‘Delivering on the Mandate’ forum brings together policy leaders, concerned citizens

A passionate panel of experts on school choice and smart state spending gathered today for the Commonwealth Foundation’s “Delivering on the Mandate” Policy & Principles Luncheon.

According to school choice panel experts, which included former Pennsylvania House Speaker Bob O’Donnell (D-Philadelphia), Chairman of the Senate Education Committee Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) and Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), the topic has people talking-and educating themselves about the future of education in their state.

Nearly 80 attended the event, moderated by Commonwealth Senior Fellow and former State Representative Jeff Coleman. Panel members said they were encouraged by the fact that school choice was at the forefront of the Primary and Midterm Elections and that it was no longer a “right-wing” or “left-wing” dwindling agenda item but instead a mainstream topic of conversation in Pennsylvania.

“The campaign of 2010 provided a bright hope,” said Coleman, “because school choice is now a statewide issue.

“We’re here to talk about kids being confined to a school because of their zip code,” he continued. “It is perhaps the major civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Coleman credited the renewed interest in school choice to the fact that the topic was injected into the race for governor earlier this year by Democratic candidate Senator Tony Williams. “People have more of a sense of what school choice is,” because of Sen. Williams’ campaign, said Coleman

One supporter of school choice has been on the front lines of that battle long before it was a hot topic of 2010. Former Pennsylvania House Speaker Bob O’Donnell, now a senior fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, said the debate seeks to return the authority and responsibility of education to the family.

And the sooner the better, according to Sen. Anthony Williams. “It’s a difficult political path, but this country is in trouble,” he said. “Our nation is losing its way because it has fallen academically behind-woefully behind.”

O’Donnell added, “There’s a growing awareness in our nation today that the equality of educational opportunity and the quality of education were both failing.”

That awareness was evident in a poll recently release by the Commonwealth Foundation that found that Pennsylvanians favor school choice.

According to Commonwealth Foundation Director of Policy Research Nate Benefield, “Across the board, by age, by gender, by race, by party, there was widespread support for educational tax credits and vouchers for all students.” [See more on the Commonwealth Foundation poll.]

Pennsylvania spends $26 billion annually on K-12 schools, Benefield said, or $13,000 per student and approximately $325,000 per classroom. But where has all the money gone? Numbers show that there has been an 80 percent increase in funds for facilities such as school buildings and sports fields, while the funds invested in actual educational improvement have increased only 30 percent.

School choice, however, is not only about education vouchers that will allow parents property tax breaks if their children attend an educational institution outside their district. It means, said Williams, academic options for all parents, in cyber schools, charter schools and private schools.

Chairman of the Senate Education Committee Jeff Piccola said the pressing school choice issues include, first, improving the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program and, second, working on charter schools, making them more accountable and enhancing the ability to start charter schools, especially by institutions of higher education.

These issues, the panelists agree, are indeed pressing. But how does school choice move from the front burner in the first 30, 60 or 100 days of Governor-Elect Tom Corbett’s administration? One answer, Williams says, is to remain focused. He and his colleagues have committed to put “Students First” and keep school choice at the forefront.

Adds O’Donnell, “everyone wants to be a part of something that has the potential of success. It is clear that this notion has momentum, which is why it has attracted political players.”

Also discussed at the “Delivering on the Mandate” forum was state budgeting and spending cuts, led by Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and Commonwealth Foundation President and CEO Matthew J. Brouillette.

The state priority list, said Turzai, recently voted House Majority Leader, includes controlling and reducing spending, ultimately decreasing tax rates; working with the private sector to create, save and protect jobs; and restoring trust in government.

But an immediate need is to get state spending under control. No other issues can be solved until the basic tenet of good fiscal responsibility is recaptured.

“We’ll take a look at our revenues,” Turzai said, “and that’s what we’ll spend.”