Republicans want to fund vouchers for students in the lowest-performing schools to attend private schools of their choice. Students in grades 9 through 12 would receive scholarships of up to $10,000, with $15,000 going to special education students. Democrats have balked at anything that might show less than a full-throttled support of public education.
It’s time to move past this divisive issue so we can get to what really matters: fixing public school funding.
I want to make this perfectly clear: I am a lifelong advocate of public schools. Years ago, I attended Philadelphia neighborhood schools — Longstreth Elementary, Shaw Jr. High, Bartram High School — and got a great education. In fact, I opted for Bartram over Girls’ High, the only magnet school available to me at that time, because I was convinced that Bartram would do right by me.
Students living in Southwest Philly today could not find an education of equal quality in those same school buildings I learned in. For starters, the buildings themselves are now decades older and, like many Philadelphia facilities, are in serious need of renovation and improved ventilation. That’s in part why I have written before that supporting vouchers and charter schools cannot come at the cost of abandoning children to schools with unsafe conditions and lower educational outcomes.
Short term needs
But we are in a situation where short-term needs are forced to compete with absolutely necessary long-term investments. Families in the most economically disadvantaged Philadelphia neighborhoods yearn for better, safer opportunities for their kids now.
In their support for vouchers, Republicans are focusing on the short-term. In their insistence that every available dollar go to improve the desperate situation in many neighborhood schools, the Democrats are focused on long-term improvements.
Democrats rightly object that the Republican voucher plan has not been designed carefully enough to ensure that the neediest students would actually receive assistance. The identification of areas for voucher availability must be carefully studied with significant community and teacher input.
That’s right: teacher input. If poverty-stricken schools are to lose students temporarily to private options, it makes sense to work with dedicated teachers from the beginning to get their ideas and arrange transfers for them to other public schools. If public buildings become empty, that’s a chance to fully renovate to prepare for students’ return.
The Philadelphia teachers’ union fears that if the union and public school supporters give even an inch on the voucher issue, the floodgates would open to more vouchers, more charter schools, and an abandonment of public education. The voucher plan now under consideration would be the proverbial camel with its nose under the tent.
Let me say forcefully — amidst short-term thinking, long-term necessities, and camels’ noses — well-resourced local public schools have to be the highest priority. But we live in a world and in a democracy where compromise is often necessary. Compromise: Now, there’s a word we hear too rarely in these polarized times.
Governor Josh Shapiro understands compromise. He proposed vastly increasing the funds going to public education in Pennsylvania, while at the same time finding an immediate remedy for those children now lingering in subpar schools. He backed off his support of vouchers when he realized he couldn’t convince his Democratic colleagues in the House to go along with the plan.
The Republican-led state Senate in August passed a $100 million school voucher bill anyway — while also cutting Democrats’ proposal to infuse tens of millions of additional dollars into the poorest school districts, including Philadelphia. That is not compromise.
For this to work, we need an iron-clad contingency built in linking huge increases in public school funding with any modest monetary support for vouchers. Legislators will balk that they can make appropriations only for one year at a time and cannot commit future legislatures to funding priorities. But the governor and current legislature can come to an understanding that any funding for vouchers in future years would be entirely dependent on sizable increases in public school funding. No major increase for public schools, no vouchers.
If we can stop agonizing over vouchers and make them dependent on appropriate and necessary public school support, we can then focus on how to implement the PA Supreme Court decision and fully address the public school funding challenge.
Goodbye to camels; hello to a workable marriage built on compromise.
What we can do
- Reach out to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to support reasonable compromise.
- Lobby both Democratic and Republican legislators to link substantial increases in public school funding with temporary approval of vouchers. No future vouchers without increases in public school appropriations.
- Vote for elected officials who are problem-solvers.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
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