Pennsylvania school choice fight cuts across usual lines

Katie McHugh Associate Editor
Font Size:

Unlikely allies have banded together on both sides of the battle over school choice in Pennsylvania. At issue is the hotly contested voucher bill SB1.

“It’s fair to say this issue cuts across traditional political lines,” said Wythe Keever, assistant communications director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, noting that both opposition and support for the bill is bipartisan.

When it comes to money, however, the battle lines become clear. Groups supporting SB1, including major players of the investing firm Susquehanna International, “bankrolled” its co-sponsors’ political campaigns, according to Keever.

David Spielman, campaign coordinator for FreedomWorks and a supporter of the bill, also believes the financial factor holds together the opponents to SB1. “Trace the money and you’ll find that they’re in the pocket of the teachers’ unions,” he said.

Spielman has no qualms about banding together with traditional political rivals. He distributed thousands of copies of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a documentary detailing the decline of public schools, to supporters of the bill. Although the film was directed by the liberal Davis Guggenheim, director of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, he says his supporters “are eating it up.”

Groups such as the Commonwealth Foundation, the REACH Alliance, and Students First have lined up behind FreedomWorks to support the bill, along with religious charter schools and a crew of grassroots liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Meanwhile, groups and people who are “not typically of labor union background” are rallying against the bill, says Keever, including the ACLU and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.

Both Keever and Spielman believe their movements boast broad public support as well.

Some Tea Party groups are fighting against the bill, too. Ana Puig, co-chair of the Kitchen Table Patriots, said that approximately 20 of the 300-odd Tea Party groups in Pennsylvania are opposing SB1 because “it doesn’t go far enough.”

“This bill will break the union’s back,” Puig said. “Killing the bill is not the answer.” Some conservatives, she says, are too eager for radical, overnight transformations and ought “to take a page of the Left’s book” and work for incremental change.

There is no plan to completely privatize education, said Puig. “Do we want to go for universal choice and remain status quo at the end of the day? No!”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s state budget is due on June 30th. A spokesperson for Corbett, Janet Kelly, says the governor “strongly supports” the bill as a large part of his proposed budget, although according to the Allentown Morning Call, it will cost the state nearly $1 billion.