“It’s hard to excel in a place where you are more worried about surviving than succeeding,” said Jaslin Vasquez-Gonzales, a student at St. Joseph’s University, during the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee’s hearing on school choice and Lifeline Scholarships.
The hearing was hosted by state Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia) and overseen by Policy Committee Chairman Rep. Josh Kail (R-Beaver/Washington) on Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Vasquez-Gonzales, a beneficiary of private school scholarships, was one of five panelists to testify on a range of issues pertaining to education reform, including cost barriers for low-income families, standardized educational approaches, special education resources, and the politicization of school choice.
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Andrew Brady, president of West Catholic Preparatory High School, cited cost as the number one reason why parents choose not to send their children to West Catholic, stating, “When I speak with these parents, I can feel the sadness and desperation. They aren’t asking for much — they just want to be able to send their child to a school where they will be safe and given a quality education.”
Panelists testified that violence and negative social influences are rampant in failing Philadelphia public schools, with Vasquez-Gonzales citing the example of her cousin, who was beaten and stabbed at a Philadelphia public high school.
This type of brutality is causing “sleepless nights” for parents of children in the Philadelphia School District. When asked how important this issue is to families, mother of two Kemah Brewington stated that there would be an “overwhelming interest” amongst parents in the Philadelphia School District to apply for private school vouchers immediately, if made available. “Up your game, public schools,” Brewington said.
In addition to the violence in and around failing Philadelphia public schools, parents of children with special needs feel that a lack of specialized resources is working against their children realizing their full potential, according to Shannon Mitchell. “Kids on the spectrum deserve a chance. They deserve to learn, come home, and do homework. They need a chance to succeed in life,” said Mitchell, a mother of three children in Philadelphia, two of whom have special needs.
According to panelist and former public school teacher Joy Converse, a specialized or individualized approach to education is something that failing public schools are simply not able to provide. “The multiple intelligences that exist in our students were being reduced to a number on a page — a test score — in order to prepare them for future standardized testing,” said Converse.
Converse cited this increasingly standardized curriculum as a reason for her early retirement after decades of teaching and a barrier to students’ success who do not have the option to attend other schools due to tuition costs or geographic requirements. I, as a teacher, had the option to apply to work at another school, whereas the parents of my students did not have the luxury of moving for their children to attend a better school,” said Converse.
[Parents] just want to be able to send their child to a school where they will be safe and given a quality education
Despite the PASS program and Lifeline Scholarships having bipartisan support at the state level, the measure has yet to be implemented. “There is one reason why programs like this don’t pass in Harrisburg — it’s special interest,” stated Rep. Josh Kail.
The panelists expressed frustration at the politicization of this issue by special interest groups, agreeing that the situation for children in failing school districts is urgent and dire. “This goes beyond politics,” stressed Brewington.
Some panelists addressed the issue of special interest directly, with Brady stating pointedly, “I’m not anti-public or anti-charter school, nor am I anti-union. I think too often this conversation devolves into having to pick a side. I’m on the side of children who urgently need access to quality education.”
Rep. Martina White echoed Brady’s call for a balanced approach to educational reform. “We all have a duty to continue to support and improve our traditional public education system — the budgets that I voted on do this — but it is also true that we have a duty to help the children that are trapped in consistently failing schools and underperforming schools,” said Rep. White.
When asked about how to promote school choice among inner-city voters, Brewington stressed the importance of a grassroots effort. “There has to be a mass parent education campaign — not by politicians, but by parents just like themselves,” she said.
The hearing ended with the committee urging the panelists to continue educating others about Lifeline Scholarships and advocating on behalf of children and families, issuing assurance that the committee will continue fighting for school choice in Harrisburg.
Olivia DeMarco is an Editorial Associate for Broad + Liberty. She previously served as a legislative aide in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. She holds a master’s in public policy from Temple University.