School choice gains widespread momentum

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Jennifer Stefano with the Loyal Opposition and Americans for Prosperity speaks on stage before an early morning documentary screening. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

It didn't look much like a revolution as about 25 people from Philadelphia and its suburbs gathered Friday to watch an education documentary. But hopes were high and speeches evangelical.

In a rousing introduction to The Cartel, a 2009 film highly critical of public schools in New Jersey, Alberta C. Wilson declared her mission was to give "every parent the God-given right to exercise their God-given choice to put their child in the school of their choosing."

Wilson heads the Faith First Educational Assistance Corp., which distributes business-funded scholarships to Pennsylvania students to attend private school.

The event showcased school choice - an option generating increased interest nationwide from parents and politicians, including Govs. Corbett and Christie.

Poll

Do you support school choice or vouchers?

In Harrisburg Tuesday, hundreds of supporters of a proposal to help low-income children transfer to schools of their choice with publicly funded scholarships or vouchers rallied boisterously under the Capitol dome, portraying the issue as the new educational battleground.

The day before in Trenton, an Assembly committee began debating how to update the state's 15-year-old law governing charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of local school boards.

Nationally, in the first-ever School Choice Week, about 200 groups endorsed events around the country last week, including the Cartel showing in Philadelphia, organizers said. Supporters included celebrities such as Bill Cosby and ranged politically from Democrats to tea party loyalists.

Many would not agree on specific initiatives. Choice has become a catchall for a broad agenda of education options that usually includes charter schools and possibly vouchers and has become associated with other measures, such as changing tenure and tying educator assessments to student performance.

That breadth was intentional, said Kyle Olson, the week's director and a member of the Education Action Group in Michigan.

"This is a broad coalition that believes in many things, but we all believe in school choice," Olson said. "This really is not a partisan issue. It's an issue of reforming our education" system.

 

Detractors

Critics say the movement is based on faulty rhetoric and untruths. Because of how they are funded, critics say, charter schools and vouchers siphon money from traditional public schools. While they may give some a way out of failing schools, most children will remain in regular schools facing diminished resources.

"Charter schools have become the easy answer of the moment," said John Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a national advocate for more effective public schools.

Charter schools were expected to experiment and improve student performance over regular schools, he said. Some advocates would say they have, but Jennings said: "Neither has proven to be true."

In Pennsylvania, some such schools have been the object of financial scandals.

Nevertheless, school-choice enthusiasm appears high, even though many of the concepts are not new. Vouchers and charter schools go back decades.

So why so much momentum now?

Several factors have helped policies with largely conservative origins gain much broader traction, say observers and activists.

One is leadership.

President Obama's strong support of most of the choice agenda, though not vouchers, has empowered the movement and expanded its acceptability. That, in turn, has attracted financial support from some foundations and business leaders in recent years.

 

Supporters

Local leaders also are embracing the movement - not the least of them New Jersey's and Pennsylvania's Republican governors.

Christie almost daily reiterates his call for education reform, including changing tenure and increasing teacher accountability. His administration recently announced approval of 23 new charter schools, and the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a voucherlike program, has been introduced in the Legislature.

In addition, 72 districts have applied to the state to allow their schools to admit students from other districts through New Jersey's expanding interdistrict choice program.

New in office, Corbett has declared himself pro-school choice.

The latest addition to the commonwealth's arsenal is a proposal to give state-funded vouchers to low-income students in low-performing schools.

Pennsylvania also has a proposal to expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which allows businesses to lower their tax bills by donating money that goes to private school scholarships.

And legislators in both states are considering proposals that would let a majority of parents in low-performing schools petition to turn them into charter schools.

Observers and movement participants also cite the buzz created by three education documentaries: Waiting for "Superman," The Lottery, and The Cartel.

The films have been "extremely important in helping regular people frame how they are thinking" about change, said Derrell Bradford, director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a pro-school-choice group in New Jersey, which is supporting the state's voucherlike bill.

Some critics, however, have said at least some the films unfairly demonize traditional schools and unionized teachers.

Spending on schools also is driving the call for change.

While some observers say aspects of the choice agenda are being used to undermine organized labor and create resentment of public employees, choice activists say people care about using money effectively.

"People are fed up," said Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports greater teacher accountability along the same lines as Christie.

Even where there is shared sentiment, people don't necessarily agree how to proceed.

In a survey released by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, two in three residents said they did not support "taxpayer-funded" vouchers to send children to private schools. The association and its New Jersey counterpart oppose vouchers.

Charlotte Hummel, school board president and mother of two students in Delaware County's struggling William Penn School District, which has three schools on the state's lowest-performing list, said low-income districts like hers would struggle as long as local property taxes funded the bulk of education, leaving schools without enough money to do a good job.

"They've designed a system to fail, then they say, 'We will take out the most successful kids and write the other ones off,' " she said.

The William Penn School District gets about 44 percent of its funding from the state. Taking a significant portion of that money for vouchers would have a major impact, Hummel said.

"State funding is our lifeline. Taking it away would destroy our communities on a fast track," she said.

In New Jersey, State Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer) sponsored the bill that is expanding the state interdistrict choice program, which lets students use their state aid to attend schools outside their home districts.

Turner said she supported choice within the public system, including charter schools in failing districts, but she cautioned against getting on the "choice bandwagon" and taking too much support from the schools that educate most of the children - "the ones left behind."

Choice advocates hear those arguments and stand by their efforts.

"We can save some while we work toward saving all, but saving none isn't more fair," E3's Bradford said.

 


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.