Why Do Rural Legislators Vote for Voucher Programs That Deliver NO Benefits to Their Counties?

Stephen Herzenberg |

Imagine two Pennsylvania programs that subsidize a mix of the state’s most expensive private schools catering to the very rich plus faith-based instruction hostile to those with different beliefs. Imagine, further, that you don’t have either kind of school in your rural county, which is served virtually entirely by public schools.

Imagine, in fact, that these programs deliver nearly two-thirds of their benefits to metropolitan Philadelphia and Allegheny County and do not deliver a penny to 30 rural Pennsylvania counties. Those programs would surely be dead on arrival in the Pennsylvania legislature, right?

Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine. Those programs do exist. As documented in a Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center report released this week, Pennsylvania’s two taxpayer-funded voucher programs have exactly these characteristics. Stunningly, many of the state’s rural legislators voted to add another $55 million to these two voucher programs — a 44% percent increasae. Martin Causer, who represents Cameron and McKean Counties, for example, and Matt Gabler, who represents Elk County voted for the increase. You’ll have to ask them why, because we don’t understand it. (A roll call vote of the House Bill is here.)
The portion of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program that pays for private school vouchers and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) program now deliver $125 million annually to private schools concentrated in and around the state’s two biggest cities. Three quarters of the funds go to religious schools. A significant portion of those funds go to schools that teach creationism and faith-based history and science (i.e., the bible as literal truth). Another chunk of the funds go to private schools catering to the super rich — we took a look at just 23 schools on a list of the most elite 20 schools in the state and/or the five elite schools in Pittsburgh. Every single one of these schools — with an average tuition over $32,000 — received funds. On average, they received a cool half million dollars.
Worse still, the EITC and OSTC programs have a host of other warts that make them lousy public policy. They have no academic or financial accountability. They provide lots of opportunity for diverting taxpayer funds to high pay for executives at the organizations that funnel voucher money to schools and at the private schools themselves. Research shows that vouchers don’t improve school performance — in fact, a high-quality recent Louisiana study shows that they reduce achievement in math and reading. Further, the push to expand vouchers is fueled by a false narrative the Pennsylvania and U.S. schools are failing. As our report documents, Pennsylvania schools are within shouting distance of the highest-achieving states and nations.
At the national level, U.S. Senators faced a philosophically similar vote to the proposed expansion of EITC and OSTC in the recent confirmation battle over now-Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. DeVos wants to establish a national program to provide vouchers to religious and other private schools. Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted against Devos’ confirmation because they don’t have many private schools in their states and they saw her agenda as irrelevant to their constituents.
Perhaps Senators Collins and Murkowski could come to Pennsylvania to give a little tutorial. Even better, they could take a road show to the 30 rural counties that do not have an organization that gives out EITC funds; or the 40 that don’t have one that gives out OSTC funds. Perhaps they could suggest that rural lawmakers fight for the additional funds their rural public schools need from the state to achieve state standards (as shown in this recent Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children study).
Legislating based on what best serves the interest of your constituents — sounds like a great idea. Lets bring it to Pennsylvania. And let’s hope rural Pennsylvania Senators have second thoughts about whether the state should expand by $55 million the funds for these voucher programs that are irrelevant to rural areas.