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The Great School Vouchers Debate

Progressive Councilmembers Thomas, Gauthier, O'Rourke and Brooks protested them. Jay-Z begged to differ. And Mayor Parker tried to bring folks together. Who’s got students’ backs? A week on the frontlines of the school choice wars

The Great School Vouchers Debate

Progressive Councilmembers Thomas, Gauthier, O'Rourke and Brooks protested them. Jay-Z begged to differ. And Mayor Parker tried to bring folks together. Who’s got students’ backs? A week on the frontlines of the school choice wars

This week was a microcosm in the evolution of just what it means to be a progressive nowadays. Does progressivism mean defending a well-intentioned but failing status quo, or does it stand with the people versus the powerful? Does it mean you follow the data, even if it leads to some inconvenient conclusions? Does it mean listening to your most loyal voting bloc, or jeopardizing your political standing by merely paying lip service to it?

These are just some of the questions that were bubbling under the surface of at least three events this week. First, there was an anti-school choice rally in Harrisburg, put on by SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers. Four City Council members were on the bill — Isaiah Thomas, Jamie Gauthier, Nic O’Rourke and Kendra Brooks, along with Speaker of the House Joanna McClinton — making the case against choice generally and a resurrected school voucher program in particular. Called PASS (Pennsylvania Award for Student Success), the proposal, supported by Republicans and Governor Shapiro, would help needy public school students escape failing schools by providing scholarships to attend private school.

“Whose schools? Our schools! … Show me the money!” Councilmember Thomas said at the rally. “Every available dollar should go to our schools … I don’t want to hear about ‘scholarships’.”

The same day, none other than Jay-Z begged to differ from Thomas and the other self-proclaimed progressive protectors of our public school coffers. His company, Roc Nation, defended PASS at a North Philly event, calling for the state to pony up $300 million for it in this year’s budget. That’s $200 million more than was proposed for last year’s pilot program, at a time when Governor Shapiro had funded public education at a historic level — a commitment he’s seeking to maintain in this year’s negotiations.

The fact of the matter is, none of our schools have the resources that they need to provide the 21st-century quality education that students need, that the students in our great city deserve. We have waited too long. We are looking to Harrisburg.” — Mayor Parker

At the event, Roc Nation’s managing director of philanthropy, Dania Diaz, said PASS was “not anti-public education,” but “simply another avenue for students to access if they want to.”

Brooks wasn’t having it. “I don’t give a damn what Jay-Z said, or Meek Mill,” she said at the rally. “I want people and parents to know the truth, that vouchers put public money in the pockets of the rich while draining resources from public schools and our communities.”

We’ll get to the speciousness of the argument put forth by Brooks and Thomas et al, but first the third event: At City Hall, Mayor Parker, while refusing to take a position on vouchers, struck a note of unity for school choice nonetheless by holding a press conference calling for full state funding of education, while standing shoulder to shoulder with charter school leaders.

“I told Philadelphia that I wouldn’t whisper about it,” Parker said. “I would not engage in the type of politics, especially when it comes to public education, that traditionally puts what we refer to as traditional public schools versus public charter schools, and work to pit the two against each other. The fact of the matter is, none of our schools have the resources that they need to provide the 21st-century quality education that students need, that the students in our great city deserve. We have waited too long. We are looking to Harrisburg.”

How bad is the school system?

Sure, a true reformer might wonder why a $4.5 billion budget isn’t enough to educate 200,000 kids. After all, $4.5 billion is $700 million more than the entire city budget was in 2015; we have long had a management problem as opposed to just a funding challenge when it comes to education. At least Parker is embracing the idea of choice when it comes to our schools.

But she’s a rarity in her party. Fact is, Democrats have by and large been the defenders of a failed education system — much to the chagrin of Black and Brown voters, 7 out of 10 of whom support charters and vouchers, in poll after poll. In their reflexive demagoguing, Democrats like McClinton, Thomas, Brooks and Gauthier seem not only in denial of the nature of the city’s education crisis, they’re actively committing political malpractice.

How bad is the current system so many Black and Brown voters feel trapped in? Here in Philly, just over 30 percent of third through eighth graders tested proficient or above last year in English, and just over 20 percent did so in math. Yet, much has been made of our district’s 75 percent high school graduation rate, up 10 percentage points over a decade ago. But is that a sign of increased learning, or social promotion? After all, according to, the education equity nonprofit, only 10 percent of those high school graduates go on to college.

