Opinion

School choice making inroads in blue states

Andrew Campanella President, National School Choice Week

If you have any doubt that real school choice can reach practically every state in this country, cast those apprehensions aside. School choice is making inroads in big, blue states, and it’s likely coming to a community near you.

Need proof? Take a look at the news that just broke last night in Pennsylvania.

Led by a Democrat and a Republican, a school voucher bill — yes, a voucher bill — passed out of the State Senate with bipartisan support, just one day after the legislation (Senate Bill 1) was approved in the Senate Education Committee.

This all happened in the Keystone State, a state that voted for President Obama in 2008 by more than 10 percentage points. In fact, the last time the state voted for a Republican for president, there was still a superpower called the Soviet Union and the sitcom “Full House” was in its first season.

If the Pennsylvania House passes the voucher bill, it will likely be signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett. And it would be inhumane not to enact the program, given who it helps. The proposal would permit private school vouchers only for children in families that make less than $30,000 per year (and that’s for a family of four). To qualify, the students would have to attend the absolute worst schools in the state — schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent. This means that the program will be an immediate lifeline for children and families who need our help the most, kids who are attending schools that chronically fail and are frequently violent.

Just imagine, for a moment, living in poverty (in this economic climate, no less) and knowing that your child is attending one of the 100 worst schools in any state. Imagine the feelings of complete and utter hopelessness. This legislation provides immediate options to parents, and it will incentivize public schools to improve. The legislation also includes a provision increasing funding for the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program, a highly popular initiative that helps children from low- and middle-income families receive corporate scholarships to go to private schools. That program saves state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars while providing companies with incentives for helping improve education.

The bill that passed last night in the Pennsylvania Senate is no small proposal. It’s significant, it’s targeted and it will change the face of Pennsylvania education — in a good way. And, it’s making headway thanks, in no small part, to Democratic leaders.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state passing education reform measures with bipartisan support. Across the Delaware River, in New Jersey, another bipartisan team — and we’re not talking “token Democrats” in either state, we’re talking Democratic heavyweights — is championing a scholarship tax credit proposal for low-income kids. Indeed, school choice is smashing through the status quo’s invisible Northeastern firewall in a year when nearly a dozen states have enacted or expanded private school choice programs.

Over the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling across the country and meeting with people who support school choice — and with the families who benefit from it. I can attest to this: the climate for education reform is changing.

In just the past 24 months, I’ve been to Florida, Georgia, Louisiana,  North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. (not to mention Pennsylvania and New Jersey, of course) for the specific purpose of interviewing Democratic elected officials who support private school choice, including school vouchers and scholarship tax credits. There are a lot of them! And they’re vocal. These school choice-supporting Dems see vouchers and tax credits as the natural extension of the movement to empower low-income families — not as a Republican initiative, a move to “privatize” schools, or a way to “demonize” anyone.

We need more leaders who are willing to cast aside what “traditional” party orthodoxy says they should do or say and instead stand up in favor of families, regardless of the political consequences. It can’t be easy. But it’s the right, courageous thing to do, and it’s the only way that educational opportunity will benefit children in the bluest of our states.

Andrew Campanella is the author of four consecutive editions of the “School Choice Yearbook” and has served as senior adviser to the Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children. In November, he will begin work as the vice president of public affairs for National School Choice Week.