On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood at the auditorium door to block African-American students Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. Today, the forces keeping students from receiving a quality education are less stark, but they are just as real and just as damaging.
Today's battle is not to force universities to let well-qualified African-American students in, but rather to force failing public schools to let low-income students out. Today's civil rights battle is school choice and Pennsylvania is on the front line.
The Jewish and African-American communities have a proud history of joining together to fight for civil rights. We must come together again in the looming battle for school choice. In earlier times, my father, former State Sen. Hardy Williams, proudly walked with ministers, rabbis, priests and thousands of others to ensure that people of all races could sit together at the lunch counter. To paraphrase my friend Dr. Howard Fuller, now we must join together to ensure that everybody at that lunch counter can read the menu.
Families with economic means ensure that their children receive a quality education by living in a good school district or enrolling their children in a non-public school that meets their child's needs. Low-income families do not currently have those options. Low-income children are too often a prisoner of their zip code, forced to attend the failing schools located in their home school district.
Failing schools exist throughout Pennsylvania and low-income children all over the state need our help. Ninety-one of Pennsylvania's 144 lowest performing schools are located in the Philadelphia School District. In 2009, only 32 percent of Philadelphia's 11th grade students were proficient in math and only 38 percent were proficient in reading. Today, just 10 percent of the students entering 9th grade in the Philadelphia School District will graduate from college.
Our obligation is to the children, not to the system that has allowed these failing schools to exist for so long. Children enrolled in a failing school need help immediately; they don't have the luxury of time for us to debate for another decade how best to "fix the system."
For this reason, Sen. Jeff Piccola and I recently introduced Senate Bill 1 providing "Opportunity Scholarships" to low-income families. These $9,000 opportunity scholarships would allow parents either to send their child to a better-performing public school or to pay tuition and enroll their child in a non-public school for less than half of the public money already being spent to send the child to a failing public school.
Opportunity scholarships are constitutional and successful. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that opportunity scholarship (voucher) programs, similar to the GI Bill and Pell grants, are constitutional. Further, studies show that where families are offered choice, student achievement and graduation rates improve. Choice programs in Milwaukee, Wisc., Cleveland, Ohio, Washington D.C. and the state of Florida are successful.
Fifteen years ago the education establishment fought to keep school choice out of Pennsylvania. But after many battles in the legislature, we now afford some parents limited school-choice options through the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program and through charter schools. Senate Bill 1 would greatly expand those options.
Yet the education establishment vows to fight against us, arguing, among other things, that the EITC and charter schools they previously so vigorously opposed are so successful that there is no need for additional choice programs.
The school board president of Delaware County's William Penn School District recently voiced her opposition to opportunity scholarships, saying that if such legislation is passed, "I will be standing in the schoolhouse door."
In 1963 we came together to defeat George Wallace. Today we must come together to defeat opponents who want to deny our low-income families their basic civil rights and the opportunity to receive a quality education.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams represents the 8th Senatorial District, covering parts of Philadelphia and Delaware counties. He is the Democratic whip, serves as Democratic chairman of the State Government Committee and is a member of the Education and other committees.