Senate Bill 1: The Fight For School Choice in Pennsylvania

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Despite the fierce opposition from powerful teachers’ unions, the school choice movement is growing across the nation. In Pennsylvania, State Senators Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) introduced the Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act (SB1) that would expand educational options for children. In the first year of implementation, the bill would allow low-income children trapped in persistently lowest-achieving schools to attend the school of their choosing. By the third year, all low-income students regardless of school will be afforded such an opportunity. Poor students will be granted financial assistance that is equal to 100 percent of the state’s annual per-pupil funding.

Many Pennsylvania schools have failed to live up to expectations. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania school spending per pupil has skyrocketed with no signs of any educational improvement.  In Philadelphia, half of the students in the district fail to meet basic reading and math skills on a state administered exam.   American students are falling behind in the world. The world is becoming increasingly competitive and globalized. The educational quality of Pennsylvania students is vital in order for them to compete on a national and global scale. The National Center for Education Statistics found that Americans ranked 16th and 21st out of 29 developed countries in science and mathematical scores, respectively.   It is dangerous for America’s future prosperity if the academic gap continues to grow between American and international students.

School choice is a win-win for all. By increasing choice and competition, similar programs have been shown to increase student test scores across the nation. Multiple studies have confirmed that school choice boosts parental satisfaction in their child’s education.   Many parents have expressed gratitude that they could choose a better and safer learning environment for their children. While the Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act would expand the educational opportunities to needy families that lack access to educational alternatives, we support giving all Pennsylvania families the same opportunities regardless of income and zip code. This bill is just the first step to ensuring school choice for all. 

Sadly, the Pennsylvania State Education Association wants to trap students in a costly “one size fits all” public school that has failed to meet their academic standards. The teachers unions have stated that the solution to improving education is more taxpayers’ money. However, academic studies have shown that there is no correlation between increased per-pupil expenditures and student achievement.   On average, the cost of educating one student in a Pennsylvania public school for a year is an outrageous $14,420.   It’s clear that Pennsylvania needs dramatic education reform.

Pennsylvania must allow parents to have more control over their child’s education. The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act would give students the freedom to opt out of their chronically failing school. It would also increases funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit to $100 million which grants companies tax credits if they donate to a non-profit educational scholarship program. The best solution to improving educational quality in Pennsylvania is to reduce cost and increase academic satisfaction by giving low-income students the opportunity to attend a better school that meets their personal needs.

According to the bill sponsor Senator Williams (D-Philadelphia), “If a charter school or a private school spending between $16,000 and $20,000 per student doesn’t produce positive results, parents will withdraw their children from the school and the school will—deservedly—fail. But parents don’t have the option of withdrawing their children from a failing public school. Today’s system permits failing schools to continue, penalizing less fortunate children who only get one chance for an education.” 

The Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutionally of similar school choice programs. In 2002, the Supreme Court found the Ohio voucher program to be constitutional. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, stated that: “This Court’s jurisprudence makes clear that a government aid program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause if it is neutral with respect to religion and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice.”   As long as parents who receive the aid have a wide array of religious and non-religious schools to choose from, it does not conflict with the Constitution.

The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act would allow children the opportunity to attend a better school. Pennsylvania children and parents should be empowered to escape their zip code in order to choose the school that best suits their individual needs. With a conservative governor and General Assembly this year, we believe that Pennsylvania has a great opportunity to pass education reforms that emphasizes choice and competition.