Philly's Public Schools

I spent the evening of the National Day of Prayer at a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia. The gospel choir was great! So you didn't know Quakers had gospel choirs? Well, they don't, but this event was an ecumenical anti-voucher rally set up by our new Southeast Pennsylvania chapter of Americans United. It was co-sponsored by a wide array of groups including the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, whose vice president brought the choir, and local chapters of the National Council of Churches, United Methodists and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

I was the keynote speaker and took the podium after a few songs by the choir. Before my presentation on vouchers, I couldn't help but ask if anyone knew Congress had designated May 6 the National Day of Prayer. Only a few choir members raised their hands. I commented that I didn't think they would have been doing any less praying if Congress had not weighed in on the value of prayer. There were a lot of "amens" to that.

Most of you reading this column already know that just as our lawmakers shouldn't play politics with prayer, they also should not promote vouchers for religious schools. Such aid represents bad constitutional thinking and bad policy. However, it helps to go out to the field to get regular on-the-ground evidence of just how deceptive the arguments for vouchers have become.

Pennsylvania is one of a growing number of states with a regular budget surplus. It now has what several state senators present that night called a "rainy day fund" containing over $700 million. That's a nifty little nest egg, and I suppose state officials want to leave it untapped until some emergency comes along.

Does meeting the current educational needs of Philadelphia's public schools qualify? Apparently not. How bad is it in the City of Brotherly Love? State Sen. Allyson Schwartz visited at least one school in every neighborhood in the Greater Philadelphia area over the last year. She found one inner city school without a single computer for student use. A 17-year old young woman at the institution said it was "a little late" for her to learn computers before graduating next month but she felt sorry for kids in other classes.

Sen. Schwartz also found that the average class size in suburban elementary schools was 23 or fewer students; in Philadelphia's elementary schools, the typical class size was 30 or more. This kind of obvious disparity ought to start policy planners thinking that some of the difference in academic achievement might be attributable to the differences in the number of (even existence of) computers and the teacher-student ratio (one of the few consistent denominators in academic studies of student success). This might lead such thinkers to demand that politicians in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, do something to iron out the difference.

You would think so, but you might have forgotten the "money doesn't matter" crowd. That's the phrase used by Tim Potts, executive director of the anti-voucher Pennsylvania School Reform Network (and an old friend from my undergraduate days at Dickinson College), to describe the people who claim that more money for Philadelphia schools is not a solution.

Ironically, the people who make this argument recognize that if you want a better dinner you probably need to spend more money at a fancy restaurant instead of eating a burger at some anonymous fast food joint and that if you want a bigger house you need to spend more on the mortgage payments. When it comes to education, though, those same extra dollars, they pontificate, "won't help." They offer no evidence for this and apparently are not thinking about any tests where inner-city schools get computers and smaller class sizes and we see if anything changes. That would probably be rejected as "social engineering." Instead, those same people want to try vouchers, where all the available evidence demonstrates no real improvement.

A few days later Philadelphia's Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua held a big pro-voucher rally at a posh downtown hotel. It was picketed by local public school students. Bevilacqua had offered to open up 35,000 slots in the archdiocese's schools to students with vouchers if the governor's plan is adopted.

But Bevilacqua may have ulterior motives. Over the past 10 years, enrollment in the archdiocese's schools has dropped 12 percent. At the same time, enrollment at public and non-Catholic private schools is up. It's possible that Bevilacqua wants state funds to bail out his sinking school system.

That's simply not the state's job. In America, religious groups and their projects stand or fall according to the desires of their members. The government's obligation, first and foremost, is to public education. It would be unconscionable to think of spending one dime on private religious institutions when public schools have no computers and crowded classrooms.

Bob Dylan has a song with the line: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." You also don't need a meteorologist to tell you that inequities are raining down on Philadelphia's public school system. Maybe it's time to use the "rainy day fund" right now.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.