Opponents speak out against tuition vouchers

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HARRISBURG -- In his inaugural speech, Gov. Tom Corbett barely hinted at what is sure to become one of the most hotly debated issues of the spring -- "school choice," also known as "tuition vouchers."

It would be a major change in how the state funds education.

"Our students compete not only with those from the other 49 states, but with students from around the world," the new chief executive said Tuesday. "So we must embrace innovation, competition and choice in our education system."

The measure, Senate Bill 1, is so numbered "to reflect its priority status," said a main sponsor, Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. It would allow low-income students from "persistently poorly performing" public schools to switch to other public or private schools -- and receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay their tuition.

The 2011-12 legislative term has just begun, and the measure will be formally introduced in a few days. But the Senate Education Committee has already set a hearing on it in mid-February.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is also directing attention to the issue, and its officials will talk to reporters this afternoon.

"We are opposing tuition vouchers," said Tim Allwein, association assistant executive director. "We don't think they are the answer for the majority of students."

While the cost of a voucher program is still being determined, public school districts could be hurt if the bill passes. The cost of vouchers (which advocates prefer to call "opportunity scholarships") would come out of the allotment of tax funds that the state gives each year to the 500 public school districts. So the school boards group is concerned.

The bill also calls for creating a new state entity, the Educational Choice Board, which would approve and distribute the vouchers to low-income students. It would have three members (with four-year terms), named by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and would be part of the state Department of Education.

Another main sponsor is Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, a conservative Republican from Dauphin. Many other House and Senate Republicans also support vouchers.

The support from Mr. Williams is somewhat unusual, since many Democrats get political backing from public school teacher unions.

Mr. Williams is from Philadelphia, where the quality of public schools has long been criticized, and he made vouchers a major issue during his unsuccessful primary campaign for governor last year.

Mr. Williams said, "Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids in failing urban schools is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the 1960s. Too many children are trapped by their ZIP code in schools that are not making the grade. Let's open the doors to freedom and opportunity."

Teacher unions and other critics fear that tax-funded vouchers would hurt public schools financially and possibly cause property taxes to rise. And if the program proves too costly, some fiscal conservatives may have problems. Many Republicans have stressed the need to severely slash state spending starting July 1, in order to erase a projected budget deficit of $3 billion or more.

To ease the impact, the measure would be phased in over three years, with the price tag not too steep in fiscal 2011-12. For the first year, only low-income students (according to federal guidelines) who now attend a "failing" (or "lowest achieving") school would be eligible for tuition vouchers.

In the second year, any low-income student living within the boundaries of a poorly performing school would be eligible, including those currently at a parochial, private or charter school. The term "lowest achieving" is based on how students at each school score on state assessment tests. There are currently 144 schools statewide in this category.

In the third year the program would be significantly expanded -- to cover all low-income students in Pennsylvania, regardless of where they currently go to school.

"Low income" is defined as a family at 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines: $18,941 for a family of two, $28,665 for a family of four, $38,389 for a family of six, etc.

Two guidelines will determine the size of a tuition voucher. The base amount would be 100 percent of the per-pupil subsidy that the state gives annually to the school district where the low-income child lives. The subsidies vary in size, but are usually several thousand dollars per pupil (such as $5,300 per pupil in Pittsburgh schools and $9,000 per pupil in Harrisburg.)

Also, a scholarship or voucher cannot exceed the actual tuition that a student will pay at his/her new public or private school.

Students who want to enroll outside their resident district would apply directly to the desired new public or private school. However, voucher approvals will be made by the new Educational Choice Board. A payment will be sent to a child's parents, but made payable only to the new school.

A student's desire to switch to a new school wouldn't be automatic, however. The desired public/private school would have to approve a student's transfer -- in other words, it could turn down any or all requests.

"It's the schools, not the student or the parents, who have the 'choice' on whether to accept students," said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a powerful teachers' union.

Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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