By Christie L. ChicoineCS&T Staff Writer
HARRISBURG – A bill currently winding its way through the chambers of the Pennsylvania Senate is straightforward and resolute: school choice is the right choice for Catholics and non-Catholics of the Commonwealth.
Senate Bill 1, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, was introduced into legislation Jan. 26 and subsequently referred to the Senate Education Committee.
It would create an opportunity scholarship for low-income students and expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program to provide a continuum of options available to students and families. {{more}}
The bill was introduced by Sens. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware County) and Jeffrey E. Piccola (R-Dauphin/York) and cosponsored by 15 others.
Advocates also include the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) and the REACH Alliance (Road to Educational Achievement through Choice), both headquartered in Harrisburg.
Testimony from the Senate Education Committee’s school choice hearing last October is also reflected in the bill.
Newly inaugurated Gov. Tom Corbett, a Philadelphia native and product of a Catholic school education himself, is an ardent school choice proponent.
The subject of school choice is “a call to action,” said Amy B. Hill, communications director of the PCC.
She encourages Catholic constituents of all ages – tax paying parents with children as well as taxpayers without children – to rally behind the cause by contacting their state senators and representatives either in person or by telephone, e-mail or standard mail.
According to Hill, all a constituent has to do is convey support for school choice legislation with a simple sentence: “This is good for our community – it’s the right thing to do.”
Hill cited as an example how EITC, in existence for nearly a decade, has positively demonstrated parents’ longing for educational choices for their children.
Another example of the necessity of school choice legislation is the bleak reality of families who reside in neighborhoods where certain local schools are not a good match for their children, Hill said.
The bottom line, she stressed, is that the time is right – right now.
Certainly Catholics could benefit from school choice, Hill said, but parents and children across the board would as well.
School choice will become a reality in the commonwealth only if the cause receives substantial grassroots support, Hill said. That is why, she said, Advocates for Catholic Education in Pennsylvania was established.
“Public opinion has changed on this issue,” she said. “People see how choice in education is a desirable thing. It doesn’t bring the world crashing down around them.”
She also pointed out that other states have had school voucher programs for decades. Nationwide, there are 26 programs in 14 states that provide school choice through vouchers or tax credit scholarships.
Opponents of school choice legislation are apt to cite the age-old Church-state debate.
“Senate Bill 1 includes a public-to-public school choice option,” Hill said. “It’s not at all about choosing Catholic schools instead of public schools. It’s really about giving parents the means to make that choice for themselves.
“If parents desire a Catholic education for their child, then the voucher that they receive is just a tool to help them get access to that. It sort of levels the playing field where many other more affluent people – and, maybe not so affluent people – have made that choice. This gives them that same opportunity to find the best education for their child. That’s really what this is all about.
“Who knows best what will work for their kids than their own parents?” asked Hill.
Practically everyone in the commonwealth knows of a community where parents have fewer choices of where to send their children to school, Hill said. “We understand that there are places where parents don’t have the means to choose something different, to move to another school district, to choose anything else.”
The lack of school choice legislation has recently made headlines at the regional and national level. Hill cited as a case in point a woman who was raising her children in a school district in suburban Harrisburg but, after losing a job, moved into an urban neighborhood where housing was more affordable.
She continued to send her children to the suburban school but was sanctioned for doing so.
In Ohio, a mother was jailed for sending her daughters to what she deemed a safer school.
“This proves the point,” Hill said, “that parents deserve the opportunity to choose what they think is best for their children and they shouldn’t have to break the rules to do it.”
Why should the average Catholic care about school choice? “As the largest provider of non-public education in Pennsylvania, we (the Church) know something about choosing something other than the local neighborhood school for our kids,” Hill said.
“We know how public policy can make a difference in our own schools and in the neighborhood around us. The EITC has helped thousands of students choose a non-public education like our Catholic schools.”
In fact, Hill said, “there’s probably not a Catholic school in Pennsylvania that doesn’t have at least a sizable number of EITC scholarship students.”
“When our desks are filled with eager students in our schools, in any school, it’s a good thing for our community. Those kids are learning. We have a responsibility to educate the next generation, the next group of citizens in our communities,” she added.
“When we talk about education, we need to be open-minded enough to see that there might be more than one way for a student to become a productive and good member of society.
“This is just one of the calls for justice, to give those students an opportunity to do what’s best and to empower parents to make those decisions not based on their economic conditions but on truly what’s in their heart with what’s right for their children.”
Among the 15 other senators who have signed the bill are eight from the Philadelphia area. They are: Sens. Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester County/Delaware County), Mike Folmer (R-Chester); Edwin B. Erickson (R-Chester/Delaware); John C.
Rafferty (R-Chester/Montgomery); Bob Mensch (R-Bucks/Montgomery); Mike Brubaker (R-Chester); LeAnna M. Washington (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) and Michael J. Stack (D-Philadelphia)

For more information about school choice advocacy in Pennsylvania, including Senate Bill 1, visit the web site
CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or