Despite Defeat, Choice Bill Likely To Resurface in Pa.

By Karen Diegmueller — January 08, 1992 6 min read

A school-choice bill voted down by the Pennsylvania House last month likely will be resurrected in some form this year, bringing with it a continuation of one of the most acrimonious lobbying campaigns in the state’s history.

The prediction comes from both proponents and opponents of the tuition-voucher measure, which, by providing parents with $900 for each student enrolled in a private or out-of-district public school, would be the most extensive choice program yet adopted by any state.

So intense has been the debate over the past two months, in fact, that before the first round was over the parties had drawn in Vice President Quayle’s office and launched media attacks invoking such images as that of the billionaire hotelier Donald Trump feeding from the public trough and of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.

Despite the bill’s initial defeat, observers say, the Pennsylvania experience is illustrative of the bitter battles that may lie ahead for many states as advocates push school choice to new fronts.

Indeed, the school-choice debate has been even more vitriolic than the controversy that surrounded the Pennsylvania legislature’s passage of a restrictive abortion law, according to Bernard F. Shire, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “This went beyond that in terms of nastiness,” he observed.

Putting On the Brakes

As contentious as school-choice legislation has been, the measure was moving forward with relative ease in Pennsylvania. Shortly after the Senate education committee held hearings on the issue, the Senate in late November adopted the measure on a surprise floor vote. (See Education Week, Dec. 4, 1991 .)

“Before anybody knew it, they ran it through the Senate. They weren’t following their normal procedure,” said Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

At first, the public-education community tended to see the measure more as a political gesture to parents of parochial-school students, who would have been the chief initial beneficiaries of the tuition aid. Legislators would be able to use the bill to curry favor with their Roman Catholic constituents, in this view, yet rely on the courts to overturn the law for violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against state establishment of religion.

However, “the House put the brakes on that kind of thinking,” said George Badner, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Once the Senate acted, the opponents mobilized swiftly to prevent the House from following suit, especially since Gov. Robert P. Casey had not taken a position on the bill.

“It was really impressive how fast they pulled it together. They were very effective in blocking it,” said Michael Young, the associate director of the Institute of State and Local Government at Pennsylvania State University.

“It was very hardball, too,” Mr. Young observed. "[The P.S.E.A.] threatened, and not too subtly at all, to cut off campaign contributions. I think that tended to polarize it.”

Advocates of the bill were led by an umbrella organization, the Road to Educational Achievement through Choice, or REACH, a coalition of business and religious groups headed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Pitted against the bill was a coalition of some 20 organizations, led by the state’s teachers’ unions, which included parents’ groups, the state Council of Churches, the League of Women Voters, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

‘Pearl Harbor’ or G.I. Bill?

As the Senate-passed bill headed to the House, the two opposing sides sought to use both public and political pressure and media campaigns to strengthen their positions.

From their pulpits, Catholic priests and the ministers of some conservative Protestant churches urged their congregations to support actively passage of the bill.

At the higher spheres of the church, the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia acknowledged in local newspaper accounts that Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua had called on legislators to support the measure.

Some members of Vice President Quayle’s staff also contacted several state lawmakers urging them to vote for the legislation. “This bill was in line with the Administration’s education policy,” said David Beckwith, Mr. Quayle’s spokesman.

In addition, both camps broadcast emotional radio advertisements that, in some cases, became issues in themselves.

The Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, for example, was lambasted for its Pearl Harbor spot: “Dec. 7, 1941. Remember Pearl Harbor. A sneak attack that shocked our country. Now another sneak attack is about to be launched, this time in Harrisburg .... “

A radio spot sponsored by REACH, On the other hand, decried the job the public schools were doing and blamed the teachers’ unions in particular.

With “the G.i. bill for kids,” said the advertisement, “everybody benefits. The child, the parents, and the schools that are doing the job.”

Only the teachers’ unions do not like the bill, the ad continued, because they like public schools as they are. “Why shouldn’t they? Every year they make more money teaching less to fewer students. And the results tell the story. Kids who can’t read or write. Kids who don’t know right from wrong. Kids who can’t get or even hold a job.”

Observers said the issue in large measure played out as a battle between two of the most powerful forces in the state--the teachers’ unions and the Catholic Church.

“It was a very sophisticated campaign on both sides orchestrated by P.S.E.A. and the Catholic Conference. They were the key players,” said Mr. Young of Penn State.

As the struggle wore on, both sides began accusing each other of engaging in racial and religious bigotry. REACH complained that its opponents were framing the issue primarily as a bailout for the financially strapped parochial schools of Philadelphia, while public-education groups accused their adversaries of spreading a message with racial undertones.

At one point, the president of a P.S.E.A. local said publicly that the Catholic Church was an enemy of public education in Pennsylvania. The union leader subsequently apologized, however.

Income Cap Proposed

The public-education coalition’s efforts eventually began to turn the tide against the bill. In response, sponsors and supporters of the measure put forward last-minute amendments, in particular a provision to cap the income of parents eligible to receive the $900 vouchers at $75,000.

The means-test amendment sought to counter charges by critics of the bill, who argued that Mr. Trump would have been eligible under the original proposal for a tuition voucher for his son, who attends a private school in the state.

Opponents also attacked the measure’s potential cost, which was estimated at $300 million just for students currently in private schools. Critics warned that the proposal would force a tax increase in the fiscally pressed state, which approved a major tax hike this summer after a protracted struggle in the legislature.

But the proposed changes were too little, too late. “One of the mistakes we made was to wait to the very last minute to put the income cap in there,” Mr. Shire of the Catholic Conference conceded.

By the time the divisive measure came to the floor last month, House members had little desire to deal directly with the issue. Without debating the merits of the bill, lawmakers voted 114 to 89 to table the legislation on the grounds that it would violate constitutional prohibitions against state funding of religion.

The issue, though, lives on. “This was a broad-based coalition and the idea is not dead here,” said Mr. Shire.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Despite Defeat, Choice Bill Likely To Resurface in Pa.