Pursuing an elusive prize: valid school choice

Pennsylvania has a brand-new governor, who has decided to tilt at some windmills that foiled the last Republican governor.

One place where Tom Corbett looks to succeed where Tom Ridge failed is selling off the state liquor stores. Harrisburg is so desperate for dough, that one might fly.

But another Ridge idea that Corbett will revive, school choice, is a heavier lift.

Back when Ridge, then wildly popular, was getting no traction on his school choice plan, I asked a school board member from Central Pennsylvania to explain why.

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His reply: “Well, up around where I am, folks look at vouchers as mostly being something to help, in no particular order, Catholics, blacks and Philadelphia. And if there’s anything that folks up around me don’t like, it’s Catholics, blacks and Philadelphia.”

 I strongly favor a well-crafted, well-funded school choice plan.   I agree with state Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill I, the choice plan. It’s just not right to tell parents who are forced to send their kids to a failing school: Well, maybe we’ll fix your school, someday. Until then, just grit your teeth.

 What if that were the only option Best Buy offered you for a defective smartphone? You’d be furious. You’d insist on other options, such as a new item of the same brand. The analogy there would be public school choice. Or you might want to exchange your lemon for a different brand: That would be like private-school vouchers.

 I’ve reviewed Senate Bill 1, and it seems superior to Ridge’s plan. It’s properly aimed at low-income students. It at least tries to offer serious public school choice, though I’m still dubious this bill would induce, say, Lower Merion High to take on students from West Philly.

 But wait, you object, isn’t it unconstitutional for public money to flow, through vouchers, to religious schools? I don’t think so. If it were, we’d have to shut down the entire higher education system. If your kid gets a federal Pell grant, she can use it whether she goes to public Penn State, private Lehigh or Catholic St. Joe’s. We’ve had college vouchers for decades, and the Republic still stands.

A K-12 choice program can pass constitutional muster, if well-tailored and well-funded. Senate Bill 1 still needs serious improvement. For one thing, it needs more money behind it. Serious school choice costs more in the short run.

Still, Corbett has put forth a genuine opening bid. Let the needed conversation begin.

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