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Pennsylvania: Voucher Ground Zero

FOR WEEKS, deep-pocketed advocates for school vouchers - tax dollars to help students attend private or religious schools - in Pennsylvania sold their scheme as the only way for poor children to escape failing urban public schools.

Anti-voucher parent Alicia Dorsey, of Mount Airy, protested at conference where Gov. Corbett spoke. (Peter Mucha / Inquirer Staff)
Anti-voucher parent Alicia Dorsey, of Mount Airy, protested at conference where Gov. Corbett spoke. (Peter Mucha / Inquirer Staff)Read more

FOR WEEKS, deep-pocketed advocates for school vouchers - tax dollars to help students attend private or religious schools - in Pennsylvania sold their scheme as the only way for poor children to escape failing urban public schools.

Then some leading tea-party groups objected to the legislation slowly snaking its way through Harrisburg.

Their objection: The plan was too generous to poor children.

The head of the tea-party group UNITEPA wrote to lawmakers that the then-version of Senate Bill 1 wasn't helping middle-class families enough but was "creating another government program which gives a small segment of the population special rights."

A short time later, Gov. Corbett - a leading voucher advocate - and Senate leaders reached a new compromise that critics say is designed to reduce the amount of vouchers in low-income districts like Philadelphia and give the excess dollars to families in more affluent districts.

The little-noticed change is typical of what has become a mega-million-dollar stealth push - heavily funded by out-of-state, right-wing millionaires and billionaires - to make Pennsylvania into a national proving ground for school choice.

In little more than a year, activists like Michigan's Betsy DeVos, of the Amway fortune; the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton; and three wealthy Main Line hedge-fund traders have doled out an astonishing $6-million-plus in campaign cash to top Harrisburg pols, while they and allies have spent millions more on rallies, inflammatory mailers and lobbyists.

In doing so, they've managed to put a voucher program, which would take hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools and shift them to private or parochial schools, on the political front burner - even as those same public schools are facing draconian budget cuts.

Earlier this month, supporters of the state Senate's ambitious voucher program postponed a vote on the plan - perhaps until the fall - as they struggled to work out differences with the state House, where leaders would rather expand a less ambitious tax-credit program.

But critics of the voucher proposals don't expect it to go away - not with the enthusiastic backing of Corbett, whose campaign has received at least $50,000 from the pro-voucher Students First PAC, and from other lawmakers drenched in political dough.

They say that in wooing tea-party activists and rural and suburban lawmakers, Harrisburg has increasingly moved the voucher plan away from what advocates say it is - a last-ditch rescue plans for students in troubled schools in Philadelphia and other cities - and toward a cash giveaway to middle-class kids who would have attended religious or private schools anyway.

What's more, they charge that some of the wealthy backers of vouchers don't want to help struggling public schools. They want to destroy them.

"The driving force is the big money from the free-marketeers," said Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who has been monitoring the pro-voucher movement for years.

"Betsy DeVos says she supports public education, but she would much prefer to see a privatized model," Boston said of the former Michigan Republican Party chair, the head of the American Federation for Children. Devos' husband, Dick, told the conservative Heritage Foundation that advocates could whip up opposition to public schools by calling them "government schools."

In addition, he said, DeVos and other advocates would like to take down the teachers' unions. Maybe it's not surprising that some of the key proponents of vouchers in Pennsylvania have also donated to Wisconsin's outspoken antiunion Gov. Scott Walker. Many of the interlocking ties between right-wing advocates for school vouchers were reported last month by freelance journalist Rachel Tabachnick.

The spokesman for DeVos' AFC, Andrew Campanella, scoffed at the idea that supporters of vouchers want to wreck public schools.

"We want public schools to be as strong as they could be, and well funded," said Campanella, who argues that overhauling public education will take time and that vouchers give students and their parents a chance to escape violent or academically inferior schools right now.

