By John T. Gillespie

Special to the CS & T

Philadelphia State Senator Anthony H. Williams invokes the language of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. when arguing for school choice.

As lead cosponsor of a bill in Harrisburg to give low-income parents tuition vouchers to transfer their children from failing public schools to schools that succeed, Williams called it a “moral imperative.”

“For too long we have trapped and failed thousands of children and their families and failed the taxpayers who have paid for this expensive failure.” {{more}}

Nearly 70 years after the United States Supreme Court banned segregated schools, declaring “separate is not equal” Williams has adapted the famous ruling to describe his own crusade for choice: “Failing schools are not equal, ” he said.

The bill – SB 1 or the Opportunity Scholarship Act – co-sponsored by Senator Jeffrey Piccola from the Harrisburg area and 15 other legislators, would use taxpayer money to give tuition vouchers to children from low income families – those earning less than $28,688 in a family of four — so they could attend a school of their choice, be it public, private, Catholic or charter.

The money would come from the per pupil subsidy the Commonwealth pays to local school districts. The vouchers would cover tuition up to the current cost of the base subsidy: $8,950. According to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, average Catholic school tuition across the state is $3,500 in parochial school and $6,500 in high school. The money saved – i.e. the difference between tuition and the state’s per pupil subsidy – would revert to a fund for future opportunity scholarships.

The legislation also increases money available for tuition tax credits – from $75 million to $100 million for middle income families earning up to $60,000.

Williams says his bill is not an attack on public education but on failing schools.

“Those that oppose school choice argue that they need more time and more money to fix failing schools, he told a recent rally in Harrisburg in support of the bill. “I say 50 years and $25 billion is enough! They say school choice will take more money from failing schools. I say close the failing schools.”

The state Department of Education has identified 144 “failing” public schools in the lowest performing 5 percent as measured by state standardized tests. Ninety-one of those schools are in Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has endorsed the bill. “All parents should be able to choose schools that best suit their children. Financial realities often preclude parents from having that choice. The Opportunity Scholarship Act is a step in the right direction towards expanding those opportunities to more parents.”

The Pennsylvania Education Association and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association oppose the plan.

The Senate Education Committee held hearings last month and is expected to send the bill to the Senate any day. Williams said prospects for passage in the Senate and House are encouraging. Gov. Corbett supports school choice.

A November 2010 Pew Research Foundation survey reported that 62 percent of parents in Philadelphia public schools said they had considered sending their children to charter, Catholic or private schools.

Williams, a Democrat, has long been a leader in the fight for alternative schooling. In 1997, as a member of the state House of Representatives, he led the battle for charter schools. His tenacity in the face of party opposition won support for the measure and put Pennsylvania in the forefront of the charter school movement.

John Gillespie is a freelance writer and member of St. Bridget Parish in East Falls.