Pennsylvania Voucher Plans Praised, But Attacks Turn Nasty

Published July 1, 1999

A wide range of business and community groups have endorsed Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge’s voucher proposals, and the state legislature has approved a $63 million budget provision to pay for the governor’s school choice plans.

But all is not well for parental choice proponents in the Keystone State. A Democratic lawmaker suggested that school choice grants could be used by religious schools to pay for pedophile and child-abuse lawsuits. Fourteen public school superintendents in Bucks County laid out their opposition in a letter that compared the effect of vouchers to the ethnic genocide in Kosovo.

“The current war in Kosovo is a graphic example of what happens in a society that separates its people and fosters elitism,” their letter read. “The democratic principles that our society must preserve if it is to flourish are weakened by voucher plans that undermine the public good, and in time, if adopted, may lead to the Balkanization of our society.”

An outraged Ridge called the letter “a new low” but noted that such “reckless attacks” were increasingly common from leaders of the education establishment. Sentiments similar to those expressed by the superintendents had come from the leadership of the Pennsylvania State Education Association and from Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Teaching Profession_NEA, who noted “[Governor Jeb] Bush and the Legislature are no more interested in fairness for education than President Milosevic is interested in fairness for the Kosovar Albanians.”

Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency notes that such overheated rhetoric is nothing new. David Berliner, dean of Arizona State University’s College of Education, told a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature that “voucher programs could end up resembling the ethnic cleansing now occurring in Kosovo.”

Carolyn C. Dumaresq, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, defended such inflammatory comments as a legitimate part of “a debate over ideas.” School choice advocate David W. Kirkpatrick, a Harrisburg resident and former schoolteacher and teacher union official, countered that “such vitriol is an admission of weak arguments.”

David J. Gondak, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, told teachers they should use their classrooms to promote the union view on the governor’s school choice proposals–a suggestion immediately condemned by Pennsylvania State Education Secretary Eugene Hickok as a violation of the trust that parents accord to teachers. He called on Gondak to make it clear to teachers “that they are NOT to use their positions of authority over our kids to further their union agenda.”

Hickok also condemned as “outrageous slander” remarks by Democrat state Representative Joseph Preston Jr., who suggested to a room full of reporters that school choice grants could be used by religious schools to pay for pedophile and child-abuse lawsuits within their religions.

“School choice opponents keep hitting new lows in their desperation to keep parents from being able to choose the school they believe is best for their children,” said Hickok. “Each argument is more irrational than the last.”

Irrational opposition notwithstanding, by late May Ridge’s school choice initiatives had been endorsed by the following organizations: the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce; the Urban Family Council; the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Western Pennsylvania; the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association; the Pennsylvania Knights of Columbus; the Pennsylvania Association of Latino Organizations; the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters; the Pennsylvania Family Institute; Greater Philadelphia First, an association of major employers in Philadelphia; and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Additional endorsements came in early June from the National Association of Evangelicals, Pennsylvania Chapter; Evangelicals for Social Action; the Association for Christian Schools International, Northeast Region; the Keystone Christian Education Association; Citizens Against Higher Taxes, the largest grassroots taxpayer organization in Pennsylvania; the 25,000_member Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business; and the 6,000-member Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Under Ridge’s proposal, Educational Opportunity Grants would be available to eligible families in seven pilot counties. The grants could be applied to the cost of tuition at public, private, or religious schools. A parallel proposal, the Academic Recovery Act, identifies the eight lowest-performing districts and enables parents in those districts to take their child’s state education subsidy with the child to another public, private, or religious school.