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Letter to the Editor: Maybe Vouchers Failed, But They Aren't Going Away

Teacher Steven Singer suggests voting out legislators who vote against public education.

“Almost.” It’s a scary word sometimes. 

Like when you put freshly brewed coffee too close to the edge and it ALMOST spills over ...

Like when you’re running late to work, gun that yellow light and ALMOST get clipped by an oncoming minivan ...

Like when your tiny toddler teeters at the top of the steps and ALMOST tumbles down ...

At times like these, ALMOST is both a terror and a relief.

That’s how all of Pennsylvania feels now that our state legislators ALMOST passed a bill to enact school vouchers and expand charter schools.

We feel sick that it ALMOST happened, yet relieved that in the end common sense prevailed. Vouchers failed to muster enough support to make it to the floor, and later, a score of Republicans sided with nearly all House Democrats against a school-reform measure by a vote of 105-90.

Had it been passed, it would have further crippled our public schools still reeling from $860 million in unnecessary budget cuts. 

This bill would have been nothing more than a taxpayer subsidy for religious, parochial and charter schools. It would have traded the unmistakable educational gains public school students are making throughout the state for unproven or failing programs.

For example, take cyber charter schools, which would have been rubber stamped for approval across Pennsylvania without any say by local residents had Governor Corbett gotten his wish. Only two of the 12 cyber charter schools operating in PA made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year. Compare that with 500 public school districts of which 83 percent made AYP in 2010 according to the state Department of Education. Such a measure would trade success for failure.

Moreover, cyber schools boost profits by shortchanging kids on costs. About 30,000 PA students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. That is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online, according to the state auditor general Jack Wagner. After all, how much does it really cost to plop a kid in front of a computer compared with actually having people and facilities to educate them? However, this is seen as a positive for the business-minded because it translates into massive profits. It’s extremely unfair for the taxpayer to be paying for additional expenses, such as advertising and lobbying state officials—initiatives our public schools can’t legally do. 

Brick-and-mortar charter schools fare a little better with 71 percent making AYP in 2010. However, that is not a success compared with the much larger portion of students in public schools getting a better education. It is important to note that the average annual administrative expenditure per student for charter schools is DOUBLE the cost of traditional public schools. In other words, charters of all stripes spend much more to run the business and advertise but much less on actually educating the kids. Replacing educational institutions that place kids first for those who put profits first would have been criminal.

As for parochial and religious schools, it’s hard to make a comparison because they aren’t required to take these same state tests or held to any open records or financial accountability laws. However, voucher schemes have been tried throughout the country and every one has failed to show an improvement in students’ education. Why would you replace something that’s working with something that’s completely unproven?

If legislators are really concerned with helping students, they should focus on measures that have been proven to be successful—early childhood education, safe and secure schools, and individualized attention through smaller class sizes and programs like tutoring and community supports. Lawmakers truly concerned about the kids should reverse this year’s unconscionable funding formula that reduces state aid to the poorest schools while hardly altering funding to the wealthiest districts.

In short, Governor Corbett’s educational “reform” plan would have been disastrous, and legislators know it. Constituents made their disapproval plain in hundreds of thousand of phone calls, emails, letters, protests and even public opinion polls finding more than two-thirds of Pennsylvanians against the measure. 

Only the most tone deaf lawmakers could ignore such an outcry. It’s unfortunate that our local GOP representatives could not hear voters cries. Reps. Rick Saccone (R-Jefferson Hills), George Dunbar (R-North Huntingdon), Eli Evankovich (R-Export), Mark Mustio (R-Moon) and Randy Vulakovich (R-Fox Chapel) all voted in lockstep with the governor. (State senators Jane Orie (R-McCandless) and Kim Ward (R-Greensburg) supported a similar Senate bill.)

If it weren’t for the Democrats and those 20 free-thinking Republicans who proved they weren’t beholden to anyone else’s political agenda, we wouldn’t be celebrating common sense today. We’d be mourning another hammer blow to our kids’ educations. It’s a pity that there are still politicians who put special interests' campaign contributions and radical ideology before what’s good for kids.

Perhaps our local GOP representatives who are too cowardly to stand up for what’s right need a more unmistakeable message. Let them know you’ve had enough of partisan posturing that goes against facts and simple logic. This election day, show these hearing-impaired politicians what your voice sounds like—vote them out! 

Steven Singer
T.E.A.C.H.
www.svteach.wikispaces.com

Do you agree or disagree with this Patch reader? Send letters to andrea.bosco@patch.com.

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