At a special meeting on March 18, the Southeast Delco school board thrust residents of four small Pennsylvania towns into the national educational choice debate by approving local tuition scholarships for district parents whose children attend public, private, or religiously affiliated non-district schools. Even before the issue came to a vote, national organizations opposed to school vouchers released statements against the plan and warned of future legal action and expense for the school board.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge applauded the board’s action as “an ambitious and important step to give parents more control over their children’s education,” adding that the plan “affirms the belief that parents–not government–know what’s best for their kids.”
The board’s plan, approved 7-0 with two abstentions, would become effective for the 1998-99 school year and provides for tuition reimbursement of $250 for children in kindergarten, $500 for children in grades 1-8, and $1,000 for children in grades 9-12. Reimbursement would be made by the school district directly to the child’s parents at the end of the school year, subject to the district receiving proof of attendance and paid tuition.
“The primary purpose of this plan is to help all Southeast Delco parents to exercise their inherent and fundamental right to individually control the education of their children,” stated the resolution approved by the board, which noted that “many families in our district are struggling financially.”
The board pointed out that its plan would cost only $1.2 million a year while the previous teacher contract had cost taxpayers an additional $5 million a year. The pay of many teachers has doubled over the past six years, with the average teacher salary in the district, including benefits, currently standing at $79,000 a year.
Although the total number of students in the district has changed little during the past five years, enrollment in non-public schools has dropped from 37 percent of that total to 32 percent, burdening public schools with additional students and taxpayers with additional expenses. The board warned that the 1,890 students currently enrolled in private schools represent a potential unfunded liability of $12 million a year for local and state taxpayers.
The board’s action garnered enthusiastic support from many quarters, including parents, Governor Ridge, and the Philadelphia Archdiocese, but it was quickly condemned by local and national opponents of school choice, including the Southeast Delco Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Board President Mary Carol Flemming said she was “not intimidated” by these groups. “I’m prepared to go to the United States Supreme Court with this,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].