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Right-Wing Campaign to Privatize Public Ed Takes Hold in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, voucher proponents have spent more than $1 million on election season so far. Will the state set a national precedent in privatizing public schools?

Photo Credit: Katherine Welles |


A nationwide movement to promote school vouchers, funded by a coterie of wealthy corporate and Wall Street donors, has once again made Pennsylvania a battleground state in the fight over privatizing education. Voter turnout in the April 24 primary is expected to be low, and national media attention has moved on now that Rick Santorum has dropped his presidential bid. But voucher proponents have so far spent more than $1 million on an election season generally defined by low-budget state legislative races.

"I see a move by essentially a handful of very wealthy people who want to privatize public education for a wide variety of reasons," Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the anti-voucher Keystone State Education Coalition, told the Philadelphia City Paper. "Not the least of which has to do with crushing labor unions, but they also want tax dollars going to private and religious schools."

As I first reported in the Philadelphia City Paper, the pro-voucher state political action committee (PAC) Students First — funded by Pennsylvania hedge-fund managers and American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group headed by Amway heiress and major right-wing donor Betsy DeVos — has unleashed ad campaigns targeting opponents of school vouchers, which allocate taxpayer funds to private and religious school tuition.

West Philadelphia's 188th House District is the epicenter of the Pennsylvania fight, where homes have been sent glossy mailers attacking state Rep. James Roebuck, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and a leading opponent of vouchers.

"James Roebuck blocked kids from attending the schools of their choice," is printed in red letters on one mailer, above an unflattering photo of the legislator. 

Yet the two mailers primarily blame Roebuck for issues that have nothing to do with vouchers, and almost nothing to do with Roebuck: the enrollment cap at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania-supported Penn Alexander public school, former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's ruinous tenure, the dropout rate, crowded classrooms and school violence. 

"I don't support vouchers. I do support school choice," Roebuck told City Paper. "What we need to do is open up more options for students within the existing public school system so we don't divert money out of the system to the benefit of some kids and not the many."

Roebuck is even blamed for alleged widespread cheating on standardized tests at Philadelphia schools— cheating encouraged the by the high-stakes tests, which now play a decisive role in teacher evaluation and even a school's survival, touted by these very same school reform advocates.

Like pro-voucher efforts nationwide, the Pennsylvania campaign conceals the corporate money behind local front groups. The word "voucher" does not appear in any of the attack ads. 

“Many of their previous attempts at using voucher initiatives to privatize the nation's public schools have been transparent,” writes journalist Rachel Tabachnick, who has investigated the web of corporate funders and right-wing think tanks coordinating the pro-voucher movement. But “recent campaigns have been more covert and are camouflaged behind local efforts described as grassroots and bipartisan.” 

The obfuscation is pragmatic: hedge fund dollars notwithstanding, most Pennsylvanians oppose school vouchers

Students First has given $25,000 to Roebuck challenger Fatimah Muhammad, and another $12,000 to Public Education Excellence, the third-party group sending out the attack ads.

Muhammad has close ties to the powerful state Sen. Anthony Williams, the state's most high-profile pro-voucher Democrat and a major figure in the national “school choice” movement.

Roebuck contends Williams is behind the campaign and targeting him for his role in blocking legislation to create a voucher program, a top priority of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The bill passed the Senate last year but has so far failed to make headway in the House.

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