Pennsylvania Railroad: Powerful Right-Wing Forces Are Trying to Engineer Voucher Subsidies for Religious Schools in the Keystone State

By Brown, Simon | Church & State, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Pennsylvania Railroad: Powerful Right-Wing Forces Are Trying to Engineer Voucher Subsidies for Religious Schools in the Keystone State


Brown, Simon, Church & State


Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) claims he has the solution to the problems in his state's public school system. Corbett has been promoting a plan that would allow some low-income families to use taxpayer-funded school vouchers because he says the program would help reduce the state's dropout rate and improve educational outcomes for some of the poorest students.

The proposal targets families earning no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($41,000 for a family of four) who would be slated to send their kids to schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance. Vouchers would permit students to attend public or private schools, including religious schools, provided the school chooses to accept the student.

The amount of voucher money available to a student would depend on his or her family's income, but in the first year of the program about $50 million in taxpayer money would go to students who already attend private schools.

Corbett said the state can't continue to run from failing schools and high dropout rates anymore.

"We have to think and act smarter," Corbett said, according to an Oct. 11 blog post on The Morning Call's website. "I know we can do better ... we have to have the will to do better."

The voucher bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate 27-22 on Oct. 26 and now awaits an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives.

The problem with Corbett's voucher program is the same as with all voucher programs: those who promote it make assumptions and rely on misconceptions to argue for an idea that doesn't necessarily help students who get the vouchers, hurts public school education as a whole and provides state-funded handouts to religious schools.

In Pennsylvania's case, Corbett is wrong about the high dropout rate. The dropout rate in Pennsylvania was 2.6 percent in the 2007-2008 school year, well below the national average of 4.1 percent in that year, according to an Oct. 11 article by the Associated Press.

If Pennsylvania public schools are indeed failing, perhaps it's because Corbett has hacked their funding. Since taking office in January, Corbett has cut $900 million from the public education sector.

This war on public school education is not unique to Pennsylvania and is on the rise. The AP reported in August that 30 state legislatures have contemplated voucher bills in 2011, up from just nine in 2010. Additionally, 28 states have considered tax breaks for private school tuition this year.

Americans United is currently tracking bills under consideration in Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin, in addition to Pennsylvania, that would either create school voucher plans or tuition tax credit programs. An Iowa legislator, meanwhile, has gone so far as to introduce a state Senate resolution that would urge the U.S. Congress to pass a constitutional amendment allowing school vouchers.

A major proponent of these tuition tax credits and vouchers, unsurprisingly, is the Roman Catholic hierarchy that is in increasingly desperate need of state and federal handouts for its parochial school system. According to a July 3 article in The New York Times, the number of Catholic schools in the United States has fallen from 13,000 to 7,000 over the past 50 years. The number of students attending Catholic schools has subsequently decreased from about five million to about two million.

Although 34 Catholic schools opened nationwide in the 2010-2011 school year, 172 closed, according to The Times.

When Corbett's plan passed in the Pennsylvania Senate, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., said in a statement that the voucher legislation will "ensure that ideal educational opportunities are accessible and available to all" and that "exploring ways to give parents the ability to make the best decisions for the education of their children is a worthy goal. …

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