Pa. House panel hears from both sides on school vouchers

Supporters and opponents of school vouchers faced off in Philadelphia Wednesday as the Pennsylvania House Education Committee took testimony. Proposed legislation would offer low-income students vouchers worth thousands of dollars to attend private or religious schools.

 

Dr. Lori Shorr, Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief education officer, testified about the proposed legislation’s potential impact on Philadelphia’s schools. Shorr said taxpayers need to hold these private entities accountable for student outcomes.

“I’m not an ideologue on this,” Shorr said. “I just want to make sure that public funds are used well and used to get better results.”

Shorr, who said she has not seen nonpartisan data that prove vouchers work, called the proposition an expensive experiment.

Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center said he is concerned about loopholes in the plan.

“If the bills for charter expansion and vouchers would be adopted, those bills contain loopholes that would allow the charter schools, religious schools, to pick and choose the students they would want to accept and cherry-pick the best students,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen.”

Sayre High School student Baseerah Watson said if she were handed a voucher to go elsewhere, “I would say they could keep it.”

“You’re handing me this voucher, but you’re also handing me to an environment where I’m going to help fund private and parochial schools rather than helping ensure my success,” said Watson, 17.

Watson testified against the legislation on behalf of the Philadelphia Student Union. Opponents argue that stellar students such as Watson would be lured away, leaving the neediest behind.

“I think one major component that would leave schools if students like me, in particular, left, would be … essentially a sense of hope for every other student that may not be as poised or as smart, I humbly say, as myself,” she said.

Dawn Chavous, executive director of Students First, is in favor of vouchers. She said parents and students deserve more choice.

“Year after year, there are students who remain in persistently violent and failing schools and we need to do something about that now, immediately,” she said.

State Rep. Dan Truitt of Chester County said he heard compelling testimony on both sides and he can’t discount the public demand for alternatives.

“We need to understand what demand is not being met with the families that’s causing them to want to leave traditional public schools,” he said.

The hearing will continue Thursday.

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