PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 2, 2011— As the state legislature continues to debate the controversial issue of school choice and tuition vouchers, proponents of and opponents of the issue addressed their concerns about improving education during a panel discussion today in Philadelphia hosted by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

“This is an issue that people are very passionate about and this discussion gave both sides of school choice the opportunity to come together and share their opinions and recommendations,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola, the Democratic chair of the Senate Policy Committee. “Our children’s success determines the viability of our communities, our economy and the overall health of our commonwealth and we must do everything in our power to ensure that our children our succeeding. Today’s hearing was a step in that direction.”

The panel discussion took place at Community College of Philadelphia’s Northeast Regional Center in state Sen. Mike Stack’s legislative district.

“Clearly, we need to make changes to the education system because there are children who are suffering and there are parents who feel powerless,” Stack said. “We need to come up with a plan that doesn’t hurt one side dramatically, and this panel gave us an understanding of how we can take steps to bring a more thorough debate back to Harrisburg.”

Several school choice bills are currently being considered by the General Assembly. Panelists on both sides of the issue debated the merits of enacting legislation that supports school choice and tuition vouchers for Pennsylvania students.

While the panelists agreed that changes must be implemented to improve the quality of education, they offered different approaches to address problems in the public school system.

“The current system is broken. While some students are succeeding and receiving an education, many more are failing… None of us should be getting a full night’s sleep knowing children are trapped in persistently failing schools,” said Dawn Chavous, executive director of Students First PA and supporter of school choice legislation. “This is about giving parents more control in their child’s education. We’re here today because parents want another option. This is not a mandate. It gives them the opportunity to have options that they otherwise would not.”

“Resources are limited and the state’s primary responsibility is to provide public education. Right now, we’re not doing that in the best possible way,” said Ted Kirsch, American Federation of Teachers- PA president and opponent to school choice legislation. “The successful schools all come from wealthy communities. All children should have the same services.”

The panel supporting school choice argued that children are stuck in failing schools and deserve an opportunity to attend a better performing public, private or charter school.

“Everyone should have access to quality education. The ZIP code you live in should not determine your quality of education,” said Otto Banks, director of REACH Alliance and Foundation and supporter of school choice legislation. “The money belongs to taxpayers so they should be able to choose best options for their children. Give these children a chance by giving these families a choice.”

Pennsylvania Catholic Conference Education Director Sean McAleer said tuition vouchers would give families the opportunity to receive a Catholic education affordably.

“Catholic schools work and we do it at a fraction of the cost” compared to spending per public school student, he said.

The opposition panel, however, argued that state spending should focus on improving the existing public schools rather than take funds away from the failing schools where the voucher recipients would potentially leave.

“Vouchers would do absolutely nothing for 90 percent (of students) who would be left behind, except take away more funding. They’re a distraction, a waste of political time and political action,” said Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Coalition. He recommended investing further in programs like early education, early intervention services, mentoring programs and full-day kindergarten, as well as longer school calendars, more parental involvement and reducing language barriers.

NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference Education Committee Chairwoman Dr. Joan Duvall-Flynn suggested investing more in trauma assessment for the children who live in impoverished communities and attend persistently failing schools.

“In areas of Pennsylvania where scores are low, children are walking around in trauma. They’re shell-shocked, and the parents are shell-shocked,” Duvall said. “There is no way to address needs of children without addressing children in trauma… It is the trauma that causes children to reenact the trauma that happens in their lives.”