Kevin Ferris: Keep focus on schools, children

There are many reasons to support the school-choice bill that’s expected to be voted out of a Senate committee in Harrisburg this week. The silly notion that its opponents can be compared to George Wallace isn’t one of them.

Senate Bill 1, sponsored by State Sens. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.) and Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., York), would provide vouchers to low-income children and expand the state’s corporate-funded opportunity scholarships. Helping kids trapped in dysfunctional schools should be the focus of the debate over the legislation. But apparently some of its supporters aren’t satisfied with that argument.

I received an e-mail accusing six Democratic state representatives from Montgomery County of “standing in the schoolhouse door” — a phrase Williams, unfortunately, has also used against opponents of his bill.

Wallace, you may recall, was the racist governor who, in 1963, tried to stop two African American students from entering the University of Alabama by standing in the doorway. He was fulfilling his inaugural pledge of “segregation forever.” Forever lasted about as long as his brief statement that June day, after which he stood aside lest federal marshals haul him out of the way.

I disagree with opponents of vouchers. They say vouchers drain taxpayer dollars from school districts, but the same was said of charter schools, and no district has less money now than it did when the first charter opened. They say vouchers are unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees. They say taxpayer money shouldn’t go to religious schools, but that’s exactly where some vets’ GI Bill money goes.

But voucher opponent does not equal Klansmen. Race-baiting for political purposes is

loathsome, whether by John Street and the Philadelphia congressional delegation during the 2003 mayoral campaign; the NAACP ad in 2000 suggesting George W. Bush was OK with lynching; the recent charges of Jimmy Carter et al that opposition to President Obama amounts to racism — or school-choice advocates today.

Education is indeed a civil right. As Obama eloquently noted last year, “There’s a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There’s a reason the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It’s because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child’s God-given potential.”
But there’s a huge difference between refusing an education based on skin color and opposing one school-choice bill.

This is not the first state to be divided along racial and political lines over school choice (the outlier here being Williams, a black Philadelphia Democrat who has been scolded by some African Americans for likening his cause to the civil rights movement). Ten years ago, when Florida passed its version of a corporate-backed scholarship program for struggling, low-income schoolchildren, only one Democrat backed it. The black caucus was unanimously opposed.
Today, there are about 35,000 children in the Florida program, and last year’s call to expand it, from $50 million to $175 million, passed with ease. And broad support.

“Parents care very deeply about this program and about the ability to choose the right school for their children,” John Kirtley, who runs the nonprofit that administers the scholarships, told me. “And they’ve made themselves known to the legislators.”

Last year’s bill, which also made participating schools more fiscally and academically accountable, was backed by almost half of Florida’s Democratic lawmakers, a majority of the black caucus, and all of the Hispanic caucus.

Kirtley stresses that the scholarships are not “the answer,” but rather an important part of then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s broad, cafeteria-style approach in which local and state governments, public and private schools, charters and community colleges, and parents and students work hard to match programs with children’s needs.

This kids-first approach has lifted Florida from among the bottom five states to No. 5 in Education Week’s rankings, Kirtley notes. He points to studies showing that Florida’s scholarship students are keeping pace with children of all income groups nationally, and that black-white achievement gaps are narrowing in some subjects.

The system has its critics, and the new governor is pushing for more changes. But what Florida figured out a decade ago is now being echoed by big-city superintendents across the country, including Philadelphia’s: An inflexible, one-size-fits-all system doesn’t work for every student. There must be options.

There is disagreement about those options, and Senate Bill 1 won’t be the final word on fixing Pennsylvania’s schools. But we should be able to agree on one kindergarten basic: Stop the name-calling and get to work.

Contact Kevin Ferris at or 215-854-5305.