COLUMN: Shapiro should deliver on most popular, bipartisan campaign promise – school choice
By Rep. Joe D’Orsie (R-Manchester)

Save his comments on accelerating the reduction of the corporate net income tax in Pennsylvania, the only statement that garnered undivided and emphatic applause at Gov. Josh Shapiro's joint session budget address back in March were his remarks about protecting and promoting options for Pennsylvania’s grade schoolers.

Few other topics capture the breadth of positive Pennsylvania public opinion as school choice. Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters agree that parents and students should have options with regard to which school best suits their child’s educational needs. Various surveys have shown that anywhere between 2/3 and more than 8/10 of Pennsylvanians support school choice.

The governor’s own words at his budget address and on the campaign trail led me to be optimistic that school choice might finally be within our reach here in PA. At last year’s PA Chamber Dinner, Shapiro proclaimed, “Parents need to have the opportunity to put their children into the best place for them to succeed.” In a campaign speech last September, the governor said something similar: “I’m for making sure we give parents the ability to put their kids in the best situation for them to be able to succeed.” The governor was probably pigeonholing his comments here to Lifeline Scholarships and EITC tax credits, which are wonderful and should be expanded as he promised, but by implication his comments ultimately point to pure school choice – and a super-majority of Pennsylvanians agree with that.

Why school choice?
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, public school enrollment has dropped by about 7% since 2000. During this span, shockingly, administrative staff hires in districts have increased by nearly 40%. All the while, state monies allocated to the commonwealth’s public schools continually climb sharply each year, totaling now over $20,000 per student, placing PA in the top 10 in the nation in money invested per child. These figures, while also factoring in a recent Auditor General Report that uncovered large “reserve funds” being stowed away at our school districts, in many cases exceeding that of $10 million, demand an explanation. As a legislator, a taxpayer, a dad, a product of the public school, and the son of a retired public school teacher, I have some pretty straightforward questions that deserve a response.

  1.   With this kind of prolific spending of taxpayer dollars, what’s the payoff? Are our students excelling in reading, writing, math, & STEM?
  2.   The "ask" every budget cycle from public school advocacy groups is some variation of “give us more money.” Is a blank check for public education really the answer?
  3.   With enrollment dropping, administrations ballooning, and millions hidden in reserve accounts, why wouldn’t requests for more of your tax money be met with skepticism?

An economic analogy
Anti-trust laws exist to prevent the monopolization of commerce or business. Economic theorists and businesspeople alike realize that stifling competition is a bad thing. What these anti-trust laws protect is competition, the ultimate marketplace remedy for a bad product at a high price. Without fail, competition enhances products/services and lowers their price. Competition can also help reform businesses that are being beaten out by swifter, better, and cheaper competitors. In fact, these businesses must reform, lest they lose their share of the market and have to close up shop.

Now superimpose this economic model onto our state-run schools. Who doesn’t want a better product at a lower cost ... especially when it involves the education of our kids? Why not follow other states like Florida, Arizona, and Ohio in funding students and not systems?

School choice is the answer
The answer, I believe, to the excessive cost of public education and the array of fiscal, social, and curricular problems associated with it, is for state education money to follow the student to their school of choice, with parents involved in the process. Hardcore anti-school choice activists are depriving children and parents of a decision that could affect their futures. This position fails to understand that most school choice advocates are NOT anti-public school. Those of us who believe that parents/students should be able to decide what school best tailors to their needs understand that many times that decision will begin and end in a public school. That’s fine. It’s not the intent of me or my school choice colleagues to deprive a student of a desk at their public school. It’s only our request that others not be deprived if they choose to exercise a different option.

The point here is that something as imperative as education should come with options. Pennsylvanians agree with this notion, and I thought the governor did too. It’s past time to hand parents and their children a choice, and for Pennsylvania to begin funding students, not systems.

Representative Joe D’Orsie
47th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Media Contact: Greg Gross