Jonathan Cetel is the founding executive director of PennCAN. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It might appear risky for PennCAN – a new organization seeking to build an impactful statewide education movement  – to support an issue as controversial as vouchers. After all, when Randi Weingarten – the President of the American Federation of Teachers – gave her first major policy address, she singled out vouchers as the only reform she would never ever consider. 

But when you explore what it actually means to support vouchers, it’s easy to understand why broad coalitions of grassroots organizations continue to advocate for this issue in places as varied as Milwaukee, DC, Florida and Louisiana, among others. Simply put, it’s about what’s best for kids and families.

Wikipedia defines school vouchers as “a certificate issued by the government, which parents can apply toward tuition at a private school rather than at the state school to which their child is assigned.”  In other words, it is a scholarship – usually limited only to low-income students trapped in failing schools – to attend private and parochial schools.  Vouchers are similar to Pell Grants, a widely supported publicly funded higher education program that provides students scholarships to attend both private and public colleges.

Opponents of vouchers often declare that supporting them means an attack on public education. In Pennsylvania, however, the most outspoken supporter of vouchers, Senator Tony Williams, is an ardent advocate for public schools. Just recently, in response to the Senate’s partial restoration of funding after heavy cuts, Senator Williams said: “Whether you are punched in the face or the gut, you’re still being punched…restoring $517 million to a $26 billion budget is like a pimple on a butt in terms of real impact.”

Does that sound like a guy who wants to gut public education?

If you scanned my resume, you would also see my unwavering support of public education. I attended public school from K-12, was a public school teacher and worked as a community organizer for a grassroots advocacy organization that worked closely with organized labor, including teachers. And now I lead an organization dedicated to improving public schools across Pennsylvania.

In my commitment to ensuring great schools for all of Pennsylvania’s kids, I have come to believe that vouchers are a viable option. Here’s why:

I watched closely as communities mobilized around saving their parish schools after the Archdiocese issued the Blue Ribbon Commission that called for 48 schools to be closed due to declining enrollment. Far too many families can no longer afford even the moderate cost associated with tuition. Some of these schools are located in communities with failing neighborhood schools and serve predominantly low-income and minority students. 

Consider the example of West Philadelphia Catholic. The local high schools in that community are West Philadelphia High School, Sayre High School and Overbrook. Their college matriculation rates are 21 percent, 23 percent, and 25 percent, respectively. West Philly Catholic, on other hand, reports that it typically sends 95 percent of its graduating seniors to college each year.

I become a voucher advocate because I saw private schools that work. When I think about the fact that there are private schools with similar or fewer resources providing a world-class education to students while their neighboring public schools are failing year after year, I am outraged. It is simply unconscionable that kids are stuck in drop-out factories in a city with private schools that are eager to serve more low-income students but whose parents can’t afford to pay for their education. 

Civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller describes vouchers this way: “We must save as many children as we can…It’s like what Harriet Tubman faced in the 1850’s. She fought to end slavery, and ran the Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves out. She understood that she needed to save as many as she could until slavery was ended.”

It might seem extreme to compare being trapped in a failing school to slavery, but the situation is truly dire. We have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to provide high-quality options for students trapped in failing schools. We have to keep finding and supporting ways to give every single kid in this state every chance to succeed. I’m working day in and day out to make sure that the concept of failing schools feels as far away as slavery.


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