The District’s enrollment is on a downward trend, yet spending is way up. Meantime, according to the Nation’s Report Card, proficiency in math in Philly is trending downward compared to 2019 and 2009. In 2016, the total District expenses “per student net of charter payments” was $16,000. Now it’s north of $25,000. What kind of return has that investment shown? Does that sound like smart, effective management to you?

“I give Governor Shapiro a lot of credit for proposing a policy that is solution-oriented, and for being willing to buck his own party because he believes that it’s going to ultimately benefit low income Black and Brown folks.” — former Democratic Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, now the CEO of Democrats for Education Reform

As I’ve written before, at any given time, the schools superintendent feeds more mouths than any restaurateur in Philadelphia; transports more bodies than SEPTA; oversees more facilities than any landlord in the city; manages more employees than most businesses; and, yes, is responsible for educating our kids. This doesn’t even get to the role of navigating backroom politics and serving as public frontman for all things District. Pretty imposing job, eh?

So why does the Board’s nebulous “Goals and Guardrails” touch on so few of these imperatives? Have you read Superintendent Watlington’s strategic plan? Are you confident innovation and out-of-the-box thinking are the order of the day when not once is the term “Artificial Intelligence” even mentioned, let alone considered as a way to either fuel learning or engaged as a threat with which to contend?

I’ve heard it from my progressive friends for defending public enemy number one, billionaire Jeff Yass, the driving force behind the voucher movement. But, again, here are those inconvenient facts: We say we support children, but when’s the last time a school superintendent has been held accountable — fired — for not educating kids? I couldn’t find one anywhere. I’ve found instances where a superintendent is shown the door due to financial mismanagement or sex scandal, but not because, say, test scores had plummeted.

At least Yass has a sense of urgency and an idea for combatting the persistent failures of an inherently unfair, sclerotic, and effectively anti-Black educational system. “We do what we do on behalf of the tens of thousands of low-income residents, those stuck in failing schools, or those serving in prison because their schools failed them,” Yass and his wife, Janine, wrote in an Inquirer op-ed last year.

If you believe we’re in a moment of crisis, shouldn’t every possible solution be on the table, from charters to vouchers? Instead, Republicans have owned the school choice issue — half of the nation’s states, mostly red, have some form of voucher program — while Democrats have stood in the way of possible solutions, and are paying a political price for such complacency.

“Ten years ago, Democrats had a 26 point advantage over Republicans in voter trust on education,” says Jorge Elorza, the former Democratic mayor of Providence, Rhode Island who now heads Democrats for Education Reform, which works to recruit and elect reform-minded Democrats who push for innovation and accountability in schools with an eye toward improving equity and public school choice. “Today, that advantage is gone. And in battleground states where it matters, such as Pennsylvania, Democrats are actually underwater when it comes to education. So, in the minds of voters, Democrats are no longer the party of education. This should be a wake up call for the Democratic Party.”

All is not lost, however, according to Elorza. “I give Governor Shapiro a lot of credit for proposing a policy that is solution-oriented, and for being willing to buck his own party because he believes that it’s going to ultimately benefit low income Black and Brown folks,” he says. “Colorado Governor Jared Polis has also been taking courageous stands. But this needs to be a united effort across the party.”

Elorza cites polling that shows voters still believe Democrats care about education; they just don’t trust the party to deliver on much-needed change. As the spouse of a longtime public school teacher (and recipient of her crazy good health care plan), it pains me to acknowledge that the prime impediment to that change has been the teacher’s union shortsightedness. Yes, unions must defend and protect the economic interests of their members. But not at the expense of those who said members serve — students, and, by extension, whole communities.

Plenty of inconvenient facts to deal with

Another roadblock, though, has been the simplistic media narrative around this complicated issue. When it comes to charter schools, there are plenty of inconvenient facts for progressives to contend with, like what Elorza calls the “myth” that they drain money from public schools. First, charters are public schools, just with a different governance structure that allows for more innovation and less stifling bureaucracy.

Second, the “stranded costs” argument pushed by progressives persists — that going from traditional public to public charter school costs the District nearly $8,000 per student — though it was basically debunked here in a study seven years ago that found the actual cost to be half that amount. The same study concluded that there’d be no such costs if the District would shutter its most chronically underperforming schools — the ones predominantly minority students happen to not coincidentally be fleeing from.

