Right-Wing Campaign to Privatize Public Ed Takes Hold in Pennsylvania
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The pro-voucher Democrats for Educational Reform, according to Rachel Tabachnick, call the strategy of creating front movements (and in the case of West Philadelphia front candidates) “flooding the zone.” The strategy has already been unleashed in states nationwide:
- In October 2010, AFC funded a pro-voucher Florida PAC's attack on a Democratic candidate for attorney general. The mailers accused Dan Gelber of being “Toxic to Jewish Education.” United opposition to vouchers by Florida Democrats has fractured in the face of millions of dollars in pro-voucher money.
- In 2011, AFC backed the creation of a legally embattled voucher law in Indiana, the country's most expansive.
- In Louisiana, where the New Orleans Recovery School District has already broken teachers' unions and effected large-scale charter takeovers, the AFC affiliate Louisiana Federation for Children earlier this month celebrated passage of a school voucher law.
- In Georgia, AFC is currently running attack ads targeting lawmakers who opposed legislation that would strip school districts of the right to issue charters. The legislation passed, and voters will decide the issue by referendum in November.
- In Wisconsin, AFC has supported Governor Scott Walker, the Republican whose attack on public employee collective bargaining sparked mass protests and now a recall vote. They also funded attacks on anti-voucher state legislators, accusing one of “killing” jobs, and sending out factually incorrect mailers crediting a pro-voucher candidate for creating jobs. In a second case that earned a scolding from Politifact, AFC sent out a mailer attacking a Wisconsin school board president for a school crisis—in Idaho. In addition, Walker and legislative allies last year passed an expansion of Milwaukee's voucher program, which was the nation's first when it was created in 1990.
- In Arizona, AFC supported former state Senate President Russell Pearce, who was ultimately hounded out of office after leading the defense of the state's draconian anti-immigrant law.
Pennsylvania, like many other states, already has a vouchers-lite program that offers generous tax subsidies to people who donate to other children's private school tuition. Republican governors in Virginia and Florida recently signed similar programs into law, and Pennsylvania advocates are promoting an expansion of the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC).
Outside the corporate world, the Catholic Church stands as the most powerful supporter of school vouchers. A longtime voucher proponent, the Church is now stepping up its advocacy in a bid to save a crumbling parochial school system hemorrhaging dollars and pupils nationwide. In a January 29 letter evincing a desperate need for a bailout, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told parishioners, “Our schools can no longer count on unlimited Church support. The resources simply don't exist...We need to press our lawmakers, respectfully but vigorously, to pass school choice.”
The bishops’ campaign for vouchers has so far failed, Chaput writes, “not because they didn't try, but because too few people in the pews listened. Very few Catholics called or wrote their state senators and representatives.”
Other religious groups, including evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews, have also lobbied for vouchers. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers are legal, public education advocates in the states are exploring state constitutional challenges. In Indiana, the lawsuit challenging the voucher law charges that paying religious organizations taxpayer dollars violates state constitutional protections for the separation of church and state. Some states, including Indiana and Pennsylvania, bar support for religious groups more explicitly than the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause.
Ironically, the school choice movement has already gravely harmed many religious schools. The privately managed public charter schools that have witnessed explosive growth in recent years have been a primary cause of the enrollment decline in Catholic schools, according to the Pew Foundation.