There is an age-old adage: If youâ€™re going to do something, do it rightâ€”or donâ€™t do it at all. Based on poll results exclusively obtained first by Freindly Fire, nowhere is that more applicable than in the fight for school vouchers in Pennsylvania. According to the Pulse Opinion Research poll conducted on behalf of UNITE PA, which surveyed 500 likely voters across the state, the majority of Pennsylvanians prefer that any school choice program be open to all students (or at least most of the middle class), as opposed to just low-income, predominantly inner-city students. This result is not surprising on any level, and, undeniably, leads to five rock-solid conclusions:
1. The middle class realizes that ALL schools need improvement, and competition through choice is the best way to achieve that objective.
2. Pennsylvanians, by a whopping 78-to-9 margin, favor a broad-based choice program.
3. If a comprehensive choice program isnâ€™t offered, citizens would prefer an expansion of the EITC educational tax credit, by a 3-to-1 ratio.
4. The reason voucher legislation failed in the spring, and in all likelihood wonâ€™t pass now, isnâ€™t due to opposition to school choice, but because the senate refuses to consider a broader, more inclusive bill. Therefore â€¦
5. If a suburban or rural legislator supports vouchers only for low-income families, while their constituents would be left out in the cold without receiving a penny, they do so at their own peril. A full 40 percent of likely voters stated that they will be â€śless likelyâ€ť to support that lawmaker in his or her next election based on that vote.
The message of this poll is clear: Do vouchers the right way, or donâ€™t do them at all. And since the senate has already passed a low-income version by the slimmest of margins, with its leaders stating thatâ€™s all they will do, expect the voucher bill to die what may be its final political death, and look for the EITC expansion to pass as a stand-alone bill (which it did in the spring by a virtually unanimous 190-7 bipartisan vote on Rep. Tom Quigleyâ€™s House Bill 1330).
Failure to act responsibly will leave the GOP politically vulnerable, and, infinitely more important, abandon yet another generation of Pennsylvaniaâ€™s future.
Since last January, Republican Senator Jeff Piccola has been trying to pass legislation offering school vouchers only to students in underperforming schools who meet low-income requirements. Despite crafting Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) during the Rendell Administration (when there was a Democratic State House and an anti-choice governor), Piccola never bothered to broaden the bill to reflect the new 10-seat Republican majority in the House, and a win by a pro-school-choice governor, Tom Corbett.
Piccola, along with Democratic co-sponsor Senator Tony Williams, ran the bus over anyone who dared question why SB 1 was being treated as hallowed legislation, scoffing atâ€”but not answeringâ€”queries as to why no attempt was made to broaden the bill, given the favorable legislative climate. In the process, many SB 1 proponents demonized longtime political allies for their â€śbrazenâ€ť attempt to improve a badly flawed education reform bill that would neither educate nor reform.
That intransigence directly led to vouchers dying on the vine in June. Despite repeated assurances that it would pass the Senate, it was never brought to the floor for a vote. Piccolaâ€™s excuse for not running the bill was that the House wasnâ€™t embracing SB 1 with the same fervor, yet the truth is that he didnâ€™t even have the votes in his own chamber.
Last month, a watered-down version of SB 1 finally passed the senate after much arm-twisting, but as the poll shows, itâ€™s back to square one, meaning that SB 1 faces a tough road ahead. Many folks in Pennsylvania view vouchers favorably, but when they learn that the only voucher bill being considered is one that will never impact them, their support plummets.
Many traditional supporters of school choice have had SB 1 sold to them as the be-all and end-all. But the huge irony is that these people in turn become the biggest detractors of SB 1 upon learning what the legislation does, and, more importantly, doesnâ€™t do. From Catholic school advocates to Tea Partiers to everyday parents, the majority of those who favor school choice become irritated, if not downright angry, after discovering that in SB 1, a full seven years after enactment, middle-income students would still be excluded. Because of this, many look at SB 1 as nothing more than yet another targeted entitlement program for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The results of the Pulse Opinion Poll are so clear-cut that itâ€™s a good bet many House members on the fence will now be moved to oppose the voucher aspect, instead calling for other educational reform measures to be considered individually rather than part of an SB 1 package. Charter school reforms, teacher evaluations and the EITC should be debated on their merits and not held hostage by certain senators hell-bent on ramming an ineffectual voucher bill down the Houseâ€™s throatâ€”or all else be damned.
And if the House decides to eliminate the voucher and significantly expand the EITC, what then? Will Piccola once again call that legislation â€śdead on arrivalâ€ť and kill it upon its return to the senate?
And if so, will the House leaders do the right thing and relegate Piccola to the dustbin of irrelevancy by simply mandating that the EITC expansion be part of the 2012 budget?
Itâ€™s time to stop playing games. Pennsylvania students are 42nd in SAT scores, ranking low in literacy, graduation rates and those attending college. Their performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress exam has not improved. Most startling, nearly half of all 11th graders are not proficient in math and reading. This cannot be attributed to just the poor-performing urban schools pulling down scores, but is testament to an across-the-board educational failure.
Advocating school choice for only low-income students results in the default perception that education is adequate everywhere else, which is not remotely accurate. We cannot afford to waste another decade, forsaking our childrenâ€”our futureâ€”because some choose to ignore the widespread failure occurring on a daily basis.
The poll clearly shows what common sense already dictates: Only competition can begin to reverse decades of educational failure. Comprehensive school choice provides that free-market solution, and, if passed, would be a model for the nation. But since stubbornness, personal agendas and lack of political will are still prevalent in the senate, letâ€™s hope the house of representatives acts responsibly and does the right thing for our children.
As Voltaire said, â€śDonâ€™t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.â€ť
And jettisoning a bad voucher program while passing other meaningful reforms is a very good start.