi, state legislators barely look up from their BlackBerrys.

Then, lo and behold, lawmakers started wringing their hands over the plight of our city's neediest, suggestive of a massive conversion experience or, barring that, something hinky in the Capitol's drinking water.

The state Senate passed SB 1 last week, the voucher bill that appears to serve our poorest children attending Pennsylvania's worst public schools, the majority in Philadelphia, the very institutions whose funding the GOP-controlled legislature sliced and diced earlier this year.

But appearances can run contrary to the truth.

"This has nothing to do with helping the poor children of Philadelphia," said State Sen. Daylin Leach. "The organizations that are funding the pro-voucher movement are very open that they want to eliminate public schools."

Almost two-thirds of Pennsylvanians disapprove of vouchers, according to recent polling, and the bill requires passage in the House to become law. Said Democracy Rising PA's Tim Potts, "The legislators' interests trump the will of the voters."

To qualify for vouchers, students must be accepted by private or parochial schools, an achievement critics believe few children at low-performing institutions may accomplish. "Most of the money will go to kids already attending private and parochial schools," said the Education Law Center's Baruch Kintisch. "Whenever politics takes over the discussion of education policy, the neediest students always lose."

An earlier version would have helped families with incomes up to $78,225. Said Potts: "This is intended for middle-class kids who already attend private and parochial schools."

The voucher bill is merely "let's get the nose under the camel's tent," said public school advocate Larry Feinberg. "Once they get the voucher bill passed, they can expand who qualifies." When students leave a public school, state funding goes with them.

The state invests billions in education, and "there's an awful lot of money to be made," said Education Voters PA's Susan Gobreski. Voucher funding goes directly to the school, not the student or family. The bill doesn't demand the same level of accountability from recipient schools as from public school districts.

"Follow the money," Feinberg said. "This is like Marcellus Shale where you can see private money influencing public officials."

Considerable contributions and lobbying have been invested in pro-voucher candidates, and SB 1. Gov. Corbett was the keynote speaker at the spring national policy summit of the American Federation for Children, the ultraconservative advocacy organization, funded by the wealthy DeVos family (Amway, Blackwater), the Koch brothers of the pro-voucher movement. The gubernatorial campaign of Philadelphia Democratic State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a longtime voucher champion, received $5 million from three conservative suburban investors who head Students First PA, a federation partner.

The Catholic Church and affiliated advocacy groups also campaigned for vouchers. "I follow that very closely and, of course, I've encouraged local politicians and the governor himself to be open to the possibility of vouchers," Philadelphia Archibishop Charles Chaput told The Inquirer's editorial board. In the last decade, Philadelphia Catholic elementary school enrollment plummeted 41 percent.

The bill appears to be in violation of Pennsylvania's constitution, which states, "No money raised for support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school."

You don't improve public schools by continually cutting funding, or undermining their mission.

"I would despair if this becomes law," Leach said. "This is not a one-year cut. This is a permanent policy shift that permanently drains on public education, a permanent anchor on the poorest schools that will never get better because of this."


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

 

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