Teacher certification, private-school testing concerns raised over school choice bills

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HARRISBURG -- Tax dollars soon could go to schools where teachers aren't required to be certified and where students aren't required to take the same standardized tests as public school counterparts.

That concerns Democrats who expressed reservations about GOP school choice measures that were the subject of a House Education Committee hearing Wednesday.

Rep. Jim Christiana, sponsor of one bill on the education overhaul menu, said school choice isn't about turning public schools into private ones; it's about letting parents choose where their children will be best educated.

"We're not saying students shouldn't have to take standardized tests. We're just saying the tests should be based on the curriculum you're offering," said Mr. Christiana, R-Beaver.

State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis, a choice supporter, said plenty of good second-career teachers do a great job in private school classrooms despite not having education degrees or certification. If they aren't effective, parents will send their children somewhere else, he testified Wednesday.

"If the teachers are of an inferior quality, the students will not come," he told the committee.

Phil Murren, counsel for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, echoed that during his turn to testify.

"If a religious institution wants to commit suicide, hire incompetent teachers and the students will flee," he said.

He said most private schools do hire certified teachers, although there are many exceptions.

Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said schools that receive public funds should be required to hire qualified, certified teachers. To do otherwise undermines the teaching profession, he said.

"No one makes exceptions for a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or the pilot who flies you anyplace, but we make exceptions for teachers," he said.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Tomalis told the committee that school choice is risk-free.

"These kids are already in schools that are failing. This [current] system that has been in place for 150 years and has worked well for many of us isn't working for these children," he told committee members.

Wednesday was the third in a series of six all-day hearings on school choice.

One GOP-favored proposal would provide tuition vouchers to low-income children who attend the worst performing schools. The vouchers could be used for better performing public schools or private schools.

Another bill, which seems to have wide support, would expand an existing program that provides tax credits of up to 90 percent for businesses that contribute to organizations that distribute scholarships.

Mr. Roebuck has concerns about oversight of the scholarship distribution. Under the bill, scholarship organizations are not required to provide recipients' names or demographic data about them.

"I cannot understand how we can create programs to which we do not subject any measure of accountability. If it's working, fine, but wouldn't it be nice to know if it's working, how it's working and what kids are impacted?" he asked. "I don't know how you give [the scholarships] out. Is it fair or is it unfair? I don't know."

That's one question the education committee will grapple with as it culls through six days of testimony from public school administrators, charter school operators, lawmakers, private school leaders, analysts and others.

"There are a lot of people who want to testify on this issue. They're lining up," Education Committee Chairman Paul Clymer said after Wednesday's testimony. "It's been helpful in shaping the debate."

School choice is a priority for Gov. Tom Corbett, but he didn't endorse a Senate plan proposed earlier this year.

Mr. Clymer said he doubts whether that proposal would have passed the House, where Republicans prefer a more expansive plan that would increase income limits and include children whose public schools are not failing.

"I'm not sure we're going to be able to get that done but even if we don't, it's a start," Mr. Clymer said.

Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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