School districts in some of Pennsylvania’s biggest cities are consistently failing to offer students a quality education. So, shouldn’t there be a broad, bipartisan consensus in favor of school choice initiatives? There isn’t. And the reason has more to do with politics and power than with what’s best for kids.
Simply put, many elected officials have succumbed to the power and influence of teachers’ union leaders who oppose school choice, despite its successes. These unions have long helped politicians get elected and they expect a return on their investment.
With more than 181,000 members, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) is the state’s largest public employee union. It contributed more than $1.5 million to Gov. Tom Wolf during his successful re-election effort in 2018. In the past 26 years, according to campaign records, the union has given more than $14 million to the Democratic Party and just over $3 million to the Republicans.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, is also a major player in Pennsylvania, with more than 36,000 members statewide. It contributed $700,000 to Wolf in 2018.
The PSEA takes its cues from National Education Association (NEA), described by Influence Watch, a project of the Capital Research Center in Washington D.C., as “a major political player, with its associated political action committees contributing nearly $143.5 million to federal candidates and committees – 97 percent of which supported Democrats and liberals – from 1990 through February 2019.”
The PSEA describes itself as an organization that values “student-centered teaching and learning” and “will provide quality educational services” and “advocate for all students to have access to effective learning environments.” How’s it doing?
Look at Harrisburg, where the union has come up short by any reasonable metric. The most recent figures from the state Department of Education show students in the state capital languishing in some of the most critical areas of study. Test results in 2017 showed them trailing the statewide proficiency average by 31 percentage points in math and 40 percentage points in English Language Arts. The district has been under state oversight since 2012 and this year was placed under receivership. And it’s being investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office and the FBI.
Gov. Wolf’s veto of HB 800 means tens of thousands of students will be turned away from scholarship opportunities in the coming school year.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican, has a plan to help students like those in Harrisburg. Under his House Bill 1800, students in school districts under state receivership will be able to access scholarship grants funded with half of the per-student state subsidy to the districts as well as an additional match from new state funding. The scholarship could be used to cover the cost of participating in public and private schools.
In Harrisburg, half the state subsidy is about $4,100, so scholarships there would be worth $7,972 per student. In a district that spends $22,500 per student, or $450,000 for a classroom of 20, this is what you call making smart use of existing resources.
Over time, Turzai’s bill could potentially benefit families in about a dozen districts statewide that are teetering on the edge of receivership.
But the PSEA leadership, true to form, doesn’t want to save students trapped in dysfunctional schools.
In a press release expressing opposition to HB 1800, PSEA President Rich Askey declared, “The Harrisburg School District is on the right track for the first time in many years” and “has a good administrative team and a supportive school board to tackle the problems facing the city’s schools.”
This is not a serious argument that squares with the day-to-day reality of Harrisburg families.
HB 1800 is just the latest school choice initiative blocked by well-funded, union interests.
Turzai also sponsored HB 800, which would have expanded Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) by $100 million. The program serves 50,000 low- and middle-income students and has saved taxpayers about $5 billion since 2002, according to a study from EdChoice.
Unfortunately, Wolf, the governor who does the bidding of his union benefactors, vetoed HB 800 in June. That means tens of thousands of students will be turned away from scholarship opportunities in the coming school year.
Those students, and their families who understand the importance of school choice, need lawmakers who genuinely believe in expanding educational opportunities to find their courage and stand up to special interests. Let’s do what’s best for kids.
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, who also writes for several national publications based in Washington D.C. The Commonwealth Foundation is a supporter of Broad + Liberty.
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