Wednesday, March 23, 2011

School Voucher Legislation Discussed

The House Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing today on the Pitt Campus to hear from supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 1, which would provide vouchers to some low income children now attending 144 Pennsylvania schools designated as failing. A private, religious, charter or a different public school would get the state portion of an accepted student’s funding.

Data from voucher programs in other parts of the country are used by both sides to prove their points. Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation says nine out of ten studies show benefits both to the children who use vouchers AND the schools they leave. John Tarka, President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says studies show promised benefits are not there. Tarka says while the governor’s budget is cutting funds for preschool and after school programs known to help disadvantaged kids, it’s a terrible time to institute a billion dollar voucher program.

Sean McAleer says Catholic schools are eager to provide a good education to students in low-performing schools. He says the vouchers would be more than current tuition.

Ira Weiss, Solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, says the district is already addressing problems with teacher effectiveness programs and other initiatives funded by the Gates Foundation.

Dawn Chavous is Executive Director of Students First. She says vouchers could help parents with unequal opportunities to secure the best education for their children.

Matthew Brouillette says the public school system is a monopoly in which the customers, parents, have no choice, and the providers, schools, have no competition. He sees no conflict with the federal or state constitutions because vouchers are funding children, not schools. He expects the Pennsylvania house to take up the legislation after it passes in the Senate--perhaps in a month.

Sandra Zelno of the Education Law Center says the legislation is a ruse that would not really help disadvantaged children in failing schools, who would be only a small percentage of those using vouchers once they are available to low-income private school students in the second year and low-income students from any school in the third year. She says there is no accountability for teacher qualification or meeting students' needs in the schools where vouchers might be used.

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