Education

Every Pennsylvania Student Deserves a Shot at a Great Education

(Mike Blake/Reuters)
The state’s tax-credit-scholarship program has helped hundreds of thousands of students escape failing public schools. It should be protected and grown.

‘Every male in my entire extended family has been incarcerated.”

That’s how Anthony Samuels of North Philadelphia describes his lineage: a cycle of crime and hopelessness. But thanks to his mother’s vision for his education, Anthony broke that cycle. Today he owns a day-care center and has begun a successful entertainment career, starring in commercials for Red Bull and Nike.

Things easily could’ve been different for Anthony. He grew up in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in Philly, doomed to attend the high school with the lowest test scores in Pennsylvania. The steady stream of assaults, shootings, and robberies that dogged the school became so severe that it was the subject of a Diane Sawyer exposé on ABC News. People started asking questions, and there was an outcry that led to the principal’s replacement. Soon, investors such as the rapper Drake started pouring money into recording studios and a new football team for the school, prompting media puff pieces and optimistic administrators to declare “problem solved.” But, of course, it hasn’t been. The school scored a seven out of 100 on the Philadelphia School District’s ratings scale last year.

Thankfully, Anthony’s mother knew a bad school when she saw one. She and Anthony sought out one of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit scholarships, which enabled him to transfer to a nearby private school, Abington Friends, and eventually graduate from Temple University.

Tax-credit scholarships are funded by private donors who receive state tax credits for sending a child to a better school. In the 18 years since Pennsylvania inaugurated its tax-credit program, it has offered hundreds of thousands of students a real chance at success. But political schemes have endangered the program. Teachers’ unions, which would prefer that every student attend a public school, oppose tax-credit scholarships that help kids escape failing schools. That’s why roughly 50,000 scholarship applications are denied each year: The program’s opponents purposefully limit the caps on the program’s tax credits.

Opposition to similar school-choice programs is even stronger on the federal level. Democratic presidential candidates seem to dismiss stories such as Anthony’s. For them, money and power are more important than good policy, and inflammatory rhetoric drowns out the chorus of families whose lives have been changed by school choice.

Their attacks on school choice are transparently self-interested. Cory Booker, for example, has spent his entire career touring and debating on behalf of parental choice — even building a strong relationship with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and backing voucher legislation as recently as February. But when he talks about education policy nowadays, his rhetoric sounds more like that of Bernie Sanders, who has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Elizabeth Warren formerly supported vouchers but now decries them as a “diversion of public dollars from traditional public schools.” (She also sent her son to private school for a time, according to research by school-choice advocate Corey DeAngelis.)

It’s the same story in Pennsylvania, where Democratic governor Tom Wolf has sought to distance himself from the tax-credit-scholarship program, despite the fact that his own company donated to the program in the past. Teachers’ unions, unsurprisingly, contributed $4 million to Wolf’s last campaign.

Obviously, whether you’re a presidential candidate or a governor, it’s easy to let special interests dictate your policy proposals. But we can’t afford to let students’ dreams continue to be denied. Pennsylvanians should speak out in support of school-choice options that help students escape schools where they are trapped in a cycle of failure or violence.

“My life would have been completely different if I didn’t go to Abington, and I wouldn’t have been able to continue on at Abington without the scholarship program,” says Anthony Samuels. “Public or private, what matters is that we focus on exposing kids to that hope, that chance, that opportunity — and giving them a choice. We need to focus on those stars that could be lighting up the sky, and guiding America to a better future.”

Dave Hardy is the executive director of Excellent Schools PA and the founder of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. Charles Mitchell is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, Pa.

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