Educator, Pa. lawmakers wrangle over school vouchers

    In the interest of disclosure, PSEA provides funding for WHYY’s coverage of state government issues.

    Given the way Sens. Jeff Piccola and Anthony Williams have torn into the Pennsylvania State Education Association – Piccola sneered that PSEA was a “four-letter word” during a recent Capitol rally – observers expected some fireworks from PSEA Vice President Michael Crossey’s appearance before the Senate Education Committee Wednesday. After all, Piccola tore into Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center during his morning testimony on Senate Bill 1, which would create a school vouchers program.

    “All you ask for is more money, more time. You’ve been doing that for [decades] and it doesn’t work,” snapped Piccola after Kintisch questioned whether vouchers were the best way to fix failing schools.

    Aside from a few contentious moments during Williams’ questioning period, however, Crossey’s testimony passed without incident. He laid out PSEA’s basic argument against the program: that it would harm public schools by taking money away from them; and raise accountability questions by providing funding to non-government institutions.

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    “Our public schools have to account for every dime,” he said. “And Senate Bill 1 – it moves all of that money over to private, parochial schools. But none of the same accountability provisions are there. One, for the finances, and two, for the educational achievement.”

    Crossey warned the vouchers program could cost more than $1 billion a year, once it’s fully expanded. Piccola, called that figure “grossly exaggerated,” but conceded the Senate doesn’t know how much the initiative would cost after its first year, when it would be limited to low-income students in failing schools. (Year 1, Piccola said in a statement, would cost less than $50 million.)

    “The cost of the second and third years continues to be studied and refined and will ultimately be determined by the Senate Appropriations Committee via a fiscal note,” read a statement from Piccola’s office.

    Crossey suggested an alternative to vouchers would be full funding of public schools.

    Williams countered,”I’ve heard the rhetoric since I arrived in the legislature. Full funding is a term – a term of art – you know what? I don’t even know what it means. Guess what? When I talk to people, when I ask them, factually, in my office, privately, what is that number? They don’t have one. They just keep coming up and asking for more money. So we don’t want to have that conversation. Let’s just have this conversation.”

    The Democrat also pressed Crossey on how funding reductions would harm schools, if they’re dealing with fewer students “If they don’t have the same number of students, why would they get the same amount of money?” he said.

    Crossey responded, “Well Senator, if we take in my class – let’s say that we take one child out of my classroom, that doesn’t reduce the cost of my classroom.”

    After Crossey’s testimony ended, Piccola dismissed PSEA’s opposition to the vouchers plan, putting out a statement arguing Crossey’s cost warnings were “another example of [PSEA’s] shameless commitment to protect union jobs at any expense.”

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