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Politics & Government

Politicians and Educators Debate Voucher Vernacular

In the state legislature, debates regarding school vouchers that could allow students to escape Pennsylvania's worst-performing public schools, word choice matters. What some politicians may refer to as "failing schools," most educators prefer to call "underperforming" or "low-achieving."

Education professionals say the "failing" is too definite a label on a school whose students may have performed poorly on tests for a wide range of reasons.

Lynn Baynum, a professor at Shippensburg University and a former public school teacher, said that the lowest-achieving schools are described that way because of complex test scores, and among her colleagues she wouldn't use the terms that politicians use.

"We use 'underperforming,' 'school improvement,' 'school improvement plan,'" Baynum said. "We don't, I would never refer to a school as a 'failing school.'"

Ben Skirvin, a StateImpact reporter in Indiana covering education, said that "turnaround schools" is what that state calls its lowest-performing schools that get taken over by the state. But it remains a term school officials grapple with if their building is taken over.

"Do they want to refer to schools that they were operating just a year ago as 'failing schools'? Well, no, they don't want to call them failing schools because they were operating them," Skirvin said. "But on the same token, do you want to refer to them as 'turnaround schools'? Well that's the language of the agency that took over the schools."

The Pennsylvania Senate approved legislation on October 26 that would provide tuition vouchers to help poor families remove their children from "low-performing" public schools and enroll them in private schools. The bill, which was sent to the House, would also expand tax credits for businesses that contribute to scholarships for low and middle-income students.