Guy Ciarrocchi: Dear school choice friends — we are allies, not competitors

Taxpayer money, political power, and imposing their ideology. 

That’s what motivates the opponents of school choice. They may dress it up in “studies” put forth by front-groups with “scholars,” or have heartwarming sounding organizational names. They may use unwitting teachers-union-loyal legislators to post messages on social media. They may even find a random member of the clergy to pretend to be outraged by school choice.

But, at the end of the day, they’re motivated by money, power, or ideology. No matter their motivation, they’re united against any and all forms of school choice: scholarships, cyber charters, vouchers, home schooling, charter schools or education savings accounts.

They have almost unlimited assets — the union dues of over 191,000 teachers funding what is often the largest PAC in Pennsylvania. They have the grassroots support of most of those teachers, plus their families. Together, they stuff envelopes, send emails, post on social media, lobby in Harrisburg and work at the polls. They have allied organizations doing all of that, too.

They have most of the legacy media criticizing school choice and each of its components: Catholic, cyber charter, brick and mortar charters, private schools, and homeschoolers. And, that media cheering section endlessly lobbies for more and more taxpayer dollars, often by arguing that charters, cybers and vouchers “harm” public schools. They excuse away public school falling test scores, attendance, and graduation rates.

School choice friends: our opponents have almost unlimited money, an army of activists, a fleet of lobbyists and most media outlets making their case and working against us.

So they do not need us fighting with or undermining one another! They don’t need — or deserve — the help. 

Many of us support the overall goal of empowering all parents to choose the right school for their children. We know that when children attend schools that work for them, we all benefit — whatever school the parents choose.

When we succeed in expanding choices, more parents are put in charge and more children get the chance to succeed. It’s why we fight to defend against funding cuts for cyber charters, protect charters from enrollment caps, enact laws for scholarships for children who are forced to attend failing or unsafe schools just because of their zip code, and preserve the laws to allow parents to homeschool their children.

Recently, at various school choice meetings, I’ve heard passionate pleas to help children from parents, educators, business leaders, and even real scholars. How charters make a difference. How Catholic schools serve as a safe space in communities falling behind. How Jewish day schools promote millennia-old traditions. How cyber schools are often a last hope — or a best hope. And why homeschoolers need support and respect.

Each does so convincingly. However, I’ve started to hear some troubling things, too.

Lately, I’ve heard some rumblings in different parts of the school choice movement when I’m with a group of only cyber leaders, Lifeline/PASS scholarship advocates, or charter school leaders. Disappointing statements like: “that’s not my fight; “with all the attention on ‘them,’ it’s hard for us to make our case;” or, “‘they’re’ going to take money from ‘us.’”

There are bills in Harrisburg to cut funding to cyber charter schools by up to 48 percent —one passed the House. And the Governor said that he’d sign it. Surprisingly, some traditional (brick and mortar) charter school supporters have said “it’s not their fight.” 

Some cyber charter school leaders weren’t concerned when the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Allentown school districts imposed enrollment caps on charter schools — “not our fight.” Well, now Democrats in Harrisburg and the state Department of Education want to put enrollment caps on cybers — because they’re “growing too fast” or cost “too much money.” (By the way, under the current law, cybers only get about 70 percent of the funding of traditional public schools.)

Some of the most passionate supporters of Lifeline (PASS) Scholarships have been so focused on trying to advance their cause — to create scholarships for the poorest families whose kids are forced to attend the worst schools in the state — that they’ve been indifferent to the attacks on funding and enrollment that some legislators are trying to impost on charters and cyber charters.

And, sadly, some charter school operators are indifferent — if not quietly opposed — to Lifeline/PASS scholarships, as they see it as competition.

Sadly, Team School Choice doesn’t always operate as a team. 

Many years ago, I worked as the Director of Public Affairs for the Philadelphia Archdiocese when the charter school law was enacted. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by a lawyer who I knew as he had been a legislator. He was representing the founders of a would-be charter school, seeking to buy a then-closed Catholic school. I agreed to help make the case.

After initial hesitation at the Archdiocese — concern about creating “free education” competitors in low-income neighborhoods, the sale was permitted. Why? Ultimately, it was understood that after years of lobbying for school choice, selling the building was the right thing to do — for the neighborhood, for the cause of school choice, and most of all for the children.

After all, isn’t that why we are all in this battle?

I do not share this story to seek praise for myself or the Archdiocese, but to remind my friends that we all want to empower parents and more good, safe schools so that children can succeed. Some element of friendly competition is understandable; but, we are all on Team School Choice, whether your passion — or your school —  is a cyber, charter, Catholic, religious, or private school.

Our opponents don’t see a difference: they’re against all of us and each of us. They try to cut our funding, cap enrollment, and stop new school choice. They see it as a “defeat” when any child gets to select any school that isn’t his assigned public school.

Because they’re focused on money, power, and ideology.

It is no coincidence that our opponents in Harrisburg are currently going after each school choice community: trying to cut funding to cybers, cap enrollment in cybers and charters, and block Lifeline/PASS scholarships.  

Why do you think they are making us fight on all flanks? Why do you think they whisper about “deals,” getting one group to “sell out” the other group — fanning the flames of “that’s not your fight, step back.”

We got involved in this movement because we believe in empowering parents and rescuing children. Of course, each type of school leader feels passionately about their type of school — that’s understandable, even admirable.

But we must never forget that what we all want is to get a child into a school that works. More options will empower more parents and rescue more children — and, yes, shake up the status quo system. 

Yes, everyone will have to compete to prove that they can help children succeed.

Isn’t this why we’re in this fight? 

Guy Ciarrocchi writes for Broad + Liberty and RealClear Pennsylvania. He is a Senior Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation. Follow Guy at @PaSuburbsGuy.

5 thoughts on “Guy Ciarrocchi: Dear school choice friends — we are allies, not competitors”

  1. Won’t this clown just get a proper job and keep his mouth shut?
    I am all for school choice, but Ciarrochi has made more rifts than he’s done good. And of the latter, I struggle to find much in the way of his contributions.

  2. If we were to believe Mr. Ciarrocchi this is a classic case of David vs Goliath. Where the evil public school employees have lobbyists, PACs, and army of teachers to help assist with this. What he is not telling you is that the school choice advocates have them same. I am all for school choice, if you want to enroll your child in a home, charter, private, religious, or cyber school you should be free to do so. As long as you pay with for it with your own money, not tax payer money. I will not watch taxpayer money got to for profit schools whose curriculum may not be subject to state oversight.

      1. “What about the public non profit Charters? Which most of them are.” Do you have a source for this claim?

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