Magazine | June 6, 2011, Issue

A Voice for Choice

Meet the Pennsylvania Democrat willing to take on teachers’ unions

Three Philadelphia businessmen captured the attention of Pennsylvania’s political class last year when they pumped more than $5 million into the campaign of state senator Anthony H. Williams, a black Democrat seeking his party’s nomination for governor. John P. Martin, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, spoke of the money’s “potential to catapult Williams past other contenders.” One of his sources, G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College, warned darkly of the ethical implications: “Here’s the point: Money buys . . . access and influence.”

The cash didn’t purchase Williams a victory. He came in third in the Democratic primary, well behind Dan Onorato, who went on to lose to Republican Tom Corbett in November. But the contributions may have served an unexpected purpose: By giving Williams an opportunity to promote his signature issue of school choice, they created the preconditions for the passage of one of the most ambitious pieces of conservative legislation any state will consider this year. Pennsylvania could approve what its secretary of education, Ronald Tomalis, calls “the most expansive school-choice law in the nation, involving more kids across a greater geographic area than anywhere else in the country.”

Success would be a direct result of last year’s elections, which saw Republicans sweep into the governorship and rack up historic majorities in the state legislature. “I’m confident we’re going to have school choice,” says Governor Corbett. Before that can happen, however, a school-choice bill co-authored by Williams (who remains a state senator) must survive what may be its most difficult test: overcoming skepticism from tea-party activists who insist that it doesn’t go far enough. The confrontation poses a challenge for Republicans as they try to convert the exuberance of tea parties into the practical realities of governing, with its odd-bedfellow coalitions and frustrating compromises. Should conservatives seize a significant victory for school choice that appears to be within their reach right now — or should they press for more and risk failure?

At the center of the debate is Williams, a longtime legislator from Philadelphia and a true-blue liberal on many issues. “I supported Barack Obama in 2008 and I support him today,” he says. Yet on education policy, he dissents from his party’s teachers’-union orthodoxies. His bill would provide state-funded vouchers to low-income students. If approved, it would affect more than 70,000 kids who attend lousy schools in its first year, rising to more than 600,000 in its third, when all low-income students would qualify. By the fourth year, it starts to include the middle class; a family of four that makes about $67,000 would become eligible. “Why should the children of poor parents trapped in failing public schools be forced to remain there?” asks Williams. “Democrats are supposed to be for the little guy, for a level playing field, and for diversity and inclusiveness.”

Williams isn’t a newcomer to school choice — he has backed it for years. His mother was a public-school teacher, but he experienced the benefits of a private education when he received a scholarship to Westtown School, a Quaker academy. “When I first ran for office, I was like a lot of Democrats and thought that public schools just needed more money,” says Williams. “But I knew from my personal story that there were other options. I did some research and decided to come out aggressively for school choice. I got a lot of pushback from my party, but it was the right thing to do.”

Williams was a foot soldier in Pennsylvania’s last school-choice showdown, a near-miss affair in 1995. Tom Ridge was the new Republican governor, and he had included vouchers as one part of an education-reform package. The package as a whole stumbled in the statehouse, but when its elements came up for individual votes, they all passed — with the exception of school choice. “We tried a bunch of ways to get it through,” says Gene Hickok, who was Pennsylvania’s secretary of education at the time. “Nothing worked.” Democrats voted against it en masse — Williams was one of just a few renegades — and enough Republicans chose not to anger the teachers’ unions. Toward the end of his governorship, Ridge managed to secure a tax credit for companies that donate to scholarship programs for poor families. Apart from this, school choice was dead for the rest of his time in office. It remained dead under his two-term successor, Democrat Ed Rendell.

#page#Meanwhile, the philosophy that public education simply needs more tax dollars flourished. Since 1996, Pennsylvania has doubled its spending on education to $26 billion per year, which works out to about $14,000 per child. That’s almost 30 percent above the national average, and more than the averages of 39 states. Under current funding formulas, Harrisburg schools receive close to $17,000 per student. As Matthew J. Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation observes, this is more than a year’s tuition at Penn State. Despite these resources, 64 percent of the district’s eighth-graders aren’t proficient readers. “We have to look at alternatives such as school choice,” says Brouillette.

Last year, as Williams considered a bid to succeed Rendell by running on a school-choice platform, he approached the three founding partners of the Susquehanna International Group, a Philadelphia-based trading company. Arthur Dantchik, Joel Greenberg, and Jeff Yass aren’t easy to label — they’ve given money to politicians from both parties — but they’ve shown a clear interest in education reform. They’ve donated to Philadelphia charter schools as well as national organizations that promote school choice, such as the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice. They jumped at the chance to fund the statewide campaign of a black Democrat who speaks with passion about one of their favorite policy ideas. They opened their wallets, encouraged well-heeled friends to do the same, and took advantage of Pennsylvania’s campaign-finance laws, which don’t restrict the size of political contributions. They also set up a political-action committee to support legislative candidates who favor school choice.

