In Pennsylvania, Rival State Leaders Converge on School Choice

Rachel Sheffield /

Pennsylvania residents in this year’s gubernatorial race will be casting their votes for school choice regardless of their political affiliation.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, author Bill McGurn reports that both Democratic candidate Dan Onorato and his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, are proponents of school choice.

It is promising to see states opening more opportunity for the educational futures of children. For decades, the federal government has poured increasing amounts of money into public education under the guise of “reform,” yet test scores and achievement indicate no sign of improvement. As author Robert J. Samuelson writes this week in The Washington Post:

Since the 1960s, waves of “reform” haven’t produced meaningful achievement gains. … The reading and math tests, graded on a 0–500 scale, measure 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. In 1971, the initial year for the reading test, the average score for 17-year-olds was 285; in 2008, the average score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when 17-year-olds averaged 304; in 2008, the average was 306.”

Furthermore, the achievement gap hasn’t budged since the 1980s. And this is with triple the amount of federal education spending since 1970.

Despite the failed efforts on the federal level, some states—now including Pennsylvania—are taking important steps toward successful reform. For example, Florida implemented a suite of reforms, including elements such as school choice and performance pay for teachers. As a result, test scores have climbed and the achievement gap has narrowed.

Another successful reform has been the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for low-income students to attend a private or charter school of their choice. These students have also scored significantly better than their peers on standardized tests and are significantly more likely to graduate from high school.

Yet the same D.C. politicians who tout reform have let this successful program languish due to pressure from teachers unions. Apparently, what “reform” means in Washington is business-as-usual politics. This leaves little room to wonder why federal reforms have failed time and again to boost student achievement.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s latest reform effort—Race to the Top—would tie schools closer to Washington by requiring national education standards and would inevitably lead to increased red tape for schools.

Instead of looking to Washington for reform, as McGurn points out:

States and cities are the real engines of reform, and the Pennsylvania developments are another sign that the school choice movement is alive and well.

Now, let’s just hope Washington can stay far enough away to allow this real reform to flourish.