Commentary: Pa. lawmakers should keep expanding school choice

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Fifth graders Carlie Geiger (left) and Aidan Gray at MaST Community Charter School, in the Northeast, work on a project in the media lab last month. CLEM MURRAY /Staff Photographer

By James Paul

Thrilling competition, Cinderella stories, and office bracket pools are the essence of March Madness. The NCAA basketball tournament's single-elimination format, where drama is high and outcomes uncertain, has the nation on the edge of its seat.

At the same time, Philadelphia's students face a different version of March Madness. One full of drama, heartache, and uncertainty - but with far more at stake. March brings the slim chance for children to escape a failing school system and enroll in charter schools.

Unlike the NCAA tournament, skill and preparation are irrelevant in this competition: Instead, random lottery determines a child's educational fate.

At MaST Community Charter School this year, nearly 9,200 applicants vied for just 96 seats, meaning one percent of children emerged winners. For reference, it's easier to get into an Ivy League university: The University of Pennsylvania accepts 9 percent of applicants.

Still, parents subject themselves to emotionally draining charter-school lotteries because they want schools that better meet their children's needs.

Who can blame them?

According to the most recent Nation's Report Card - the largest, longest-running assessment of student achievement - just one in five Philadelphia eighth graders are proficient in math. Reading scores are even worse: only one in six eighth graders attain proficiency. Results on the less rigorous Pennsylvania School System Assessment (PSSA) are only slightly better.

Students in Philadelphia charter schools, however, receive 43 more days of math and reading instruction than their counterparts in district schools, as reported by Stanford University researchers. That's why we should celebrate legislation introduced by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) to increase the pool of charter seats available to children in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

We should also applaud the recent state House vote to expand Pennsylvania's popular Education Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship tax credit programs to thousands more students. These programs allow businesses to fund private school scholarships in exchange for a partial tax credit.

In 2015, Philadelphia's schoolchildren benefited from more than $37 million in scholarships to attend schools determined by their needs, not their zip codes. The same year, more than 50,000 scholarships were distributed to students across the state.

Despite these highly effective programs, too many students remain trapped in underperforming schools. Pennsylvania can do more to help these children by following the lead of other states in pursuing education savings accounts (ESAs) - an innovative policy empowering parents to customize their child's education.

With an ESA, a student's K-12 education funding is deposited into a flexible-spending account supervised by the state and controlled by parents. Parents use these dollars to select a combination of schools, programs, and services tailored to their child's needs. Much like popular health savings accounts, ESA funds roll over from one year to the next. They can even pay for college.

One ESA family may spend the bulk of the funds on private school tuition, with the remainder on after-school tutoring or online courses. Another family could spend 25 percent on private speech therapy for their daughter, while the other 75 percent covers tuition at a school that serves children with special needs. Five states already have ESA programs, and similar legislation is pending in nearly a dozen others.

Unfortunately, the main obstacle to bringing better options to Pennsylvania students is the same one that's been holding back the School District of Philadelphia: teachers' union leaders.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has held sway in Philadelphia since 1965 - more than 50 years. The union's leaders actively fight charter schools and tax-credit scholarship programs, though both are treasured by thousands of Philadelphia families.

Why? Choice and innovation threaten their power.

The PFT's defense of the dismal status quo does not serve the best interests of Philadelphia students, who deserve better than betting their futures on the luck of the draw. They deserve an education system that works for them.

Notably, school choice has been shown to improve public school performance. That's why Pennsylvania lawmakers can stand up for all children by expanding charter opportunity, increasing tax-credit scholarship availability, and passing education savings accounts.

Only then can we put an end to dream-crushing March Madness in Philadelphia schools.

James Paul is a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation. info@commonwealthfoundation.org