Eric Cantor tells Philly school vouchers and charters are the future of American education

 Chris Lehmann, at right, the principal and founder of the Science Leadership Academy, is being honored with the  Harold W. McGraw Jr. education award. It's known in school circles as the Nobel Prize of the educational community. (NewsWorks file photo)

Chris Lehmann, at right, the principal and founder of the Science Leadership Academy, is being honored with the Harold W. McGraw Jr. education award. It's known in school circles as the Nobel Prize of the educational community. (NewsWorks file photo)

As the cash-strapped Philadelphia school district began its third week of classes operating under a severely reduced budget, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) came to town Monday morning offering this solution to the state’s educational woes: grant families greater access to charters, and help them send their children to private schools with taxpayer-supported vouchers.

Cantor spoke before a packed gymnasium in center city’s Freire Charter High School — a school named for radical Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire — the author of the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” which espoused empowering the poor through “problem-solving” educational methods.

Cantor called America’s education system a problem that could be solved, not with additional funding, but with greater emphasis on school choice.

He said Pennsylvania could learn much from Louisiana, specifically its voucher program which allows low-income students in poorly performing schools to receive taxpayer funded tuition to private school. (The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Louisiana for this in August, saying the state’s voucher program impedes the federal government’s attempt to desegregate schools.)

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Making his pitch, Cantor called education “the greatest civil rights challenge of our time” and invoked Martin Luther King Jr. as he predicted vast changes in American education.

“Because the arc of moral history bends towards justice, because educational opportunity is growing throughout the country, because, really, there’s no good argument for denying parents the best possible education for their child, and because of the successes I see in this room and this school, within 10 years education opportunity and school choice will be the reality for every single student in America,” Cantor said, making this pledge for the first time publicly.

Cantor touted Freire Charter High School as a model that he hoped the rest of the Philadelphia could one day replicate. The school accepts students into its ninth-grade based purely on a lottery. In recent years, in excess of 1,000 children have vied for 150 freshman seats. About 500 students currently attend the high school. Another 500 students attend Freire’s newly opened middle school.

Freire Charter says it does not expel students for academic reasons but, because of its commitment to providing a “safe environment” does remove students for disciplinary offenses.

As he introduced Cantor, Freire Charter School board of directors chair Thomas Caramanico cited a list of the school’s academic accomplishments which included having its 11th grade class score higher on state standardized tests than the average of the city’s esteemed magnet high schools.

Outside of Freire Charter, protesters rallied against what they saw as an outsider attempting to dismantle traditional public education.

Jihad Seifullah, staffer for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, said that if Cantor was serious about education reform, he would advocate for Governor Tom Corbett to institute a statewide fair funding formula.

“We think he’s part of the problem for why we’re losing so much funding,” said Seifullah. “It’s time to fund the schools here in Philadelphia, the public schools. We need to make sure that every child gets a fair education.”

In a written statement, Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) lambasted Cantor for what he called “an ideologically driven snake oil medicine show.”

“If Congressman Cantor really wants to help the children of Philadelphia, he should work to reverse the massive budget cuts caused by the sequestration, which total $85.3 billion or 9 percent of all discretionary federal spending. It is estimated that sequestration will cause the Philadelphia School District to lose between $16 and $17 million in federal funds. This is a statewide issue, as Pennsylvania’s public schools will lose up to $29.5 million overall,” wrote Hughes.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan joined in chiding Cantor, saying in a statement that “as we deal with the worst fiscal crisis the district has ever seen, we simply do not have the time to entertain any more political opportunists in our city. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is here to play politics, plain and simple.”

During his speech, Cantor accused union leaders like Jordan of clinging to old ideas that no longer serve the interests of students.

“We’ve got to challenge the status quo, and the tools are there,” said Cantor. “We’ve got to issue a call to action on behalf of kids like you across the country.”

Cantor left without speaking to reporters.

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