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Advocate sees opportunity in Pa. for education reform via school vouchers

Matt Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based grassroots group active in the tea party movement and an organizer of rallies for private-school tuition vouchers in Pennsylvania. He visited The Inquirer's Editorial Board last week.

Matt Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based grassroots group active in the tea party movement and an organizer of rallies for private-school tuition vouchers in Pennsylvania. He visited The Inquirer's Editorial Board last week.

Question: Why are you here?

Kibbe: We think that Pennsylvania is perhaps the biggest opportunity nationally to do some substantial reform on education and to do something about the rising costs of failing schools and the children who are trapped in those schools.

Q: Why do you think it's the best opportunity?

Kibbe: You have a governor who ran on the issue and won. You have Senate sponsors and House sponsors who ran on the issue and won. I think there's a consensus - not just on the tax-credit piece but on the voucher piece - if they can come together around a single legislative proposal. So it's just the right place at the right time. And if we can free a third of the kids stuck in failing schools in Pennsylvania, I believe that would be one of the biggest programs in the country. If we can fix Pennsylvania schools, I think Pennsylvania immediately becomes the leader.

Q: Are you supportive of charter schools as well?

Kibbe: We've actually done more work on charters in a number of states across the country, just because there's been more opportunity to do that. Our attitude on education reform is we should try a lot of different things. And charters are a good option. But ultimately, parents, not some bureaucrat, should be allowed to choose what's best for their kids.

Q. What about the loss of funding in the public schools? What about those who are left behind?

Kibbe: I don't think that the goal of school choice is to have kids leave en masse from the schools that they're going to. But you actually want some competitive pressure on the school system so that they can actually perform better. And there's almost an inverse relationship between the amount of money we're spending on K-12 right now - not just in Pennsylvania but across the United States. Spending goes up and up and up. Performance continues to drop. . . .

I don't think that anyone thinks that the key to improving public education is just spending more money. There's something else to the equation. I think it's competitive pressure. And how about merit pay? How about teachers that go the extra yard and produce results? Why don't we pay them more than average teachers? This is part of what the governor is talking about, and what the Senate's talking about as well.

Q: What would your organization like to see happen to public schools?

Kibbe: I'm an economist by training, and I take a lot of my thinking about education reform from Milton Friedman. What he argued, and what I would argue, is that the key to a voucher program is not kids leaving public schools. It's creating competition. And competition not only makes kids better, but it forces schools to do better.

Q: Where do you have examples of that?

Kibbe: I would argue it happened in Wisconsin. It happened in Florida. . . .

Q: But do you have evidence it succeeds?

Kibbe: I can't rattle off statistics here. . . . I would say, candidly, that we should try different things because we can't possibly do worse than we're doing right now.

Q: How active, how radical do you want to be - and how active have you been in Pennsylvania?

Kibbe: I wouldn't call any of it radical. It's everything from asking citizens to contact state legislators, calling them, writing them, e-mailing them, showing up at town-hall meetings. . . . I think that politics in general and the new politics in America is going to be more about grassroots organization and more about your ability to engage a community of people who will get out the vote - without all of the expensive tools and campaigns. Apply that to the legislative process, and I think it's the same logic. It's no longer about TV ads or about high-paid lobbyists. I think it's about your ability to engage citizens in that legislative process.

Q: That still costs money. Does your funding come from within Pennsylvania?

Kibbe: I don't know how many donors I have in Pennsylvania. I have quite a few. Nationally, I have over 40,000 donors. So I can't say that all the money comes from Pennsylvania.

Q: Critics would say that everything you want ultimately requires the dismantling of the teachers' unions. Is that fair?

Kibbe: No. We're not for dismantling the union. We're for accountability. And I think whether or not you're a teacher in a union or you're a state legislator or you're some corporate interest trying to get a special favor from government, I think it's all the same question: Are you serving kids, are you serving customers, are you serving constituents - or are you in it for yourself?

Q: But are they [the unions] the biggest obstacle right now to those changes?

Kibbe: Absolutely, yes.