School Voucher Program Approved By Pennsylvania Senate

Brad Bumsted
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

A taxpayer-paid tuition voucher program approved by the Senate on Wednesday faces an uncertain response in the House, a political graveyard for school choice bills in the 1990s.

The House won’t immediately consider the bill, said Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.

“I don’t know that it’s something that will come up in the next couple weeks,” said Smith, because members will want time to review it. They might vote by the end of the year, he said.

Senate Bill 1 won approval on a 27-22 vote, after hours of debate. It provides vouchers to low-income students attending the bottom 5 percent of the state’s worst performing school districts in achievement tests. Parents could use vouchers to send their children to private or religious schools. The money would come from state subsidies to public school districts.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, a Dauphin County Republican, called it the “most significant effort at education reform in well over a decade.”

But Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, criticized using state resources for vouchers, saying that “further exacerbates” problems that struggling school districts have because lawmakers cut funding to public education in the current budget.

Another opponent, Sen. Daylin Leech, D-Montgomery County, warned of a “death spiral” for public education.

The American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, reacted immediately with a statement from its chairman, Betsy DeVos, who praised the vote as an “important step towards greater educational equality for Pennsylvania kids.”

Vouchers are a priority of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. He commended the Senate “for passing a strong education reform package that will help improve opportunities for thousands of school children.”

The issue stalled in the Legislature in June, after the Senate delayed a scheduled vote in May because a broader voucher bill lacked support. Piccola said his bill, though dramatically scaled back, becomes a “pilot program” for vouchers.

Most of the 143 eligible schools are in Philadelphia, Allegheny County, and Harrisburg. Others are in Allentown, Chester, Erie, York, Lancaster, Reading, Lebanon and Crawford County. The Senate Appropriations Committee estimated the bill’s cost at $42.6 million in 2012-13, and said that cost would climb to $81.4 million by 2013-14.

The bill expands the Education Improvement Tax Credit program established under former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, which gives businesses a state tax credit for donating toward scholarships. Under the Senate bill, the program would increase from $75 million to $100 million in 2012-13, and then to $125 million in 2014-15, with 5 percent increases thereafter.

“This is not parental choice; this is the school’s choice,” said Leech, because the bill doesn’t require any school to accept students with vouchers. “What becomes of the kids left behind? How are they going to be made better?”

Last spring, House members suggested expanding the tax credit program. Supporters hope the Senate’s action kick-starts the issue in the House, where Education Chairman Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County, predicted vouchers stand a chance of passing by a close vote.

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