A School Choice Governor?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett recently made headlines by announcing his support for full-fledged school choice in Pennsylvania. Democrat Dan Onorato has also expressed support for school choice, particularly the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).  A school choice governor will be a welcome change from the past eight years, during which Governor Rendell and his allies worked to stymie educational options.

Parental demand for school choice is growing. According to a recent Pew Study, Philadelphia parents insist they need more educational options. Charter school enrollment is 170% higher than it was in the 2000-2001 school year, yet despite this growth, 62% of parents surveyed said they do not have enough good choices when it comes to picking a school. 

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have created scholarship or tax credit programs, including Pennsylvania’s EITC. The EITC, however, has reached capacity. Even though many families are stuck on a long waiting list, the program’s funding was reduced last year. Pennsylvania state senators have acknowledged this demand and have introduced Senate Bill 1405 to expand education alternatives.

If enacted, this bill would provide scholarships to low-income parents in failing school districts. This scholarship would be available to parents with children in either public or private schools. To help public schools keep some of their support, the bill also allows public schools to keep half of the local funding for students who transfer due to scholarships – i.e., students they no longer are educating.

Instead of expanding school choice, the current administration has worked to reduce schooling alternatives and has attempted to spend the state to educational success. State funding for public schools increased to over $25 billion in 2009, and staffing grew while enrollment declined. Despite this infusion of funds, Pennsylvania’s performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exam has remained relatively unchanged, and Pennsylvania ranks among the worst states in SAT scores. Clearly, more spending is not the solution.

Increasing educational opportunities will help to improve student performance. A report from the U.S. Department of Education observed that students who participated in the D.C. voucher program gained the equivalent of an additional 3.7 months worth of reading achievement each year. Another recent study concluded that students who participated in the program were 21% more likely to graduate than their peers in public schools. In New York City, a study found the average charter school student was ahead of his public school peers by 5.3 points on the state English exam and 5.8 points ahead on the math exam.

Not only do alternative education programs improve student performance, but they also save taxpayers money. In the D.C. voucher program, scholarships cost about one-quarter the amount spent per student in public schools. In Pennsylvania, school districts spend about 13 times the value of the average EITC scholarship of $1,000. In the 2008-2009 school year, non-traditional educational options combined saved Pennsylvania taxpayers over $3.6 billion.

Though they differ on the details, Corbett and Onorato have championed school choice as vital to improving our educational system. While both candidates support the EITC, Corbett has outlined broader support for school choice than has Onorato. Corbett ultimately desires tax dollars to follow the child, thus attaching a set amount of money to each child and allowing parents to send their children to whichever school they choose.

Expanding the EITC will provide greater options for parents, but more needs to be done. Allowing funding to follow children to the school their parents choose will break up the underachieving monopoly of the public schools and force them to compete.  Competition and choice will increase the quality of education and reduce costs.

A school choice governor benefits us all.

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Joshua Hoerner is a research fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.