HARRISBURG, Pa.—The state Senate could vote as early as Wednesday on a bill that is designed to meet Gov. Tom Corbett’s desire to overhaul Pennsylvania’s worst-performing public schools by helping thousands more of those students afford private and parochial school tuition with taxpayer help, and making it easier to attend a different public school.
A rewritten version of “school choice” legislation that stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate in the spring easily passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, just a day after the committee chairman released the new draft.
Supporters say they aren’t willing to wait for public schools to improve to help schoolchildren trapped in failing or unsafe schools, and that competition will force those schools to improve. But opponents say the plan does nothing to help the struggling districts — for instance, by reducing class sizes or expanding tutoring — and they question how the state’s poorest and worst-performing school districts are supposed to improve after drastic cutbacks in state aid this year weakened them.
The rewritten bill adds a chapter on charter schools, but also it 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 the new bill, vouchers would be limited to children in the worst-performing school districts, but income limits would be higher.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, said he rewrote the bill to meet the governor’s education policy guidelines and he expects the bill will draw enough support to pass the Senate. Corbett and House Republican leaders on Tuesday praised the Senate’s movement on the bill, but neither publicly endorsed it, and the speed with which the rewritten legislation was poised to move through the Senate surprised some senators.
The bill likely would make thousands of public schoolchildren, primarily from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Reading, Chester and Allentown, eligible for a taxpayer-paid voucher, nicknamed “opportunity scholarships,” that would help them pay for the tuition to a private or parochial school that chooses to participate in the program. They could also choose to attend a different public school.
Under the bill, tuition aid would be available to students who have attended or plan to attend one of the state’s 143 worst-performing schools — the bottom 5 percent — and whose family income is about $41,000 or less. In the second year of the law, children who live in the attendance boundaries and meet the eligibility requirement, but already attend a private or parochial school, could receive tuition aid.
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. The tuition aid is unlikely to cover the whole cost of private or parochial school tuition. It could, however, represent a tidy injection of extra money for a better-performing public school that accepts a voucher student.
Piccola could not estimate how many children would be eligible for the tuition vouchers. However, he said Education Committee research suggests perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent of children who are eligible will participate in the first year.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the voucher program would cost taxpayers an extra $17.5 million in the first year and $51 million in the second year — the most expensive year.
But each year, more state public school aid would follow a growing number of voucher students to the private, parochial or other public schools they choose, instead of to the worst-performing schools as more students seek out the program, Corman said. That figure would start at $17.5 million in the first year and rise to $47 million in the third year, he said.
On charter schools, the bill would make it easier for school boards to convert schools into charter schools, toughen ethics rules for charter school board members and administrators, and standardize the application process statewide.
It also would expand the $75 million Educational Improvement Tax Credit over three years to $125 million a year. The tax credits are available every year for money that an eligible business contributes to a school or an education organization.