Op-Ed: Educational Choice Improves Equal Opportunity

Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera recently issued a statement about how education can play a role in moving Pennsylvania forward on our national dialogue on racial inequity. He wrote, “we need to construct an education system that empowers our black and brown youth and gives them the tools and supports they need to be our next generation of leaders and change agents.” He also said, “I will continue to advocate on behalf of our students impacted by educational structures that have failed them.”

I fully agree we must do more to reengineer our bureaucratic education system to remove institutional barriers preventing change from occurring and ensure equal opportunities for racial minorities and low-income students. The Secretary and Governor ought to embrace school choice as part of the solution.  

While I have voted for record high state funding for our public schools, our state can no longer turn a blind eye to the fact that our current ZIP code-assignment education system reinforces racial and income segregation. Access to a high-quality education is largely determined by parents’ ability to afford a home in more expensive communities, while socioeconomically disadvantaged students are often left languishing in chronically underperforming schools.

Regrettably, Harrisburg School District is a prime example as its academic achievement regularly ranks among the lowest in Pennsylvania. Nearly 9 out of 10 high school students are not proficient on state tests for algebra, biology, and literature. These dismal results are in no small part attributable to many years of poor organization leadership and financial mismanagement within the district as well as regular controversies that have been a disservice to students and parents as well as all city residents, taxpayers and businesses.

While I am glad Secretary Rivera heeded my and other locally elected leaders’ calls for state receivership to begin the process of turning the district around, it is not enough to simply let this intervention run its course while many students and families are desperately seeking better opportunities now. One has to wonder whether more privileged voices would get faster results.

We know there are high-quality educational settings available for Harrisburg-area students such as the Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School, the Nativity School, The Silver Academy, and more. There are even nonprofit educational support centers such as the Joshua Group that have been serving local students for years with great success. I contribute to the Joshua Group because I know their mission and I have seen first-hand the lives they have changed through educational opportunity.

Despite these trusted and well-known public and private schooling options, opportunity for Harrisburg students has been limited as the district has repeatedly rejected new charter schools, and state funding for popular tax credit scholarship programs such as the EITC and OSTC fall well short of parental demand.

I implore Secretary Rivera and the Wolf administration to work with us in the General Assembly to champion school choice for tens of thousands of disadvantaged students today. We can advance equity in education by affording low-income families, many of them minorities, the same options as more affluent Pennsylvanians while also reinventing and reforming our underperforming district schools.

Racism exists in America. Reforms are needed in our law enforcement policies and criminal justice system, which I’ve personally advocated for in the Senate with the Clean Slate Law and occupational licensure reform so individuals who have served their sentence aren’t prevented from participating in our society. Too many black and brown kids don’t have quality educational opportunities. I want the outrage expressed following George Floyd’s death under the knees of a police officer to bring us together in a sincere commitment to equality of opportunity so that the pathway to the American dream available to some, where educational achievement, talent, motivation, and perseverance determine success, is open to those for whom the door has been closed by skin color.