The American Jewish community has a proud tradition of fighting for equality, education and social justice, so it's no surprise that supporters of taxpayer-funded vouchers want to portray Senate Bill 1 as the "civil rights battle of our generation." They know how to appeal to us.
But SB 1 is flawed legislation that, history shows, will not raise achievement and will deepen the educational disparity between rich and poor students.
SB 1 would give millions of tax dollars to private and parochial schools by diverting money away from neighborhood public schools. The bill's sponsors are silent about its cost, but starting an expensive new program is imprudent with Pennsylvania facing a $4-5 billion state budget deficit and school districts laying off accomplished teachers and slashing successful programs.
SB 1 is the antithesis of expanding civil rights because it doesn't prohibit private and parochial schools from discriminating against students based on income, race, religion, disabilities, special needs or sexual orientation.
SB 1 doesn't require voucher schools to give standardized tests or report academic achievement publicly, as all public schools do. SB 1 offers zero accountability while "subsidizing" private and parochial schools with tax dollars.
Finally, SB 1 doesn't require financial oversight of how private and parochial schools spend tax money. It's a blank check, without safeguards to prevent the kind of fraud and reckless spending already documented at numerous charter and voucher schools.
SB 1's sponsors rely on myths rather than research to claim that vouchers will raise achievement and give poor parents the same choices wealthier parents already enjoy.
But 20 years after the first voucher program in Milwaukee, research by RAND Corp., Stanford University, the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin and other studies demonstrate clearly that vouchers, charters and other school-choice options do not improve student achievement. Research has found "no overall statistically significant differences" between low-income public and voucher students.
The only choice parents really have is which applications they fill out. A $9,000 voucher seems like a lot of money, but it won't buy a poor student a spot in a Lower Merion school, which spends an average $18,000 per pupil, or at good private and religious schools, which cost $16,000 to $30,000 annually. Schools choose students, not the other way around.
And heaven help a child with special needs because voucher, charter, private and religious schools typically under-enroll certain populations: students from low-income families, students with physical or learning disabilities, children exhibiting behavioral problems, English-language learners and others who are considered difficult or expensive to educate, says Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.
Voucher and charter programs skim high-achieving students, expel or counsel out poor performers and return the most difficult students to cash-strapped local schools without the resources to help them create what Ravitch calls "a two-tier system of widening inequality."
We learn about fairness, human responsibility and justice in Shemot, where we are commanded to treat others as we would want to be treated. It's tempting to support proposals that purport to give poor families access to resources many of us enjoy. Unfortunately, history demonstrates that vouchers won't level the playing field for low-income families, and worse, threaten to undermine neighborhood schools and the communities they serve.
Philadelphia's struggling schools have been implementing proven reforms successfully and raising achievement for eight straight years. A real civil rights initiative would target more resources, not less, to underfunded urban and rural schools and provide real equality of educational opportunity for disadvantaged children.
Ted Kirsch is president of the American Federation of Teachers, Pennsylvania and a former president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and a former chair of the Jewish Labor Committee of Philadelphia.