The phrase “school vouchers” seems to hit a nerve among three Democratic candidates for the state legislature — but it’s unclear if it’s the controversy of the vouchers themselves, or the money behind a drive to create a voucher program in Pennsylvania that makes them sweat.
Candidates in contested primary races for three open seats — the 188th, 186th and 190th — in the state House of Representatives support vouchers, at least in principle, a fact that has given them each a financial boost. All three contend that their support of vouchers is just part of a broad promise to improve access to education in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I’m not the pro-voucher, send money to private schools person some people are trying to paint me as,” said Jordan Harris, campaigning in the 186th, in a Tribune editorial board this week. “I support quality education across the board. For me, that means we empower parents with the opportunity to decide where their children go to school. The parents should decide where their tax dollars are going to go.”
Harris said he would suggest some changes to current voucher legislation before he could support it.
“I’m not totally sold on the legislation as it stands now,” he said, noting the legislation prohibits schools from accepting voucher money and later kicking out students.
“But, what I will say is that there needs to be additional options. Vouchers are a part of the educational tool box. I don’t think it is the tool box — and I think I’ve been mischaracterized.”
However, Harris has received money — $20,000 — from Students First, an organization with financial ties to one of his mentors, state Sen. Anthony Williams, as have two other candidates with districts that overlap Williams’ Senate District 8.
It’s a fact that makes separating the politics and the finances of the issue difficult.
Though the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and vouchers are usually seen as a Republican issue, Williams has emerged as a vocal supporter of vouchers.
He was one of three state legislators to sponsor the voucher bill that Harris referred to, S.B. 1. It was approved by the state Senate last fall, and if passed in the House, would provide vouchers for low-income students in failing schools. It is still in the House, where it has been since October.
Williams drew attention not just for his position on vouchers, but also for the money his stance generated.
Money from Students First, which helped finance Williams’ failed run for governor, is now flowing into three contested House races in districts that overlap with Williams’ district in west, south and southwest Philadelphia.
The organization drew broad media attention after it gave Williams more than $5 million during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. The group’s financial backers include conservative hedge-fund managers Jeffrey Yass, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg.
They’ve opened their wallets again for candidates vying to be Williams’ colleagues in the state legislature.
In the 188th District, the group has given $25,000 to Fatimah Muhammad, who is challenging incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck, who has the backing of the teachers’ union and was publicly against Williams’ voucher bill. Another $10,000 was given to incumbent state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown in the 190th District. She is facing two challengers, Wanda Logan and Audrey Blackwell-Watson, the daughter of the late Lucien Blackwell, who also served in the state House and is the step-daughter of City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Muhammad said she didn’t know how much Students First had given her campaign.
“That is one of many organizations I’ve received money from,” she said. “As someone who’s new to politics, I can’t afford not to take money from anyone.”
The donation has not tied her hands on vouchers, she said.
“In this campaign vouchers have been used by my opponent to try and pigeonhole me in a particular area,” she said. “My stance is to keep everything on the table. I want parents at the center of this — not for political gain or anything. My stance has always been empowering parents.”
Like Harris, Muhammad said she couldn’t support S.B. 1, without some changes.
“I have concerns about that bill,” she said, reiterating that she could not be classified as a voucher supporter or opponent. “I’m not going to be pigeonholed. This is a terrible distraction.”
Muhammad, who recalled being homeless as a child, said that her tough experiences and hardships created in her a passion to help others who are underprivileged and underserved.
Despite her tough beginnings, Muhammad later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with honors and said that it is now her wish to give back to others.
She received the endorsement this week of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the Guardian Civic League.
Brown said her support for vouchers was personal and had nothing to do with Students First.
“I work with Republicans every day,” she said. “There are some issues that we’re together on and some issues that we’re not. This just happens to be an issue that I’m very passionate about for personal reasons.”
Brown said before her election, she was a single, unemployed mom with a special needs child who wanted better for her son.
“It was early on that I saw that my child needed a lot more than the public schools were offering,” she said. “When I tried to send him to other schools, I could not afford those choices.”