Two years ago, then-State Rep. Cherelle Parker, a Democrat and now a member of Philadelphia City Council, seconded the nomination of Republican Mike Turzai of Allegheny County to become speaker of the House. Unfortunately, on too many occasions that gracious gesture of bipartisanship has come back to bite this city in the rear end.
Turzai, who was unanimously reelected speaker in January, has introduced a bill that would usurp all local authority and require the Philadelphia School District to add 3,000 new charter seats every year. The bill would also require Pittsburgh schools to add 500 charter seats annually.
The heavy-handed legislation is completely unnecessary since the Philadelphia district had already projected charter enrollment to grow by 2,700 to 3,000 seats annually in its five-year plan. Turzai’s bill, however, could hamstring the district’s ability to adjust charter growth to reflect future budget deficits. A $64.5 million deficit is expected in two years unless the district receives more revenue.
If approved by the Republican-controlled legislature — and there’s little reason to believe it won’t, given the paper-tiger status of Philadelphia’s Democratic delegation — Turzai’s measure would increase the city’s charter enrollment from 65,000 students to 80,000 by the 2021-22 school year. By then charter school costs, currently budgeted at $875 million, could far exceed $1 billion.
Just think what might be done to improve traditional public schools if that money were instead invested in them. Turzai, and other legislators who think like him, have given up on making regular schools better, but that attitude does nothing to help students whose parents, for whatever reason, don’t enroll them in charters.
Choice is fine, but don’t forget about the kids who choose to stay in their neighborhood schools. The meager budget increases that the legislature has grudgingly granted public schools shouldn’t be eroded by having to abide by Turzai’s demand that a larger portion of that money go to charters.
Turzai also wants to expand two programs that give tax credits to businesses that fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private or parochial schools and help public schools make educational improvements. His proposal would increase tax credits available through the Educational Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship programs from $175 million to a combined total of $250 million.
Boosting the tax credit programs is another attempt by Turzai to transfer more tax dollars to private and parochial schools. The legislator pleads that he only wants to give school children more choices. But having attended Catholic schools through college, Turzai acts like it is his mission to act as their personal patron.
Instead of more tax breaks for businesses, the legislature should be reforming the state’s archaic tax system to make sure corporations are paying their fair share so there is more money to invest in public education.
Some in Turzai’s home district believed its demographics had changed enough to favor Democratic challenger John Craig Hammond in November, but he lost. Someone needs to get Turzai off his high horse. The man who in 2012 had the audacity to admit he wanted Pennsylvania’s ill-fated voter ID law to help Mitt Romney become president acts omnipotent.