By Matt Hess


Advocates for school vouchers held a legislative briefing today to discuss the issue of school choice in Pennsylvania. Panelists included Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia); Matt Brouillette, President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation; Otto Banks, Executive Director of the REACH Foundation; Jason Lewis, Director of Advancement for the Logos Academy; and Joy Hubbert, parent in the Philadelphia School District. The forum was sponsored by Freedomworks, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, REACH, and Students First.


Sen. Williams spoke about his personal experience attending a Quaker school and explained why vouchers are necessary. �There are still too many schools that are failing,� he stated. �We can no longer say we are just going to send money. There is a school in my district where a child was raped in the building. Do I turn to that child, that parent and say �hold on we�re going to send more money�? They wanted to leave before the child was raped and they certainly wanted to leave after the child was raped but because they didn�t have money, they didn�t come from privilege, they didn�t have a lawyer, they didn�t have access, they were required to send their child back to the place where the crime was committed. Who in their right mind would say �yes, this system works for all children�? Why would they not have the right to take public money for the safety of their child let alone academic success?�� This is not a complicated conversation. This is not a controversial conversation. This is a right-minded, moral consideration.�


Brouillette said vouchers are a �head and heart issue� in that �this is about saving kids from schools that aren�t working, saving taxpayers� money.� He emphasized that a quality education will save future costs for corrections and welfare. �We can spend $14,000 per student in a public school and not give them an education then proceed to spend tens of thousands more in welfare or $35,000 a year in prison costs,� he stated. Brouillette also stressed that vouchers save taxpayers money in the short term as well. �Instead of spending $14,000 in every in the public school system and we say we�re going to give a voucher for half that amount and allow you to find a private school that will work for your child we will save the taxpayers� money,� he stated. �You also have more money for kids in the schools where children have been so-called �left behind.� These are the opportunities that we have before us; this is truly a win-win for taxpayers and kids.�


Banks discussed the disparities in public education. �This is not an issue of public versus private, this is an issue of haves versus have-nots,� he stated. �Socioeconomic stratification should not determine the quality of education. �

Lewis spoke about the education situation in Missouri. He explained that the Kansas City School District and the St. Louis School Districts have lost their accreditation and state law says that students can attend neighboring school districts but none of the suburban school districts will accept the students.


�There are two high-performing school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City that will take these kids. Not only will they take these kids but they have plenty of seats for these kids and they say they will take these kids for half what the suburban school districts are insisting,� he stated. �The state of Missouri says �no you can�t have them because you�re the Catholic schools and they�ll talk about Jesus and faith.��


Lewis gave an overview of his school. �Logos Academy benefits tremendously from the EITC,� he stated. �In the last three years we received upwards of $700,000 annually from EITC partners. At this point our growth and success is limited by how much me and my fundraising team can raise and how much money we can generate from the EITC and possible voucher legislation.�


Joy Hubbert, parent of five children in West Philadelphia, shared her son�s experience with West Philadelphia High School and explained that she does not want to send her children to school in Philadelphia. �School choice is very important to me and my family because it would help people in my situation so much,� she stated. �I think if I have the ability, and I know that I do because I do it every day, to choice where my children sleep, to keep them safe, what they eat, what they put on, I�m capable of making the choice of where they go to school. I think I should have the ability to do that as a parent. Everyone is talking about how much is going to cost. I just what people to think about what its costs if we do nothing.�


The panel then responded to questions and comments by legislators.


Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny) took issue with claims that the reason why catholic schools and others are inexpensive is because they do not pay teachers enough. Sen. Williams said teachers with masters degrees tend to work in parochial schools, private schools, suburban schools. �They pick buildings within public issues based around safety issues and academic outcomes,� he stated. �We need to begin organizing the message so legislators understand. They can identify with facts.�


Rep. Dan Truitt (R-Chester) said more needs to be done to win the public relations battle with teacher unions. Sen. Williams agreed and indicated that there needs to be a greater utilization of social media. �We need to create social media and information that you can use to respond,� he stated �Tell them why we support it, what we would do to enhance their salaries and benefits, and tell them we want good teachers but we don�t want the rotten system that exists.�


Sen. Mike Folmer (R-York) called the issue of vouchers a �human rights issue� and said the current system has to change. �The establishment is defending an educational-industrial complex,� he stated. �That $26 billion that we spend on kindergarten to 12th grade is more than 70 nations GNPs.� Sen. Folmer added �I�m a parent, it�s my child, let me choose my child�s education.�


Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery), Rep. Will Tallman (R-York), Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks), Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Allegheny), were also in attendance.