As to the efficacy of charters, most telling is the CREDO at Stanford study, which found that students of color, English language learners and students from low-income backgrounds enrolled in charter schools perform better in reading and math than their peers in traditional public schools.

Charter schools have produced impressive, even extraordinary gains in many cities,” concludes New York magazine’s astute Jonathan Chait. “But the most successful systems depend on the presence of effective authorizers: a governing body that decides which charter schools are allowed to open and closes bad ones.”

As Chait goes on to outline, the effect of school vouchers is harder to gauge. It’s troubling that, in Arizona, most of the voucher money went to kids who were already attending private schools or being home-schooled. “Providing vouchers didn’t give children choices,” Chait writes of the Arizona program. “It simply sent checks to parents who were already privately educating their children.”

“Whose schools? Our schools!…Show me the money! Every available dollar should go to our schools… I don’t want to hear about ‘scholarships’.” — Councilmember Isaiah Thomas

But that’s more of an implementation critique; presumably, as Chait observes when it comes to charters, the right system of oversight can make voucher programs more equitable, as intended. More murky is the research overall on the voucher movement. Trying to determine its efficacy is complicated, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the Inquirer, which, in its piece on Jay-Z’s advocacy this week, proclaimed rather definitively that “experts say voucher programs don’t actually improve — and often hurt — academic performance.” The evidence cited? One professor, Joshua Cowen of the University of Michigan, who is indeed a credible source.

But there is plenty of other peer-reviewed research out there, and it would seem the results at least warrant further experimentation when we know what the alternative is: Continued failure. Among the mixed bag of findings when it comes to vouchers is some promise, courtesy of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy:

    • “Studies from the 1990s and early 2000s generally indicate that U.S. students participating in these programs do as well or better on standardized tests than their public school peers. But studies released or published after around 2015 show a shift in performance. They indicate program participants do about the same or worse — in some cases, student scores have dropped considerably.”
    • “U.S. public school students earn slightly higher test scores in communities where private school vouchers and similar tuition assistance programs are available. Researchers explain that this appears to be a response to competition from area private schools. They also note the increase is very small.”
    • “There’s evidence that high school graduation rates are higher among private school choice students in the U.S.”

So, thus far vouchers get an incomplete mark or come up slightly short on raising test scores, but they seem to post higher graduation rates and incentivize public schools to perform slightly better — if you’re a progressive, that should warrant continuing the experiment, no? Especially if, as Shapiro has posited, you’re funding traditional public schools at a record rate, right?

Standing shoulder to shoulder with parents

Yet, the allergy to change on the Left persists, fueled by the teacher’s union. That’s what one state representative was getting at when bemoaning to me last year that Shapiro’s voucher support was asking Democrats to “cross a third rail.” As Elorza suggests, it’s only a third rail if you can’t see what the future holds for a party that treats with indifference its most loyal voting bloc.

Elorza’s successful two terms in office ought to be an object lesson. He went to battle with his city’s teacher’s union — standing shoulder to shoulder with parents and orchestrating a state takeover of the school system at one point. And he suffered no political cost.

“I was not supported by the teachers unions when I first ran or when I ran for reelection, and I won comfortably both times,” he says. “If I may say so, I left office with a 60 percent approval rating. There’s this myth that, as a democrat, you can’t go against the interest of the teachers unions. A lot of times they are very much in agreement as to what’s best for kids. But there are instances where those interests don’t align. That’s when, as Democrats, we need to know that our constituents are expecting us to represent the interests of kids. I’ve seen a lot of Democratic elected officials give away their power by believing they cannot challenge a powerful special interest group. That’s just not the case that I experienced here in a heavily Democratic city.”

Elorza concedes it can be a lonely fight at times, but he stands as living proof that it’s possible to challenge one’s own team’s political orthodoxy — and be rewarded for it. Are you listening, Speaker McClinton and Councilmembers Thomas, Gauthier, O’Rourke and Brooks? Don’t give up your power. Do right by your kids.


Philadelphia City Councilmembers in Harrisburg, from left to right: Isaiah Thomas, Nicolas O'Rourke, Kendra Brooks and Jaime Gauthier.

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