Pennsylvania School Voucher Plan Would Allow Religious Discrimination

At a DC appearance Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett spoke out in support of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, calling his support of Pennsylvania SB 1, which would provide up to $9,000 per pupil in failing schools to attend the private or religious school of their choice, “a moral obligation.”

While Corbett and other supporters say the voucher program would improve education across the board by spurring competition, the taxpayer-funded subsidy, which would cost at least $500 million, would be diverted from public school education.

Of even greater concern for church-state watchdogs is that the recipients of all that taxpayer money would be private and religious schools that may legally discriminate against students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation or disability.

Corbett has been heavily lobbied from none other than FreedomWorks Founder Dick Armey, who has been meeting with Pennsylvania lawmakers urging them to support the bill, as well as the DeVos family, one of the largest contributors to national conservative and religious-right groups. Betsy DeVos is chairman of the American Federation of Children, which sponsored the luncheon at which Corbett was the featured speaker.

Last week, Indiana passed an education bill that includes school voucher funding. Other states, such as Louisiana and Florida, are considering similar legislation. But Pennsylvania remains at the forefront of the debate. Nowhere else has such a strange mix of bedfellows come together in support of vouchers.

As Talk2Action reported last month:

Pennsylvania could be a case study for nationwide anti-public education partnerships, formed by Religious Right activists joining forces with radical free market think tanks and libertarian-minded investment and hedge fund managers. The movement is billed as the salvation of inner city students; and Democratic politicians, often African American, are portrayed as the heroic champions of children who desperately need access to better education.  The need is real, but the claim that this about improving public schools is false advertising.

For me, this weird dichotomy hit home during “School Choice Week” in January. I attended a FreedomWorks hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol, which was filled with tea party groups from around the state. Also in attendance were SB 1’s co-sponsors, senators Jeffrey Piccola, a white conservative Republican from the largely rural district surrounding Harrisburg, and Anthony Williams, a black Democrat from Philadelphia.

Williams began his remarks by saying that if he and Dick Armey were in the same room together, they could find nothing on which they could agree, except for the issue of school choice and vouchers.

As Talk2Action points out, the problem is that the mission of the right-wing supporters is not about giving poor children a chance at a decent education, but rather privatizing public education. Vouchers are only a first step at dismantling the system.

But what makes Pennsylvania’s situation especially important is that the state Constitution explicitly prohibits using tax dollars for religious schools.

“No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” 

The bill is expected to be voted on by the Senate any day. If it passes and becomes law, it will assuredly be challenged by civil liberties organizations. If this happens – and it’s possible – it will be interesting to watch the voucher supporters try to get over such a clearly spelled out constitutional hurdle.