Reject the failing schools model of choice. It does nothing but divide.

For several months, the political leadership of Pennsylvania has shown increasing bipartisan support for school choice, particularly for scholarships that provide private learning options for low-income students. That trend continued Tuesday when Democratic Senator Anthony Williams and Republican Jeffrey Piccola released the details of a plan that would give public or private school choices to low-income students from low-achieving public schools. The criticism from leaders such as outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell was largely predictable. But the opposition at least gives us the opportunity to ask the question: Is it more politically advantageous to design a voucher or tax credit scholarship plan tied to failing public schools or one that simply empowers disadvantaged families?

RedefinED host Doug Tuthill would argue for the latter, and he did just that in October before a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing testimony on the future of school choice in the state. In three years, the Williams-Piccola proposal would open the scholarships to all-low-income students, but initially only those attending schools judged as persistently failing would be eligible.

Why do legislators believe it’s politically necessary to tie a voucher to school performance? Florida nearly stands alone in the substantial Democratic support backing tax credit scholarships for low-income children and vouchers for special-needs students, and neither program requires a public school to be labeled a “failure.”

“Limiting parental empowerment to failing schools is an imprecise way to identify low-income students who need a different learning option, and it encourages parental empowerment to be framed as a public versus private school issue,” Doug said in testimony to Pennsylvania senators. “The best schools in the world fail some students. These students need school choice, too.”

Here are Doug’s full comments to the senate committee:

I’m president of a Florida scholarship funding organization whose mission is the same as Senate Bill 1405 — to help public education fulfill its promise of equal opportunity for all.

Public education today is undergoing a remarkable transformation. We’re transitioning from a one-size-fits-all system in which we assume any school can meet the needs of any child, to a system that is organized around the idea that every child is different and what works for one student may not work for another. Educators are being empowered to create more diverse learning options and parents are being empowered to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. Customization is the future of public education.

In Florida we now have a third-of-a-million students who are able to attend any neighborhood school in their district that has room and another third-of-a-million choosing to attend magnet programs or fundamental schools or career academies or dual enrollment programs. We have 100,000 students taking courses online, 140,000 attending charter schools, 130,000 attending publicly-funded private prekindergarten schools, and 21,000 exceptional education students and 33,000 low-income students attending private schools onpublicly-funded scholarships. All these options are expanding and strengthening Florida’s public education system, which brings me to my first recommendation. Avoid the old public versus private school debate. It’s divisive and irrelevant.

Private providers have always been an important part of public education. Today their presence is accelerating, and it should. The challenges we face are so profound we need all hands on deck. We need everyone working together — neighborhood district schools, online schools, charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, dual enrollment schools and homeschooling communities. We are all allies in our quest to provide equal educational opportunity for every child.

Our nonprofit organization administers a scholarship program that is currently enabling 33,000 low-income students to attend over 1,100 private schools, and yet we work collaboratively with Florida school districts and have abusiness partnership with a local teachers union to help teachers in public, private and charter schools improve their instruction.

My second recommendation is to reject the failing schools model of school choice and instead embrace an empowerment model. The failing schools approach says only students in “failing schools” should be allowed to choose schools that best meet their needs; the empowerment model says all students deserve this opportunity. Limiting parental empowerment to failing schools is an imprecise way to identify low-income students who need a different learning option, and it encourages parental empowerment to be framed as a public versus private school issue. The best schools in the world fail some students. These students need school choice, too.

Embracing an empowerment rationale for school choice has allowed us to create broad bipartisan support for our Florida program. When our program was created in 2001, we had only one Democrat vote in support. This year, a major expansion bill was passed with the support of nearly half the Democrats and a majority of the Black and Hispanic Caucuses. This level of bipartisanship is only possible because we don’t embrace the failing schools model of choice.

In the past five years our scholarship enrollment has tripled. Eligibility for our scholarship is limited to children whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced lunch, which is 185 percent of poverty. Our law does allow for some income growth for renewing families. For renewal students, we use a sliding scale that tops out at 230 percent, which is the point at which the scholarship ends. Our scholarship amount was previously written into the statute, but a new law passed this year will ultimately index it to 80 percent of the general operational formula for public school students. This year, the maximum scholarship is $4,106. By the time it reaches 80 percent, we project the scholarship will exceed $6,000. The total cost of educating a Florida public school student, including capital outlay, is more than $10,000 a year, so the state saves money for each student who uses a scholarship—money we encourage the state to invest in public education.

Our scholarship students are required to take a state-approved nationally norm-referenced test, and the most recent academic gains report, issued in June, made an important finding about the type of student who chooses ourscholarship. The state’s researcher, a highly regarded Northeastern professor named David Figlio, combed through the public school test scores of students prior to choosing thescholarship and he found: “Scholarship participants have significantly poorer test performance in the year prior to starting the scholarship program than do non-participants. … These differences are large in magnitude and are statistically significant.”

In other words, the parents who choose this option tend to be desperate because their students are failing. They base their decisions on how their child is performing, not on school or district test scores. And they do a good job deciding. Students who are doing well in their existing public school tend to stay regardless of how that school is labeled, and students who are struggling in highly rated schools move,which is exactly as it should be.

Pennsylvania has long been a leader in parental empowerment and school choice advocates around the country have been energized by what’s happening in this state. As a lifelong Democrat and a former president of two local teacher unions in Florida, I am particularly grateful forSenator Williams’ leadership.

I appreciate your time today and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit