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Reasserting the right to high-quality schools

Vouchers would address an emerging caste system.

By Anthony Hardy Williams

The idea of limiting your neighbors' opportunities based on the color of their skin is as antiquated and repugnant as the elected officials who once declared that integration would take place only over their dead bodies. But images of the civil rights era were conjured anew last week when an area school board president said she would "be standing in the schoolhouse door" to block vouchers.

Does she want to be the George Wallace of the 21st century? Once again, stubborn, outdated ideas about what's best for society are threatening to leave kids the losers, and the rest of us, too.

It's no secret that America's public school systems vary widely in quality. Some work splendidly, and others muddle along in the middle, but too many - largely in less affluent urban and rural areas - don't function at all. A romanticized view of what public education should be cannot replace the reality of what it is.

Of the Pennsylvania public schools defined as failing, 91 are in Philadelphia. That's more than a third of the city's public schools.

It's little wonder that this is the poorest of America's large cities. Producing whole classes of undereducated students has become an accepted norm.

Bipartisan school-choice legislation introduced in Harrisburg last week is a step toward solving this problem. In some circles, it was promptly demonized as an insidious Republican plot. But I am a Democrat who believes our party should be diverse not just in race, gender, and religion, but also in thought. And I'm a proud coauthor of this bill as well as a product of school choice.

Contrary to what the fearmongers would have you believe, Senate Bill 1 is not designed to disrupt schools that are working well. It's narrowly tailored to address the needs of those that aren't working by forcing them to compete or dissolve.

The program would be phased in over three years, becoming available first to students whose families earn less than $29,000 a year and who attend schools that are persistently among the worst-performing. The following year, it would expand to the families of all low-income students living within the attendance boundaries of a failing school. And in the third year, it would become available to all kids in that income bracket.

Vouchers under the legislation would be equal to 100 percent of the state's per-pupil subsidy to a child's school district, not to exceed the tuition of a chosen school. No school would be required to accept vouchers, but those that do would have to develop admissions policies accepting students on a first-come, first-served basis.

The bill would also pump more money into the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, allowing businesses to direct a portion of their tax dollars to scholarship and enrichment programs instead of the state treasury.

In short, Senate Bill 1 would provide children with a pathway to a quality education. The alternative is to leave them to languish while adults tinker with the status quo and hope for the best.

Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, Daisy Bates, and other civil rights leaders knew that high-quality education was the best shot at leveling a lopsided playing field. That holds true today, but the problem is not constrained to people of color.

The country is moving toward an unofficial caste system defined by separate and unequal educational options. We have the power to right that course - to be on the right side of history. George Wallace certainly wasn't, and neither are those who would stand in the way of equal educational opportunity today.