Pennsylvania Senate Republican leaders are lining up behind a new school vouchers bill. The measure would provide several thousand dollars to low-income students attending private schools.
Funding would come out of the state’s basic education subsidy; the more students from a district use the vouchers, the less direct state support it would get. Sponsor Anthony Williams, a Senate Democrat, said that doesn’t bother him. “Why should we continue to spend more money without measurable or dramatic improvement?” he said. “It is the only monopoly in this country that makes the argument for failure. That failure is acceptable. And that the only thing we need to do is keep funding it, and it will change something after 30 or 40 years of never having one iota of an impact.” Williams ran on a school choice platform during last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, where he came in third. The bill would phase in the voucher program. In its first year, it would provide grants of several thousand dollars for low-income students attending failing public schools. The program would broaden to poor students already in private schools in its second year, and expand to include low-income students, regardless of their school district, in year three. The measure is attracting support from Senate leaders. Education Committee Chair Jeff Piccola, a Dauphin County Republican, wrote the bill with Williams. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is enthusiastically backing it, and Senate Republicans have designated the measure S.B. 1, marking it as a top priority. As with another Republican priority — privatizing state-owned liquor stores — the measure is not expected to sail through the House and Senate, just because the GOP controls both chambers. Public education advocates and teachers unions will line up against the measure. PSEA already sent out a memo to reporters this afternoon, warning them against using terms suggesting support for the initiative. “Journalists who use of the words ‘school choice’ and ‘opportunity scholarships’ in news stories to refer to proposals to use tax dollars to support private school tuition vouchers are inherently framing the issue with words favorable to one side of the debate. A closer examination of the issue shows those terms can be misleading,” warned spokesman Wythe Keever. Outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell called the proposal a “mistake,” arguing charter schools already provide alternative options to poorer students in failing districts. “So if you’re someone who is sending your son or daughter to a failing school, you have significant options because of the charter school system,” he said. “But the charter school system stays under the review and oversight of the public school system, and that’s as it should be.” Williams said the back-and-forth proves his point: that students are getting bad educations, while lawmakers debate education policy in theoretical terms. “We’ve taken away their opportunities and their options, and allowed them to sort of languish behind while the adults have an argument about how much money we spend, we do or we don’t spend enough, funding formulas, non-funding formulas, teachers’ contracts, bureaucrat’s contracts, administration contracts,” he said. “And all this is going on while a train wreck is happening with a child’s life.”
In the interest of disclosure, PSEA provides funding for WHYY’s coverage of state government issues.