On Oct. 28, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed school-choice legislation that would create a new voucher program to benefit students in under achieving schools. While many school-choice advocates see this legislation as the first step towards expanding educational options for low-income children, local government officials aren’t so sure.
“All of the delegation of Allegheny County voted no. This vote to further take away public tax dollars to fund private and parochial education is something I’m opposed to. It’s just bad public policy,” said State Sen. Jim Ferlo. “We have a delicate situation in this city, the district has worked diligently to address a lot of the budget issues and a lot of those decisions have been difficult. This voucher bill would further disrupt this process to improve education.”
Senate Bill 1 passed with a vote of 27-22 and has moved on to the State House of Representatives for review. If passed, low-income students attending one of the 143 lowest performing schools in the state would be given taxpayer-funded grants to attend private schools or schools in another district.
“On top of a significant cutback in public school funding, this is not the time to establish this so called voucher program. It’s a setback,” Ferlo said. “You have an unusual coalition. You have very right wing conservatives who want to decimate and privatize the education system, uniting with very articulate individuals, and many from the African-American community—especially those from the Philadelphia area, who are just very frustrated with the school system.”
Like many school-choice advocates, Randall Taylor, founder of the Western Pennsylvania School Choice Coalition, said this legislation will pressure public schools to raise academic achievement for all students. Before resigning as the board member for District 1, Taylor represented some of the most under achieving schools in the Pittsburgh Public School District.
“For the first time I can actually envision ending chronically failing schools in the community. I think it’s an absolutely wonderful day for African-American students. We’ve already seen the charter schools positively impact education for our students. The vouchers are only going to reach 4000 students, but they’re going to help our kids get out of these failing schools,” Taylor said. “I think parents need to better educate themselves and contact their representatives because this legislation is going to primarily impact low income African-Americans. I still don’t get why folks haven’t flocked to this issue.”
In the second year, the program would grow to include low-income students who are already enrolled in private schools as long as their home school is one of the 143 lowest performing schools whose combined math and reading scores on state tests are within the bottom 5 percent of all schools’ scores. In the seventh year the program would be expanded to low-income students who attend a school where at least half the students score below grade level on state math or reading tests.
Although the legislation was only passed last week in the Senate, two local House representatives are already leaning towards a no vote.
“Right now as I understand it, I will probably be a no for it,” said House Representative Jake Wheatley. “I do believe we need to provide short-term support to families, but I don’t know if this legislation really gets to the heart of helping children and families improve. I think we certainly should be using this opportunity to talk about how we change our education environment, but I don’t think Senate Bill 1 goes to that level.”
While Wheatley has always been a supporter of quality charter schools, he said parents in suffering schools throughout his district often don’t take advantage of education alternatives for their children.
“Under the No Child Left Behind Act, there’s a provision, that gives parents the option to take their children out of underperforming schools, well if you look at how many parents have utilized that option, it’s miniscule; there’s nothing in this bill that provides for educating parents,” Wheatley said. “Right now this is really about the voucher and the ability to take tax payer money to go to other schools, but even under this provision there’s no measure that ensures parents most in need of utilizing these vouchers will be able to use it. Help me understand how this will help a poor performing student in the classroom whose parents don’t have the education to take advantage of the new system.”
House Representative Joseph Preston agrees. He also said there is no guarantee voucher students will be accepted to private schools or that the amount of the voucher will be enough to cover the cost of tuition.
“It appears that it would do a lot but it really hurts more. First if this bill passes and someone gets a voucher and lets say they want to apply to a parochial school, there’s no guarantee they will be permitted to a parochial school. This doesn’t apply to charter schools. So what we are doing is passing something for some tough districts and tough areas that have low educational achievement, with no guarantee that students will be accepted,” Preston said. “The problem is if that money leaves what happens to the students that are left behind. Yes we have a problem and I understand a lot of parents think this is the way out, but if you want to go to a place like Shadyside Academy or Winchester Thurston it’s still 13,000 a year.”
The three local representatives agreed Senate Bill 1 would add more financial hardship to schools when the state takes away the cost of the voucher per student from the district. After the first year of the bill, responsibility for the cost of the voucher program will also fall on the state.