Pa. Senate OKs vouchers bill, House fate uncertain

October 26, 2011 6:01:27 PM PDT
A major proposal to spend more taxpayer money to help possibly tens of thousands of lower-income families in Pennsylvania avoid struggling public schools and afford the cost of private or parochial school tuition for their children passed the state Senate on Wednesday and headed to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

The long-anticipated vote moves along what is designed to be a major component of Gov. Tom Corbett's campaign to address drop-out rates in struggling schools and hold schools and teachers accountable for their students' improvement.

"I want to commend the members of the state Senate for passing a strong education reform package that will help improve opportunities for thousands of school children throughout Pennsylvania," Corbett said in a statement.

However, opponents warned that the bill is a badly flawed product that won't help the vast majority of children in schools with collectively low test scores and that it violates a constitutional prohibition on using money for public schools for the support of a sectarian school.

So far, the Republican governor has not necessarily endorsed the "school choice" bill as something he would sign, and it goes to the House where Republican leaders have made no promises about whether they can cobble together enough votes for a school-voucher bill that primarily targets Philadelphia and other urban districts represented by Democrats.

The vote, 27-22, was largely along partisan lines in the Republican-controlled Senate. Three Democrats supported it - Anthony Williams and LeAnna Washington of Philadelphia and Andrew Dinniman of Chester County - and five Republicans opposed it - Lisa Baker of Luzerne County, John Gordner of Columbia County, Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County, Pat Vance of Cumberland County and Elder Vogel of Beaver County.

For now, the bill envisions a narrower school-voucher program than an earlier version of the legislation with a more expensive and wider-ranging voucher program that stalled last spring in the Senate. Still, the biggest beneficiaries, at least initially, could be children already attending private school.

During the Senate's four hours of debate Wednesday, the bill's chief sponsor, Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, called the bill the most significant effort at education reform in well over a decade in Pennsylvania and predicted that it will force improvement in schools through the power of parents choosing where to send their children.

The debate at times touched on the role of parents, teachers, schools and lawmakers - and who or what is responsible for the children who drop out of school or perform poorly on standardized tests.

Democrats said it rips precious money away from comparatively poor public schools that are already underfunded and trying to absorb a stinging reduction in state aid this year.

There is no proof that voucher programs improve the quality of education, and the bill would not hold private and parochial schools accountable for improving the students' test performance, they said. And they raised questions about whether it will allow private and parochial schools to cherry-pick the students they want.

"This bill is not parental choice, this bill is literally the school's choice," said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. "No school is required to admit anybody and they can deny it, admission, for a whole variety of reasons, for no reason at all."

He also suggested that the vast majority of public and private schools would not take voucher students because the amount of the voucher provided by the state will be inadequate to cover the cost to educate them.

"What's going to happen is what's happened in other states," Leach said. "The only schools to participate in this are the parochial schools, because they are subsidized by their church."

Proponents of the bill responded that the state spends enough to help children, but the public school system isn't trying hard enough to turn its own, struggling schools around.

"The reality is we're tired of waiting," said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. "They've failed students for generations."

The rewritten bill adds a chapter intended to help ease the creation of more charter schools and substantially scales back the scope of the previously proposed voucher program that would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars more and been available to children of the state's poorest families.

Under this bill, approximately 70,000 children of low-income families living within the attendance boundaries of the state's lowest-performing public schools, primarily in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg, Chester and Reading, would be eligible for taxpayer help.

At least initially, the largest amount of money in the program and the largest cost to taxpayers - about $50 million a year - would help pay for the tuition of children who already attend private schools and meet the income and residence guidelines, according to a Senate Appropriations Committee analysis. Eligible children also could choose to attend a different public school.

"This bill is designed to set these people free, to allow them to make the educational decisions about their kids themselves," Piccola said during floor debate. "It is an educational empowerment bill, in that it empowers parents."

Eligible families must earn no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $41,000 for a family of four. The state's 143 worst-performing schools, or the bottom 5 percent in terms of student standardized test performance, would be targeted. Only a small percentage of those eligible would be expected to seek a voucher, at least initially.

After four years, an increasing number of voucher students would take a rising amount of state aid with them - about $44 million in the fourth year, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee analysis - and away from the struggling public schools.

The amount of tuition aid available to each voucher student would depend on the student's family income and how much aid the state sends to the student's school district.

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