Friday, April 15, 2011

Vouchers Move Forward

The state Senate’s Appropriations Committee has approved and expanded a bill creating a school vouchers program in Pennsylvania. The legislation could see a full Senate vote later this week. The committee amended the measure yesterday afternoon, putting a $250 million annual cap on the amount of voucher money spent on poor students who don’t live within low-performing school districts. The program gradually expands over three years: in the first year, only poor students in “persistently lowest-achieving” schools are eligible. That grows to poor students in underperforming districts in year two, and then all poor students in years three and beyond. “Poor” is defined as a family making up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line, which would be just over $28,000 for a family of four. “Persistently lowest-achieving schools” are defined by the bill as “a public elementary or secondary school…achieving within the lowest measured group of five percent on the most recent assessment for which data is posted on PDE’s website.” 144 institutions currently fall within the category. The amended language also allows public schools to apply for voucher money in the program’s fourth year, as sponsor Jeff Piccola, a Dauphin County Republican, explained. “[Public schools] can draw down up to 500-thousand dollars to engage in a public-to-public program of their choosing and their configuration,” he said. “Plus whatever isn’t used by the public schools would go into a middle class voucher, targeting parents whose income is 130 percent of poverty up to 300 percent of poverty.” To recap: only $250 million could be spent on vouchers for poor students in average and above-average school districts, and the money saved by that cap goes to middle-class students and public schools. Funding for the vouchers program comes from the basic education subsidy the state pays local school districts. The more of a school’s students use vouchers to attend other institutions, the less state money that school gets. The Appropriations Committee also considered ten different Democratic amendments. The proposals would have limited the program to just one year; abandoned the vouchers program altogether; allowed voucher students to opt out of religious classes at private schools; and tweaked testing standards, among other changes. Every Democratic amendment was rejected on a party-line vote. The vote came a few hours after the Pennsylvania State Education Association released a poll showing 61 percent of Pennsylvanians are either “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed to a state-funded vouchers program. Piccola dismissed the results, saying pollsters can manipulate the wording of questions to get any answer they want. The question, put out by Terry Madonna Opinion Research, read, “some members of the legislature are considering legislation that would create a school voucher program in Pennsylvania. If a voucher plan were in place, it would allow parents of low-income students in public schools to use state tax dollars to attend a private, religious or parochial school of their choice. Would you favor or oppose giving parents of low-income students state tax dollars to send their child to a private, religious, or parochial school of their choice?”

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