WIFM: What’s In It for Me?

“What’s in it for me?”  Legislators will ask that question from time to time when they don’t see the direct political benefit in voting for something controversial.  Recently, as Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly consider a package of education reform bills, legislators – particularly those in suburban and rural districts – are asking “What’s in it for me?” more often.  

The WIFM question isn’t necessarily selfish or self-interested.  It certainly can be, but given the limited scope of the school voucher component of Senate Bill 1 – scholarships would only be available to low-income students in the lowest 5 percent of schools based on state tests – it deserves to be answered.  So WIFM?

Expansion of the EITC:  The Educational Improvement Tax Credit is currently providing scholarships to nearly 40,000 students throughout Pennsylvania.  The average scholarship amount is $1,100, and the average family income of those receiving a scholarship is $29,000 – which is below the qualifying level for vouchers.  The combination of low-income vouchers and an expanded EITC – from $75 million to $125 million – means many more parents currently unable to exercise school choice will be able to access a scholarship.  In short, the voucher component frees up more EITC money for children in suburban and rural areas of the state.

Reduction of Welfare & Corrections Costs:  When we fail to prepare a student to go to Penn State, we are in essence preparing them for the state pen – at a cost to the taxpayer of more than $35,000 per inmate, per year.  And if they don’t head to prison, they are likely to be in a welfare line.  In 2009, more than 35,000 students did not graduate from Pennsylvania’s high schools.  The lost lifetime earnings for that class of dropouts alone are more than $9.1 billion.  The good news is that school choice doesn’t “cost” taxpayers more.  Indeed, school choice saves.  It saves children’s lives and it saves taxpayers’ money by using current education tax dollars more efficiently.

Accountability for Schools:  For years, suburban and rural taxpayers have watched as Pennsylvania’s largest urban public school systems gobbled billions of dollars, with dismal results and little accountability.  Vouchers will inject accountability into the public school system: By creating competition, vouchers would limit taxes going to Pennsylvania’s persistently failing schools and force them to improve – or risk losing more students and funding.

It is a Moral Imperative:  Children are trapped in violent, failing schools through no fault of their own.  Low-income parents, who care for their children as much as those with greater financial means, lack educational opportunities.  They can’t afford tuition at a safer, higher performing private school or afford to move to a better public school.  They are crying for our help.

As one legislator recently said, “It’s like saving that one starfish.”  What was he referring to?  It’s the story about the traveling businessman who left his hotel one morning to take a stroll along the beach.  He came upon countless starfish washed up from high tide the night before.  They were all struggling to make their way back to the ocean.  He knew they would all be baked by the sun in a short while.  He wished there was something he could do, but there were thousands, and there was no way he could save them all.  So, he walked on. 

Further down the beach, he came upon a small boy who was frantically picking up the starfish, one at a time, throwing them like Frisbees back into the ocean, trying to save as many as possible.

The man, realizing what the boy was trying to do, felt responsible to share a harsh life lesson.  He walked up to the boy and said, “What you are doing is honorable, but you can’t save them all.  There are thousands.  The sun is getting hot and they’ll soon all die.  You might as well go on your way and play.  You really can’t make a difference here.”

The boy stared at the businessman for a moment.  Then he picked up another starfish, flung it into the ocean as far as he could throw, and said, “Well, I just made all the difference for that one.”

WIFM?  The opportunity to make all the difference for that one child trapped in a violent, failing school. 


Matthew J. Brouillette is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.commonwealthfoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.