When Mayor John Street’s team went to work in 2000 to negotiate with the Commonwealth a plan to rescue the Philadelphia School District from insolvency, a heck of a ruckus ensued. We were steadfast proponents of the value of public education yet challenged to try unproven private-sector reforms as a condition of the groundbreaking, bipartisan deal we ultimately struck.
Shared governance, schools managed by diverse types of providers, and significantly more funding followed. We demonstrated flexibility while drawing a line in the sand: no takeover of the School District by a private entity. In the face of longstanding poor performance by schools that disadvantaged so many of our city’s children, we also were crystal clear that we would neither defend nor accept the status quo.
The current budget stalemate over school vouchers reminds me of the wisdom of that posture. Private school vouchers will never be the answer to our vast public education problem, but they can offer life-changing opportunities to students who receive them. I understand why some elected officials, including otherwise staunch Democrats, support the initiative to help their constituents, even at their political peril.
Vouchers would be a comparatively small piece of the education spending pie; they are not and never should be considered a substitute for correcting Pennsylvania’s insufficient, inequitable, and unconstitutional system of funding public schools. But maybe they are a step necessary now to achieve the bigger leap soon afterward.
Taking school vouchers … public
So how might advocates for and against vouchers find common ground? An idea I’ve had for a while would be to make vouchers eligible for use in both public and private schools. Not for tuition in public schools but for designated school improvements. If the concept behind vouchers is truly to give families a say and a choice, then we should take the bet that many would choose for their children to attend local public schools if only they were better resourced and better performing. Imagine one classroom of 30 low-income students and their caregivers coming together with $300,000 cash in hand (if a voucher is worth $10,000 per student) and discussing with teachers and principals the educational and facility upgrades they need: new books and tablets, a fun and functional play yard, science equipment, tutoring, mental health counselors.
If the concept behind vouchers is truly to give families a say and a choice, then we should take the bet that many would choose for their children to attend local public schools if only they were better resourced and better performing.
The list would be long, and this scenario would be repeated in multiple classrooms in multiple schools. Money talks, and with parents so directly invested in their children’s education, in all senses of the word, profound changes could result.
In addition to holding educational promise, public school vouchers would have political advantages. They would be usable in the many Pennsylvania school districts that don’t contain the array of parochial and private school options present in our region. They would reduce the economic disparities among public schools within Philadelphia and other districts where some communities can afford to fundraise for parent-driven improvements while others cannot. Importantly, they would be an added pipeline for putting state funding into public schools; again, by no means a complete or adequate solution but at least not a diversion.
A valid criticism of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and other voucher-style programs is the absence of accountability. That needs to change whether vouchers are used for private or public schools. Here, public schools have a head start, since their performance data is already public and their activities are always subject to scrutiny. Private schools that accept vouchers need to know what their reporting mandates and benchmarks will be and start playing catch up in the sunshine.
There are many details that would need to be ironed out to implement vouchers for public and private schools and realize their intended benefits. For example, grassroots assistance could be needed to help families use their vouchers effectively. If Governor Shapiro and legislators decide this is an experiment worth trying, we could learn a lot and they could move on to the essential business of adopting a plan to provide full and fair formula-directed funding for public schools that meets the test of the recent Commonwealth Court ruling. That would be a huge shakeup to the status quo that should make all Pennsylvanians proud.
Debra Kahn served as Philadelphia Secretary of Education from 2000-06. She was a member of the Philadelphia Board of Education from 1991-98.
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