Scholarships, distressed school districts are focus of bills
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Students in academically and financially distressed school districts may find help in two bills passed over the weekend along with the state budget -- one that will provide scholarships for students to attend other public or private schools and another that will allow for the reorganization of some distressed districts.
In addition, the Basic Education Formula Enhancement appropriation will provide an additional $2.5 million to the Duquesne City School District to balance its budget and provide slight increases to the tuition rates the district will pay to the West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts for the education of Duquesne students in grades 7-12.
The Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a program for businesses that donate to private-school scholarships, was expanded on two fronts -- increasing from $75 million to $100 million the amount for the private school scholarship funds and the creation of a $50 million Opportunity Scholarship program. The new program will offer scholarships to lower-income students currently in the enrollment area of public schools that are ranked among the lowest 15 percent of underperforming schools in the state.
Students who qualify for the scholarships will be permitted to withdraw from their current districts and enroll at another public or private school.
The scholarship program is not without opponents, among them the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which in a news release said the EITC scholarship program "has effectively set up a taxpayer-funded voucher program with no transparency or accountability to the taxpayers who will be picking up the check." It maintains the program "siphons valuable dollars from the general fund via tax credits" that could have been used to restore previous budget cuts.
Officials in the Duquesne district, where scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams have been historically among the lowest in the state, said they are certain students there will qualify for the EITC scholarships. It's unclear what other local districts may qualify.
State Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said a list of qualifying schools won't be available until week's end.
The other piece of legislation regarding struggling districts, known as the Financial Recovery Legislation for Schools, or House Bill 1307, calls for the state education secretary to declare districts that meet certain criteria to be declared in financial recovery and to appoint a chief recovery officer to work with the local school board on a financial recovery plan.
That plan could include sending students to another district or converting a school to a charter school. The legislation would limit to nine the number of districts that could be in financial recovery at one time and would apply immediately to the Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg and York school districts.
It appears the legislation could clear the way for Duquesne to send its students in grades K-6 to other districts, a move that was discussed last year but until now prohibited by state legislation. Duquesne students in seventh and eighth grades will transfer in the fall.
The legislation also provides a long-term, interest-free loan program for qualifying districts that implement a recovery plan and also creates an early warning system within the state education department to monitor districts showing signs of financial difficulty.
State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, a sponsor of the bill, praised its passage. "Our commonwealth has stepped up to the plate and exercised bold leadership to provide tools to structurally reform these failing districts," Mr. Piccola said in a news release.
David Broderic, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the PSEA was happier with the version of the financial recovery bill that passed the General Assembly than with its original version because the final version gives local school boards the power to decide whether to convert a school to a charter school and to solicit the proposals from charter organizations.
"Now it includes really important protections for employees, taxpayers, parents and local elected officials so they can continue to have a voice in how their schools are operated," Mr. Broderic said.
An amendment cleared one obstacle to the transition of Duquesne's seventh- and eighth-grade students to East Allegheny and West Mifflin for fall 2012 by lifting the cap of 165 Duquesne students permitted to attend a neighboring school district -- a provision that existed in the 2007 legislation that allowed for the transfer of Duquesne's high school students.
Another amendment called for districts that receive Duquesne students to hire furloughed Duquesne teachers for any openings for which they are qualified and hold the proper certification.
The additional $2.5 million in funding to the Duquesne district is designated largely for transferring the seventh- and eighth-grade students and increasing tuition payments for all Duquesne students attending East Allegheny and West Mifflin schools. It will increase the tuition rate from about $9,800 per student to a minimum of $10,000 per student, Mr. Eller said.
In addition, for the next two years, the districts will receive an additional $500 per reassigned student entering grades 7, 8 and 9.
West Mifflin school directors had threatened to file for a court injunction to halt the transfer of Duquesne's seventh- and eighth-grade students if an increase in the tuition rate was not received. They argued that West Mifflin is forced to subsidize the education of each Duquesne student as West Mifflin's per pupil costs are between $13,000 and $14,000.
West Mifflin Area superintendent Daniel Castagna said he was not happy with the new tuition rate but that it appeared the district would accept it.
"We are disappointed with the disparity between a tuition payment to a traditional public school compared to a tuition payment to a Propel charter school," Mr. Castagna said. The West Mifflin board has frequently complained that its tuition rate from Duquesne was lower than the tuition rate paid to charter schools.
"Above all," Mr. Castagna said, "I am ready to move forward with the '12-13 school year."
First Published July 5, 2012 12:00 am