Fiercely contested school choice bill on the move in Harrisburg

Pennsylvania public school students change classes. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis)

Pennsylvania public school students change classes. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis)

Legislation is on the move in Harrisburg that could give parents more school choices and siphon millions from traditional public schools.

Imagine if your child lived in a neighborhood with a poorly-ranked school and so Pennsylvania gave you money to pay for private school or other educational expenses.

That’s what Senate Bill 2 does. Proponents, most of them Republicans, say the measure gives needy kids in struggling schools a way out.

“It clearly empowers parents in the most at-risk school districts to take control of their child’s education,” said State Senator John Disanto (R-Dauphin), the bill’s sponsor.

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Unlike a traditional voucher system, the state would put money in an education savings account (ESA) that parents could spend on private schools, tutors, or other items related to education. Students currently attending private schools would not be eligible. Only children entering the K-12 system or who attended public school in the preceding year could receive the money.

The hotly debated proposal failed to escape the Senate Education Committee last year, but on Tuesday, the Republican majority voted the measure through in a 7-5 vote. Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R-Bucks) joined the four Democrats on the committee in dissent.

Under the bill, each child living in the catchment of a school ranked in Pennsylvania’s bottom 15 percent on standardized tests could receive $5,700 from the state if their parents pull them from public schools. According to a Keystone Crossroads analysis, there are about 220,000 Pennsylvania students in nearly 400 schools spread across 44 of the state’s 67 counties who would be eligible.

But every time a student opts to take the money, the same number of dollars would be subtracted from his or her home district. In theory, that could reach about 1.7  billion dollars, a fifth of the amount spent by the state on K-12 public education.

Opponents worry that this will undermine the viability of traditional public schools.

“This is a death spiral for public education,” said Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery).

The state teachers union, as well as organizations representing the state’s superintendents, school boards, and business officials, have lined up to oppose the measure. Governor Tom Wolf has also indicated he’d veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

The bill’s next step would be vote before the full Senate.

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