Their cash didn’t make Williams the nominee, but it gave him a bullhorn and allowed him to talk about school choice in Democratic circles. Shortly after Onorato took the Democratic nomination, he endorsed the Williams approach. Suddenly, school choice wasn’t a bucket-list project for free-market purists, but rather a bipartisan cause with a real chance of success in the Keystone State. “The investment in Williams changed the political landscape,” says John Kirtley of the American Federation for Children, which promotes school choice nationally. By January, school choice was on the agenda in Harrisburg. Corbett touted it in his inaugural address. In the state senate, Williams teamed up with Jeffrey Piccola, a Republican colleague who also had fought for the Ridge bill. The chamber’s leadership signaled its priorities when it positioned the Piccola-Williams proposal as Senate Bill 1 in the current session.

As the legislation worked its way through committees this winter and spring, Williams remained a key ally. He spoke at rallies and organized busloads of inner-city kids to visit Harrisburg. Williams also encouraged a couple of trade unions to break solidarity with the teachers. In Philadelphia, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 and the Laborers’ District Council endorsed school choice. “We believe that children from all economic backgrounds deserve a chance for a bright future,” said John J. Dougherty of IBEW Local 98 in a press release. “School choice programs will give them that chance.” According to a Pulse Opinion Research poll, the strongest support for school choice comes from blacks: 69 percent support it. Black lawmakers don’t show the same enthusiasm, but Williams isn’t as lonely as he once was: A dozen or more of them may vote for school choice this year.

For now, the bill remains in the senate. Its true challenge lies in the other chamber. Pennsylvania’s house has a big GOP majority, but that doesn’t automatically translate into a majority for school choice. Some Republicans rely on teachers’-union talking points. “I don’t think vouchers do anything to improve schools,” says Jim Marshall of Beaver County. “Vouchers privatize the whole system and leave holes in the existing public schools.”

If Marshall worries that school choice goes too far, many of his colleagues believe that the Williams bill doesn’t go far enough. By limiting eligibility to low-income students at first, it keeps vouchers out of the hands of middle-class families. Moreover, the scholarships are limited to the portion of Pennsylvania’s school funds that come from the state government (as opposed to the federal and local governments), and the funding formulas apply — meaning that even though the vouchers are limited to low-income students, kids in wealthier districts will receive less money. Vouchers are worth around $9,000 in some areas, but in others it’s not nearly as much. “Where I live, a voucher would be worth only about $1,500,” complains Mario Scavello, a Republican from Monroe County in the Poconos. “That’s not equitable.”

#page#The ringleader of conservatives who oppose a limited school-choice bill is Rep. Curt Schroder of suburban Philadelphia. “In the senate, they’re settling for a foot in the door rather than reaching for the stars,” he says. “If I were pushing a watered-down bill on another subject, everybody would be screaming ‘RINO.’” In tea-party lingo, RINO — “Republican in Name Only” — is practically a cuss word.

If Schroder offers replacement legislation, he’ll have plenty of support from tea-party groups. “We should have school choice for all children, including homeschoolers,” says Sharon Cherubin of UNITEPA, a Pennsylvania grassroots conservative organization. “The current bill isn’t about civil rights — it’s about special rights. We aren’t going to compromise. I’d rather have no bill than this bill.” Cherubin recently produced a video that denounces the legislation. More than 20 tea-party groups have endorsed the video, and they’re trying to distribute it through social-media networks. “It kills us to be in this position, squabbling with conservatives,” says Don Adams of the Independence Hall Tea Party. “We should be working together on a comprehensive school-choice bill.”

Many conservatives, of course, feel the opposite way — they wish everyone could agree on an incremental approach that pockets a victory now and creates the possibility for expansion later. They worry that the perfect could become the enemy of the good. “If I were recreating the world, we’d have school choice out of the box,” says Piccola. “But this bill is a huge first step. It starts a path to universal school choice.” Republican U.S. senator Pat Toomey, a tea-party favorite, favors this approach as well: “I absolutely support this bill,” he says. “It would allow us to make enormous progress.” Supporters also point out that the legislation almost doubles the tax-credit scholarship program introduced during the Ridge years: Funding soars to $75 million, with middle-income families allowed to participate. “This is an essential part of the equation,” says Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation. “It will make school choice a reality for a lot of people.”

On May 10, a large bipartisan majority in the house passed an expansion of the tax-credit program — but pointedly did not take any action in support of vouchers. Many school-choice boosters had hoped the Piccola-Williams bill would become a law by summer. Republican senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi now says it’s probably postponed to the fall. Pennsylvania could be headed for a replay of its experience in 1995: success for education reform, but with the exception of vouchers.

Teachers’ unions are working hard to exploit the rift on the right. They’ve launched an ad campaign whose slogan is “No voucher tax” — a theme that’s meant to resonate with conservatives, right down to the twang of the guy who grumbles through a 30-second advertisement that claims school choice will make government bigger rather than smaller. Nobody’s taxes go up, so it’s a bizarre assertion — but hardly the first in the long war for vouchers. When it comes to school choice, people who have wanted to oppose it never have had much trouble finding excuses.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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