Choice Advances in Pennsylvania

Published January 1, 1997

On November 5, Pennsylvania voters improved the prospects for educational choice in the state by increasing the Republican majorities in both chambers of the state government. On January 1, 1997, the GOP majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will increase by two, to 104-99. The party’s majority in the Senate will increase by one, to 30-20.

“I think the prospects for passage of choice legislation in 1997 are very good,” said long-time Pennsylvania school choice advocate David Kirkpatrick, a policy analyst for The Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education. The Senate is more likely to approve a school choice bill, according to Kirkpatrick, so “the House is the key here in Pennsylvania.” However, he cautioned, “The timetable is dependent upon the Governor.”

The first phase of the school choice battle in Pennsylvania began in 1991, with the formation of the REACH Alliance–the Road to Educational Achievement through Choice. The group succeeded in gaining Senate approval for school choice legislation in 1991, but House approval was denied on constitutional grounds. Although modified bills were introduced in 1993, none was approved.

The second phase was initiated with the election in 1994 of Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican and strong school choice advocate. Under his leadership, the House in 1995 was presented with a comprehensive school reform package known as KIDS–the Keystone Initiative for a Difference in our Schools. That bill, which called for full school choice phased in over a five-year period, failed in the House by seven votes.

The third phase of the Pennsylvania school choice battle will begin on January 1, 1997, with increased GOP majorities in both legislative chambers more likely to support Governor Ridge’s school choice agenda. “Government cannot love and government cannot nurture,” Ridge has said. “But government can give parents and children more educational choices. There is nothing better we can do for our children.”

Recognizing that reform takes time, Ridge has made it clear that he is in it “for the long haul.” He has stated repeatedly that he will keep coming back with school choice legislation until full school choice becomes law. “Nothing in education exists for any other purpose than to educate our children,” he says. “Nothing. Shouldn’t parents be given options?”

Although he is committed to a full school choice program, including scholarships for parochial schools, Ridge still has to decide how to package his plan for the 1997 legislative session. He is said to be considering both stand-alone school choice legislation and choice as part of a larger package of educational reforms. In addition, the program could be statewide or limited to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].