Notes from the Field
Submitted by Frank Murphy on April 4, 2012
During this electoral primary season, I have paid little attention to anything other than the hype surrounding the Republican presidential nomination race. Then last week I read this article in the City Paper that describes a “big money pro voucher group’s” attack on Pennsylvania House Representative James Roebuck. A second article also appearing in the City Paper, detailed additional attacks on Representative Roebuck that were initiated by a mysterious third party group. This group, Public Education Excellence claims Roebuck is responsible for just about everything that is wrong with public education in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania.
Roebuck has represented the 188th Pennsylvania House District in which I reside since 1985. He is an elected official who has won my respect and support. In my estimation, Roebuck is a government official who is focused on representing the best interests of his constituents. He is a humble, hard working legislator, who for the last 27 years without great fanfare has supported the special interests of the people who elected him to office.
Representative Roebuck is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. He is opposed to the voucher legislation that Republican Governor Tom Corbett supports. A proposed bill that would use tax dollars to fund school vouchers for private and religious school tuition passed in the Senate last year. This bill is currently stymied in the House. Getting this legislation passed into law is a top priority of the Governor and his pro voucher supporters. In order to do so, they must overcome the opposition of leaders such as Roebuck.
Fatimah Loren Muhammad, a school voucher supporter, is challenging Jim Roebuck for the Democratic nomination in the 188th District. Muhammad has received a $25,000 contribution from the pro-voucher group Students First, to support her efforts. In a campaign for a state house seat, this is a great deal of money.
State Senator Anthony Williams, one of the state’s most high-profile pro-voucher advocates, is also supporting Muhammad’s bid to unseat Roebuck. Williams has on more than one occasion equated opponents of school vouchers to being akin to George Wallace. Does Williams’ support of Muhammad indicate that he views Roebuck as being a person who is blocking the schoolhouse door?
Even though Representative Roebuck opposes the use of school vouchers, he does support school choice for all children. In Roebuck’s view, more educational options need to be made available to students within the existing public school system. He does not support redirecting public school funds in order to benefit a small subset of Pennsylvania students. This point of view recognizes that school vouchers are not an economic bill of rights for the disadvantaged, as Senator Williams would like us to believe. Roebuck’s anti voucher position is incidentally representative of the view of a majority of Pennsylvania citizens on this issue.
Other pro voucher groups are also working to unseat Representative Roebuck. Students First, the organization supporting Muhammad’s candidacy, projects itself as a grassroots organization fighting against unresponsive government officials. However information reported on the PA Department of State Campaign Finance’s website indicates that the Students First PAC isn’t exactly the grassroots educational advocacy group it claims to be. In 2010 and 2011, this PAC reported receiving a total of $6,660,300 in contributions from nineteen individuals. The bulk of this money, $5,359,000 came from three individuals; Arthur Dantchek, Jeffery Yass, and Joel Greenberg. These are the same three wealthy Bala Cynwyd businessmen who poured more than five million dollars into the failed gubernatorial campaign of Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams.
The American Federation for Children Action Fund also contributed $1,200,000 to the Students First PAC in 2010. This group is the state’s arm of the American Federation for Children, another school choice group. Its chairperson, Betsy de Vos, is a prominent leader in the national school voucher movement. You can learn more about this group and its activities here and here.
The amount of funds that the Students First PAC is able to raise from a handful of wealthy benefactors says volumes about the determination of these individuals to dismantle public education. The candidates and elected officials supported by these school privateers, claim that their opponents are denying children their civil rights by opposing the use of public funds to finance school vouchers. This hardly is the truth.
Jim Roebuck is indeed standing in the schoolhouse doorway. He has positioned himself there in order to open the door of opportunity as wide as possible for every child. As an eligible voter in the 188th Pennsylvania House District I applaud his efforts and will show my support by voting for him on April 24, 2012. Jim Roebuck does put children first. This is why political action committees such as Students First have targeted him.