The Ben Franklin Bridge is all that separates Pennsylvania students from Camden, New Jersey, where families choose from a diverse menu of schools.
In 1999, New Jersey enacted the Interdistrict Public School Choice (IPSC) program, allowing parents in distressed school districts to opt out of their assigned public school. The program allows families to choose a school from another district to help meet their child’s unique talents in math, science, or the arts.
IPSC’s adoption led Camden school district to audit and reform their student enrollment process. The solution was the Camden Enrollment System, which offers a universal application to students applying to all eighteen public schools in the Camden school district. Three thousand Camden students can now choose from 18 schools instead of one. But families and students could still use more private schooling options.
The story across the Delaware is similar. In Philly—where an astounding 53 percent of district schools would fall below the benchmark if they were held to charter school standards—charters and Catholic schools satisfy much of the need. But thousands of students are left without their first choice. Despite enormous per-student spending, union leaders continue to lobby for ever-more funding instead of student-centered reforms.
While universal choice programs would provide more options for families, initially targeting areas with the greatest need is a sensible first step. Open enrollment programs, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships would offer a rich menu of choices to children and families desperately in need of options.
Tax credit scholarship programs have helped hundreds of thousands of students attend schools that better meet their needs, but demand exceeds supply, and Pennsylvania is falling behind other states. Due to caps on education scholarship funding, just two Philadelphia scholarship organizations turned away 17,000 students. Increasing the caps would solve the supply problem and give those kids a much-needed lifeline. The most transformative version of an increase would include an automatic escalator, as proposed in Senate Bill 1204.
It’s time to focus on Pennsylvania kids who need help right now because every child deserves the opportunity to succeed.