The Pennsylvania State Senate has moved a step closer to approving legislation establishing a school voucher program for students attending schools in the Keystone State’s poorest neighborhoods.
Senate Bill 1405 by Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) would provide opportunity scholarships for low-income students who attend school in a district with at least one failing school. Families could use the scholarship for a public or private school of their choice.
The bill is scheduled for a vote when the state legislature reconvenes in January.
The state senate education committee held a daylong hearing on Williams’ Opportunity Scholarship Act in October. Lawmakers present noted afterward that the hearing was the first frank and extensive discussion of school choice in Harrisburg in more than a decade.
Taxpayer Savings Predicted
SB 1405 would allow public schools to keep half the local funding for students who transfer to another school using an opportunity scholarship. Savings generated would support a new “education innovation fund.” The fund would finance grants to chronically falling schools and scholarships for students already attending private schools.
Not since Republican Governor Tom Ridge’s administration has school choice taken center stage in Pennsylvania politics. Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee spoke in support of greater educational options. The committee hearing, which lasted 10 hours, included testimony from students, parents, attorneys, and choice advocates.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin County) said the timing of the hearing before the election was ideal for beginning a conversation about school choice leading up to the 2011 legislative session.
“For the past 15 years we have been changing the conversation about public education,” Piccola said. “Changing the focus from systems and what is best for the adults privileged to work in public education, to a focus on the customers of education: students, parents, families, employers, and of course, the taxpayers who are responsible for the bill and demand results.”
“This debate needs to be focused on concepts such as freedom, empowerment, choice, competition, and social justice,” he said.
Endorsed by Governor Hopefuls
Otto Banks, executive director of the Road to Educational Achievement Through Choice (REACH) Alliance and Foundation, agrees the time is right to advance the school choice debate. “The quality of your school should not be determined by the quality of your house,” he said.
The committee’s minority chairman, State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-West Whiteland), said the debate must be held now because the public education system no longer works and cannot fulfill its mission to provide a good education to all students.
“Our current educational system is unsustainable,” said Dinniman. “Between state, local, and federal funds, we are spending over $26 billion a year in Pennsylvania. This is more than the GNP of 70 countries around the world. Despite all this spending, approximately 25 percent of Pennsylvania students will not graduate from high school.”
School choice would mean significant savings for Pennsylvania taxpayers, he said.
‘Children Will Be Sacrificed’
Committee members heard testimony from several presenters about the fiscal impact of school choice programs in Pennsylvania and around the nation. Piccola argued the debate on education funding must change.
“For 30 years, the public education establishment has dominated the debate,” he said. “Their mantra of ‘give us more money’ has not worked.”
Williams, a longtime supporter of greater educational options for students and parents, agreed there should be a “paradigm shift” in the funding of public education nationwide.
“Look, it’s simple,” Williams said. “Give parents the cash, and systems will respond. Give systems the cash, and parents and parents and children will be sacrificed.”
Choice Programs Save Money
Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis, points out no school choice program has had a negative fiscal impact on state budgets and most save significant amounts of money.
“Between the years 1990 and 2006 school choice programs all around the nation created a total net savings of $22 million for state budgets,” said Enlow. “Even more impressive is the $422 million in savings that school choice programs created for local school districts.”
The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a Pennsylvania-based research institution, has found school choice programs in Pennsylvania are already saving the state money. Commonwealth Foundation President Matthew Brouillette says the annual cost per pupil in charter schools is $1,500 less than in conventional public schools, it’s $4,000 less in cyber charter schools, and $12,000 less for the average Educational Improvement Tax Credit scholarship.
“Add in the hundreds of thousands of children in [private] schools, the savings to the taxpayer are even greater,” Brouillette explained. “When you add up all the students not in traditional public schools due to school choice programs in Pennsylvania, taxpayers are saving more than $3.6 billion per year.”
Enlow says tax-funded vouchers are a fiscally smart way for legislators to deal with shrinking state budgets.
“If you want to get rid of your state deficit,” said Enlow, “take 25 percent of students and give them a voucher for half of what you are paying now for public education and you’ll eliminate, or come dang close to eliminating, your state’s budget deficit.”
Andrew LeFevre ([email protected]) is president and CEO of the Arizona Choice in Education Foundation.