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Mike Turzai informs us at the beginning of his op-ed, “Opponents of school choice should quit the punitive rhetoric ”, which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Sunday (11/3), that State and local school districts in Pennsylvania spend $33 billion on education, with $13 billion coming from the State’s General Fund. Although Turzai calls this the “gold standard” for funding public education, an analysis performed by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center ranks our State at 47th in the State’s contribution to education. Cheaping out on public education contributions would be bad enough, but the State is also the worst in the nation when it comes to dispersing these meager monies to the neediest districts. In a November 6 letter that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Mosenkis, chair of the POWER Interfaith Statewide Education Team, wrote that the whitest districts in the State receive $2,234 more than their fair share of Basic Education Funding while more diverse districts receive $2,240 less. Mr. Turzai is well aware of these facts, since his lawyer declared last March that students have “No fundamental right to equality in education”.

Turzai claims that due to “these record levels of spending, Pennsylvania ranks third of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in average teacher salary, average starting teacher salary”. He offers no evidence for this assertion, but one source ranks Pennsylvania 9th with a 2017 average teacher salary at $67,398, while another source ranks Pennsylvania’s 2017-2018 starting salary at 11th, with a salary of $44,647. Although not in the top three, these are high salaries, but we must remember that most of this money is coming from the school districts themselves, and that many of the home-owners in these districts have been complaining about their high property taxes for years.

After sugar-coating Pennsylvania’s funding record, Turzai then switches course to advise us that Pennsylvania also offers scholarships through tax credits, and then bemoans Governor Wolf’s veto of his House Bill 800, which would have added $100 million to these scholarship funds by removing an equal amount from the revenues to the General Fund.

Telling us that “one size does not fit all”, he claims that these scholarships to private and parochial schools as well as offering parents charter school options give families more choice. 

What is so special about choice. Since the 1990’s, advocates for school choice have been pressuring public officials with the claim that only educational options for parents – in the form of both private school scholarships and charter schools – will improve student achievement. Although Turzai tells us that charter schools often provide “innovative, cutting-edge approaches to education,” he offers no evidence for this remark other than his “seeing firsthand the positive difference that these schools have made in students’ lives”.

Yet the article decries Wolf “and others” for their “all-out attack against charters”. Although Turzai never specifies what constitutes this all-out attack, it’s a good guess that back in August, Wolf cited a Stanford University study which concluded that charters do not produce higher reading scores than traditional public schools and actually fare worse on math scores. And in those cases where public money is used for private school tuition, Pennsylvania law prohibits the schools from releasing student performance data.

So, Turzai’s only argument that educational tax credits and charter schools are worthy of State funding is that the parents who use them feel better about themselves. Traveling back once again to the nineties, school choice advocates were fond of mocking the practice where educators helped students to acquire better self-esteem. Choice advocates are therefore trying to persuade us that while students feeling better about themselves is a laughing matter, we should spend exorbitant amounts of taxpayer money so that parents can feel better about themselves.

Turzai informs us that 70,000 out of 200,000 students attend charters in Philadelphia while another 30,000 children are on waiting lists. This 30,000 number comes from a new application process developed by the Philadelphia School Partnership. What Turzai does not mention is that these waiting lists could be interpreted as a lack of school choice, since many traditional public schools have been closed in the last ten years and many other district schools are now overcrowded, forcing families to choose charters. For the 13,000 students attending Renaissance charters – where charter operators took over district schools – families were given no choice at all.

This new application system – Apply Philly Charter – reveals another problem regarding school choice. For example, MaST charter schools in Northeast Philadelphia account for about 23% of the applications processed by this new system. Over 60% of the combined student populations at the two MaST schools is white, whereas whites account for only about 14% of the entire student body in Philadelphia’s public schools, thereby raising a fundamental question about school choice. Are parents choosing the schools, or are schools choosing the students?

Turzai concludes by informing us that since nobody is forcing these families to make these choices, “Opponents of school choice should quit the punitive rhetoric”. Although he never tells us what he means by “punitive rhetoric”, and that opponents of school choice should quit making it, we can only construe that Turzai is referring to Governor Wolf’s executive orders regarding charters. All of Wolf’s orders can be found here, but the bottom line is that charters will be required to make the same commitments to quality, transparency, and accountability as traditional public schools.

Mr. Turzai’s op-ed is characteristic of the stage magician who, according to the narrator in Tenessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie”, is one who “gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth”. Pennsylvania needs a House Speaker who offers us the truth – not illusion.

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