By A. B. Hill

“We all deserve an opportunity for education that reflects the values our families have instilled in us and also an education our parents wish for us to have,” said Carmen Garcia, a junior at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg; she bravely testified at a state Senate Education Committee hearing on SB 1405. The bill sponsored by Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) creates “opportunity scholarships” for low-income children who reside in a district with one or more chronically failing schools to attend another school of their parents’ choice.

Although scheduled in the waning days of the legislative session, the chairmen of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) and Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester) wanted the hearing to start the discussion about “the next civil rights issue of our time – school choice.”{{more}}

Many experts from Ohio, Florida and across Pennsylvania testified about studies that show how school choice programs have improved academic outcomes, particularly with African-American students, had no negative fiscal impact on public schools and in fact have improved academic achievement in many districts.

Opponents of school choice raise concerns about the constitutionality of public funds helping parents provide a “sectarian” education for their children. Philip Murren of the firm Ball, Murren and Connell and counsel to the PCC disagrees. “When other forms of aid to children who attend nonpublic schools have been challenged, our state Supreme Court has always found that the public derives great benefit from an educated citizenry, and that assisting children to fulfill their compulsory attendance obligations is a furtherance of that goal,” he said. He also said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the Cleveland, Ohio, school choice program does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

With the closing of the 2009-2010 Session, the state legislature will not have the chance to consider SB 1405; but both candidates for governor say they support the concept of opportunity scholarships. The debate is sure to continue in the new legislative session.

To read testimony from the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on the future of school choice, log on to

Hill is Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.