Oklahomans Travel to Pennsylvania to Explore School Choice
January 1, 2010
Patrick B. McGuigan
A group of Oklahomans interested in exploring expansive examples of school choice traveled to Philadelphia November 16 and 17. They visited Spruce Hill Christian School, talked with legislators like black Democrat state Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia, and participated in long exchanges with people who have made inner-city education reform a reality.
Oklahomans who made the trip include state Reps. Lee Denney (R-Cushing) and Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) and state Sens. Brian Bingman (R-Sapulpa), John Ford (R-Bartlesville), Dan Newberry (R-Tulsa), and Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa). Also making the trip were former state Rep. Susan Winchester, Ginger Tinney, Michael Carnuccio, Bill Price, David Hand, Tom Daxon, and Matt Robison.
The group visited "choice" schools in the Keystone State, talked with organizers of Pennsylvania's tax credit program, interacted with a bipartisan mix of lawmakers and activists, and had the opportunity to press for details on how the program works in practice.
The trip was notable not only for its visionary and hopeful spirit, but also for the practical and down-to-earth details on how the choice program is actually working in Pennsylvania. Many of the handouts the Oklahomans received focused in great detail on the ways the choice program works, both for beneficiaries and participating businesses.
The linchpin for reform in Pennsylvania has been the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, enacted in 2001. As of 2009, some 38,000 students are served. The average scholarship amount is $1,022, and beneficiaries range from kindergarten to 12th grade. EITC sparked an explosion of Scholarship Organizations (SOs), philanthropies that are drawing some of the state's most economically and socially challenged youngsters into successful educational environments. SOs may not limit support to a single school, must meet state compulsory attendance regulations, and must comply with anti-discrimination laws.
The EITC program allows a tax credit on state corporate income taxes for contributions either to SOs or to Educational Improvement Organizations (EIOs) that support innovative public school programs. The credit can't go beyond 75 percent of the value of a company's contribution, but that can rise to 90 percent if two consecutive gifts are made. The maximum value of the credit per company is $300,000. According to the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, in 2009 the total of all the credits awarded was $53,600,000.
One featured program the Oklahomans learned about on their trip was the Hope Partnership for Education, a middle school and adult education center serving an impoverished neighborhood in north Philadelphia. Average family income in the area is $19,000, with most residents either black or Hispanic. More than half the local people live below the poverty line.
The school uses the Nativity Miguel model that includes extended day programs and an open door policy toward kids who have struggled in traditional school settings. The graduation rate for kids working their way through the Nativity Miguel model is 89 percent, in comparison to 50 percent nationally for all black students, 53 percent for Hispanics, and only 68 percent overall. Although run by Sisters of Mercy and the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Catholic orders, the educational program is not religious.
Some schools with EITC students are religious, with the benefits following the child, not the system. The REACH (Road to Educational Achievement through Choice) Foundation of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, highlights the ways choice has blossomed in the state-ranging from boosts to private schools through the scholarship program, charter schools, and "cyber-charters" created by parents, teachers, community activists, colleges, and universities. Students accessing homeschool consortia have also become part of the program.
One SO blossoming as a result of the Pennsylvania reform is the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia. The group focuses its efforts on pre-K to 8 beneficiaries, and predicates its scholarships on the active involvement of parents, requiring a minimum parental contribution of $500 per year or 25 percent of the cost of tuition (whichever is greater). The average annual family income of beneficiaries is $29,000. Evie McNiff, president of the group's board of directors, says, "We began this program using three simple and unchanging principles-hope, opportunity, and success. We believed then as we do now that when families are given hope in the form of educational opportunity, they can achieve success."
The Pennsylvania trip was sponsored by the Friedman Foundation, a group that is leading the way in forging practical coalitions-building bridges among choice advocates and fostering close ties with grassroots black and Latino activists, Catholic school organizations and Christian academies, Jewish groups, and others.
Leslie Hiner, Friedman's vice president of programs and state relations, told me she was impressed by the level of inquiry by the Oklahoma participants. "It was obvious to me that the Oklahomans who attended the Pennsylvania fact-finding trip were not looking for platitudes or stories to make them feel good, although they appeared to be impressed by what they learned. Their clear priority seemed to be to uncover the secrets of success in Pennsylvania and to learn valuable lessons that could be useful in improving educational outcomes in Oklahoma."
Of the Oklahomans, Matt Robison was enthusiastic in his response to the Pennsylvania visit, but cautious when it came to its near-term policy implications for the Sooner State.
"The trip left vivid impressions with me," said Robison, vice president of small business and workforce development for The State Chamber. "The element of choice, the ability of a parent to choose the school setting that is best for his or her child, is absolutely essential to the future of schooling in our state and in our cities. Bottom line: I was impressed with what I saw."
Robison is cautious about how far Oklahoma might go this year in diversifying delivery of educational services. "Certainly, Pennsylvania is different from Oklahoma. The concept operating successfully there is wonderful. Figuring out how to bring a similar dynamic to life here is a relevant conversation. No one size fits all, and they have a different situation than ours, but this much is clear: an environment that honors the ability of a parent to make an educational choice is huge."
The current revenue crunch in Oklahoma could make it tough to advance the ball for any reform based on tax credits, Robison acknowledges: "This is a really tough year to talk about anything that might disrupt the status quo, but it's a conversation that is essential."
Michael Carnuccio, a former state legislative staffer now serving as senior advisor for Oklahomans for Responsible Government, said one of the most memorable things he heard during the Pennsylvania visit came from one of the leaders of REACH, who said, "We have a responsibility to educate the public, but not to public education." The focus on people and their needs rather than a system and its needs is certainly appealing to those who have supported greater emphasis on students.
A cluster of Oklahomans who have advocated educational choice for years has begun to attract positive reviews within the national movement. Prominent Oklahoma City attorney Bill Price, chairman of an Oklahoma school-choice coalition which meets regularly, was recently recognized by the Friedman Foundation as an "emerging leader" in the national movement (see http://bit.ly/8hHgWu).
Price reflects, "I see a confluence of events in Oklahoma today that could create a unique opportunity for major reform-a public awareness that our schools are failing our children, and for the first time since statehood, a legislature more likely to stand up for parents and students than for the institutional forces that have thwarted reform in the past."
Concerning that school the Oklahoma group visited in Pennsylvania, Price said, "You can see it in the eyes of all the students we saw-they are truly excited to learn. These schools don't cherry-pick their students or their parents. Some scholarship organizations have huge waiting lists and fund scholarships by lottery, a perfect control experiment, and have tracked the winning kids' much higher level of academic performance."
Price concluded, "The tax credit scholarship program in Pennsylvania is now almost universally popular, even among those who initially opposed the law. Businesses, parents, and nonprofit groups now see its enormous benefits and are funding 200 scholarship organizations which enable even the neediest students to go to the best schools, most of which grew into existence to meet this new demand. The Pennsylvania program proves that competition does work in education. The public sees these positive results and puts pressure each year on the legislature to expand the program and offer the opportunity for a better life to more and more students."
Here in Oklahoma, an odd coalition of teacher-union cronies and bipartisan rural legislators have, thus far, kept broad school reforms, including choice programs, from advancing.
Could this be the year the state legislature looks at the future and embraces it, rather than seeking to maintain the failed status quo?
Pat McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of CapitolBeatOK.com.