Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to put Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, on defense for his opposition to new school-choice legislation. Republicans aim to offer better schooling options to some of the state’s neediest students. Meanwhile, Wolf and his union benefactors, who mouth support for improving education outcomes, seek to block choice-based solutions at every turn.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), which describes itself as an organization devoted to “student-centered teaching and learning,” contributed more than $1.5 million to Wolf during his successful reelection effort in 2018. The PSEA has made significant campaign contributions not just to Wolf but to other Democratic-party candidates and officials in recent election cycles. Like Wolf, the PSEA is also on record opposing the latest in a series of school-choice initiatives that would empower parents and students to break from the orbit of failing public schools.
Exhibit A: the Harrisburg School District, which has failed generations of students despite spending $22,500 per student, or $450,000 for a classroom of 20. After years of abysmal academic performance and rampant financial mismanagement, the district was placed under state oversight in 2012 and receivership in 2019, but little has changed. Today just 16 percent of high schoolers read at grade level and 11 percent of third- through eighth-graders are proficient in math. Moreover, just a few weeks ago, the FBI confirmed that it is investigating the district.
So it would seem there ought to be a large appetite for education reforms that would benefit the roughly 6,500 students enrolled in Harrisburg’s public schools. House Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican, has entered the fray with a bill offering scholarships to cover the costs of private or public schools. What Turzai proposes could have ramifications that cut across state lines. It demonstrates how lawmakers can make smart use of existing educational resources to open up new avenues for low- and middle-income families.
Turzai’s House Bill (HB) 1800, which would offer tuition scholarships to students in districts that state officials have placed under receivership, is crafted with Harrisburg in mind. Also sitting on the precipice of receivership are thirteen other districts, including York and Reading, that could qualify in the near future.
Despite the struggles of the Harrisburg school district’, Rick Askey, the PSEA’s president, recently declared that “the Harrisburg School District is on the right track.” But the union’s leadership fails to account for the plight of students now in enrolled in the district who need a quality education today, not in the distant future when it might theoretically materialize.
Under Turzai’s proposal, students would be given options as soon as next school year. Scholarships would be funded with half of the per-student state subsidy to the districts, with an additional match from new state funding. In Harrisburg, that adds up to $7,972 per student: half of the state subsidy plus a matching $3,986 from state funds. The tuition scholarship could be used to cover the cost of participating public and private schools.
The idea behind HB 1800 is that the school funding already in circulation would follow the student to the school of his or her choice. This illustrates how state lawmakers can be make better use of existing resources without further burdening already beleaguered taxpayers.
HB 1800 fits into a larger pattern of school-choice initiatives that have taken root in the state. Turzai also sponsored HB 800, which would have expanded Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) by $100 million. The EITC and a companion program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), provide private school scholarships to about 50,000 low-income families with K–12 students. The EITC and OSTC have saved taxpayers about $5 billion since 2002, according to a study from EdChoice.
In a fact sheet, the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg, details how businesses receive tax credits in exchange for their scholarship donations. Unfortunately, state government caps mean that about half of student applications are turned away each year, despite businesses that are willing and able to make additional donations.
After Wolf vetoed HB 800 in June, the legislature responded by expanding the cap by $30 million. That’s progress worth heralding:It means funding will be available for 15,000 more scholarships. But Wolf’s veto also means that tens of thousands of students will be unnecessarily turned away because of funding constraints.
Wolf’s veto was particularly galling for school-choice advocates, given that he attended the Hill School, an elite private boarding school, in the 1960s when his family exercised its own version of school choice. And before becoming governor with the help of his teachers’-union allies, Wolf served as the CEO of the Wolf Organization, which donated $60,000 to the EITC from 2001 and 2005, receiving $54,000 in tax credits in return.
Fortunately for Harrisburg students, Turzai has been indefatigable in his pursuit of school choice where it is needed most. HB 1800 passed out of the House Education Committee and is eligible for a full vote. The additional scholarship money would have an immediate, beneficial impact for thousands of young students within walking distance of the state capitol.
Thalia McClenton is one of several Harrisburg mothers who have visited the statehouse to make the case for expanding scholarship opportunities. She has two sons attending Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School. “Without the help, my kids would not be able to go to Harrisburg Catholic,” she explains in an interview with the Commonwealth Foundation. “My son would have been eaten alive at Rowland Academy [in the local district school].”
“After one year at Harrisburg Catholic, his whole attitude has changed,” she continued. “I just thank God that he opened the door so my kids could have a quality education.”
How much of an impact the personal stories of Harrisburg parents have compared with the power and influence of the teachers’ unions is a question that will soon be answered, once voting sessions resume.
With roughly 181,000 members, the PSEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), is the largest public-employee union in the state and a potent political force. Wolf was the top recipient of PSEA campaign contributions from 2010 to 2018, receiving $865,000. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, is also a major player in Pennsylvania with more than 36,000 members statewide. The AFT contributed $700,000 to Wolf in 2018.
Since he entered office in 2015, the governor has been visiting schools and classrooms across the state as part of his “Schools That Teach” tour, which has included not a single charter or private school. The state’s Department of Education reports that about 140,000 Pennsylvania students are enrolled in charters and that about 240,000 are enrolled in private schools. That means that Wolf is omitting 25 percent of the state’s students and their families from his tour. It’s not surprising. In its resolutions and public pronouncements, the PSEA makes it clear that it take its cues from the NEA, which is opposed to any form of school choice, be it public or private.
Influence Watch, a project of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., notes that the “NEA is a major political player, with its associated political action committees contributing nearly $143.5 million to federal candidates and committees — 97 percent of which supported Democrats and liberals from 1990 through February 2019.” In a similar vein, campaign records show that in the past 26 years the PSEA has contributed more than $14 million to Democrats and just over $3 million to Republicans.
To overcome the unions’ grip on public education, lawmakers will need to firm up their political will. They should be encouraged by recent polling that shows union leaders are out of touch with the broad cross-section of Americans who support school choice.
By advancing parent-supported education reforms such as HB 1800, lawmakers will test the governor’s appetite to defend failing school districts at the behest of teachers’ unions. With Pennsylvania a key swing state for 2020, and given that some political analysts see Wolf as a potential vice-presidential candidate, the effects of Pennsylvania’s school-choice battles could ripple far beyond the Keystone State.
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pa., and for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.