Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Opponents of school choice should quit the punitive rhetoric | Opinion

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai weighs in on the state of education.

On Jan. 22, 2019, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, right. held a roundtable discussion with charter school parents.
On Jan. 22, 2019, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, right. held a roundtable discussion with charter school parents.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania spends more than $33 billion in state and local taxes on public education. In all, 38.6% of our state’s General Fund budget, or over $13 billion annually, is dedicated to primary education pre-K-12, and over $20 billion is raised by school districts through their state-empowered taxing authority.

Thanks 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, and average school spending per student when these figures are adjusted for cost of living. We also rank third in average teacher salary as a percentage of median household income, with the average Pennsylvania public school teacher making nearly 20% more than our state’s median household, without counting pension or medical benefits. We are leading the nation, ranking in the top three states across all these categories.

Pennsylvania also offers scholarships through the Education Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits, allowing more than 50,000 students to receive a scholarship that helps pay for part of the cost of a private or parochial school. However, these tax credits are now capped at $190 million, or just half of 1% of our total tax dollars spent on public education K-12. There were at least another 50,000 who could not receive any scholarship assistance because of the arbitrary limit on the amount of available tax credits. In June, Gov. Tom Wolf ignored the needs of these children when he vetoed House Bill 800’s robust EITC expansion.

While our state is a gold standard with respect to funding public school districts, one size does not fit all. Scholarships to private and parochial schools allow each family to choose the education best suited for their child. Charter schools in Pennsylvania offer another alternative for our families and their children, often providing innovative, cutting-edge approaches to education.

I have visited many of Pennsylvania’s excellent brick-and-mortar charter schools, including Mastery, Boys’ Latin, Lincoln Park, Propel, and City Charter, seeing firsthand the positive difference that these schools have made in students’ lives. I would challenge any opponent of public charter schools, including Gov. Wolf, to visit these and other charters serving some of our most vulnerable children. These schools are saving lives, giving kids and families opportunities for success in caring, structured environments.

The all-out attack against charters pursued by the governor and others is an insult to the children and families desiring these choices. Right now, about 70,000 out of the 200,000 students in Philadelphia have chosen to enroll in public charter schools. An additional 30,000 are on waiting lists. Those kids and their family members must literally win a lottery to get into a charter school. Some students take as many as three buses to attend a charter school. Just like public school districts, these public charter schools have dedicated administrators and teachers too.

Families want options. No one is forcing these families and children to apply to these charter schools. No one is forcing families or children to seek scholarships to private and parochial schools. Each child deserves access to school choice without relying on chance.

Opponents of school choice should quit the punitive rhetoric. We can have thriving public school districts, public charter schools, and private and parochial schools available for our kids and parents. Competition raises the quality of each, ensuring that the needs of every student and family are being met.

Rep. Mike Turzai is now in his 10th term in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He is in his third term as House speaker.