19 January 2011

School vouchers - let the debate begin again

Legislators in Harrisburg kicked off the new legislative session by introducing Senate Bill 1, the Williams-Piccola Opportunity Scholarship Plan. The plan brings back to Pennsylvania the debate over school vouchers.

Details of the bill were announced Jan. 11, according to an e-mail from the Education Policy Leadership Center, an education policy think thank in Harrisburg. The legislation is co-sponsored by State Senators Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) and targets Pennsylvania's worst schools and poorest families. Quoting from the EPLC e-mail:
The plan would allow the parents of a needy child to take the state subsidy that would have been directed to their home school district and apply it to the public, private or parochial school of their choice. For the Harrisburg School District, for example, that amount would equal approximately $9,000, based upon information from the state Department of Education website (2008-09 year). The amount would vary from district to district and be significantly less in wealthier school districts that receive less state funding.

The Williams-Piccola plan would give scholarships to families meeting certain income limits for either public or private schools. The bill also includes an increase of $25 million in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, bringing the total tax credits available under EITC to $100 million next year.

The plan calls for a three-year phase-in. In the first year, only low-income students currently attending persistently failing schools would be eligible for a grant. In the second year, low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of those schools, but currently attending private schools, would be eligible; and in the third year, all low-income students regardless of school district would be eligible.
Tom Ridge tried to do vouchers when he was governor, and he couldn't get it done. Gov. Tom Corbett is on the record with his support for vouchers and school choice, and this legislature appears with this bill to be more inclined to go along.

Historically, vouchers have been offered with the intention that poor families with children stuck in under-performing schools could send them to private schools of their choice, and Republicans tend to favor this as a way to bring free-market competition to K-12 education. Note that this bill seems to make money available to families wishing to send their kids to a different school - public, private or parochial. For more information, here are two recent essays from Florida, where experiments in public education have already begun. One essay is pro vouchers, one is con. Both essays appeared on http://www.tampabay.com/.
How do you feel about school vouchers?

Update, Nov. 21: The York Dispatch reported today that low-income York City School District students would be among the first to be eligible for the vouchers. But the president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association has concerns with the bill.

- Dan Fink

1 comment:

jsears said...

In theory, vouchers are fine. However, given the convoluted funding allocation formula used by PA, vouchers will cause several unintended consequences.

First, they will drive the total cost of education UP because districts that lose their state subsidies will simply increase taxes to make up the loss (much like the problem caused by charter schools in PA).

Second, this scheme is patently unconstitutional because it offers vouchers preferentially rather on an equal opportunity basis.

Third, the EITC is corporate welfare in disguise. Well-intentioned though it may be, it's time to scrap the patchwork quilt of tax preferences and inequitable financing, eliminate school property tax, and hold the STATE responsible for funding all public education as required by our state constitution.