In Pennsylvania, national voucher advocates seem to believe they've found the perfect state to make a major stand. For one thing, the voucher issue has been kicked around in the past and has since been bolstered with prominent black supporters like state Sen. Anthony Williams and state Rep. Dwight Evans. Then last fall came the election of Corbett and a more conservative Legislature, more willing to listen to the tea party and conservative activists like DeVos.

And there's something else that the wealthy backers of school choice seem to find appealing about the Keystone State - the lack of limits on political donations. As was widely reported last spring, three pro-voucher founders of the Bala Cynwyd-based hedge fund Susquehanna International Group gave a whopping $5 million to Williams' failed gubernatorial campaign.

The local multimillionaires include Joel Greenberg - who later joined the board of DeVos' AFC and served as cochair of the education committee on Corbett's transition team - and his partners Jeff Yass and Arthur Dantchick, who both have ties to conservative advocacy groups and think tanks.

With less fanfare, the Bala threesome also gave $1.3 million to AFC's political fund in the fall; the AFC group then donated some $1.2 million to a virtual Harrisburg's Who's Who of political leaders, including Corbett; Williams; Evans; Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Delaware County Republican; and the Senate President Pro Tempore, the GOP's Joe Scarnati, of Western Pennsylvania.

Opponents of vouchers, like state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, find the massive infusion of campaign cash by the other side unsettling. "When you see folks spend an exorbitant amount of money to transform a system - that clearly needs work - you get a little concerned," he said.

But pro-voucher advocates have no qualms about the large donations, saying that such contributions are necessary to counteract the political influence of teachers' unions, which have been pumping contributions into Pennsylvania's body politic for years. "They have to compete with the amount of money that the other side's been giving out for 20 years," Williams said. "It's unfair to only talk about one side."

But opponents say that there's one thing that groups like Students First and AFC aren't telling voters: That evidence that vouchers lead to higher student achievement is lacking. Critics note a 2010 study from Milwaukee - which has the nation's longest-running major experiment with vouchers - that found that test scores were no different from peers who did not use vouchers to attend private or religious schools.

"African-American students in Milwaukee have scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress that are below those of African-American students in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana," said Diane Ravitch, a former high-ranking education official in the George H.W. Bush administration who once favored vouchers but now opposes them. "Vouchers helped no one."

In opposing vouchers, Hughes said that he'd like to spend precious dollars for education on proven methods that would make public schools better for all students - things like smaller class sizes, a longer day and summer classes - rather than a program that would benefit only the small group that would use vouchers.

"We cannot have a minimalist concept of how to deal with challenged schools," Hughes said, referring to vouchers. "We have to dive in full bore."

In Pennsylvania, analysts said that there's another reason to question whether the proposal now before the state Senate will do a lot for poor urban kids: Lawmakers keep changing the plan to attract more votes by skewing the benefits more to the middle class.

The anti-voucher Education Law Center, in looking at Senate staffers' own "Fiscal Note" analyzing the current voucher bill, estimated that over the first four years of the program, only 7.6 percent of the dollars would go to kids now in the state's 144 failing schools. Nearly two-thirds of the money would go to kids already enrolled in private or parochial schools.

And Baruch Kintisch, an analyst with the group, said that that was before Corbett and Senate leaders agreed to a new funding formula, designed to woo balking lawmakers and to appease tea-party activists, which would place a tighter cap on voucher money to kids from the poorest schools.

Kintisch said he's concerned that imposing a voucher program could destroy the most challenged schools by steering state money toward private or religious schools.

"The end result could be the end of public education in Philadelphia as we know it," he said. "There is a tipping point at which school districts cannot sustain the operation of public schools, and school districts like Chester-Upland and Philadelphia are close to that tipping point already."

But even though the voucher push seems temporarily stalled, few expect the crusade to disappear.

Corbett will be in the governor's mansion for three-and-a-half more years. And there's no sign that supporters of the concept are running out of checks.