By Lawrence A. Feinberg
The 2022 race for governor’s race has begun, and Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai wants to make it clear that he shares Betsy DeVos’ vision for privatization of public education.
In a recent Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece, Turzai, R-Allegheny, touted our state “as a gold standard with respect to funding public school districts”, completely ignoring the fact that Pennsylvania is home to the widest per pupil funding gap between wealth and poor districts in the country.
Under his leadership, the Pennsylvania Legislature has been negligent, willfully and deliberately ignoring the state’s historic gross inequity in the distribution of school funding and locking students in poorer districts into their underfunded and under resourced predicament. A school funding lawsuit is pending, with the trial tentatively set to begin in summer 2020.
In fiscal 2015-16, only 36.8 percent of aggregate education funding came from the state while 57.2 percent came from local sources, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s “Annual Financial Reports.”
The U.S. Census’ “Annual Survey of School System Finances” data from fiscal year 2015 ranks Pennsylvania 47th out of the 50 states in state support for public schools.
Instead of addressing the funding issue, he has consistently and aggressively promoted anything but democratically governed public schools that are accountable to taxpayers. While he supported the Financial Recovery Act of 2012 setting in motion a plan for distressed school districts to get back on track, he is thwarting that effort by ensuring that such districts remain in financial distress.
His signature tax credit program, which diverts public tax dollars to private and religious schools, skirts the Pennsylvania Constitution which explicitly says that “no money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.”
In October the Inquirer reported that earlier this year, Turzai pushed to nearly double Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, promoting a bill that would have grown it by $100 million; enabled it to increase automatically in the future, and upped income limits for participating families to $126,216 a year for a family of four.
There are no fiscal or student performance accountability requirements for schools receiving diverted tax dollars, and the legislature has expanded the tax credit programs every year since they were implemented.
Now he is reportedly fast-tracking HB1800, a voucher bill he introduced in September, which would create what he called a “pilot program” in Harrisburg, giving city students $8,200 scholarships to attend private schools. Under his proposal, the Harrisburg School District and state would each pay half the costs.
Students presently in private and religious schools who have never attended Harrisburg public schools would also be eligible for vouchers under the program, draining even more sorely needed funding from the district.
There are no fiscal or student performance accountability provisions in the bill.
Turzai’s bill is on the agenda for consideration by the House Education Committee on Monday, Nov.18, with subsequent consideration by the full Pennsylvania House as soon as that Thursday, Nov. 21.
This bill would be a “camel’s nose under the tent”. Though funded by taxpayer dollars, it paves the way for future expansion of the program across the state – far from scrutiny and accountability by taxpayers.
Public money is public money and it belongs in our public schools.
Lawrence A. Feinberg was recently re-elected to a sixth, four-year term as a school director in Haverford Township, Delaware County. He also serves as Co-Chair of the Delaware County School Boards Legislative Council.