Setbacks for PA Vouchers, School Choice Legislation

Published December 16, 2011

The Pennsylvania House’s Republican majority could not find enough consensus on a voucher bill to bring it to the floor for a vote before lawmakers suspended the session for Christmas. On the same day, the House shot down education tax credit and charter school expansions by a 105-90 vote.

Gov. Tom Corbett (R) had designated vouchers one of four priorities for the two-year legislative session. Pennsylvania’s legislature meets throughout the year, so the intra-party disagreements may mean a vote on the vouchers bill may be held off until after the 2012 elections.

The state Senate passed both proposals in October in Senate Bill 1. Corbett’s press secretary said the governor still expects school choice bills to pass this session.

“Legislatively, nothing is ever dead,” said House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin. “Right now, the votes on either side of the aisle aren’t there.”

SB 1 included vouchers for low-income families in the state’s 144 lowest-performing, largely urban schools, but the House GOP caucus could not muster majority approval in a closed-door meeting even on an amendment limiting that proposal to a five-year pilot for approximately 60 schools.

“For a second straight year, Pennsylvania legislators put their petty internal squabbles above the children’s needs,” said Marc Oestreich, an education policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. “In a state where not one but several school choice proposals were offered, the governor was vocal in his support, and education is in desperate need of a helping hand, politicians faltered.”

‘A Myriad of Issues’
Caucus members raised a variety of objections to the voucher proposal, Miskin said. These included a sense public schools in their districts were successful, concerns over removing funds from public education directly after federal education funding cuts, and disagreements over the state’s current school funding formula.

“I defy anybody to say this is one problem—it’s a whole myriad of issues,” Miskin said. “When you fix this one issue here, all of a sudden you turn off seven other people over there. That’s one of the reasons the approach we were trying to take is not having an omnibus bill.”

In addition to introducing vouchers, SB 1 created a state charter school authorizer, addressed teacher evaluations, and expanded the state’s tax credits for business donations to private-school scholarships.

Suburbanites and Special Interests
Jay Ostrich, public affairs director for the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, fingered two other reasons for the stalemate: Republican representatives’ constituencies, and special interests.

“Republican representatives are from suburban, not urban failing districts,” he said. “Their schools are working, they believe. They’re hearing from their constituents, “Our schools are working. We don’t want to change. [But] the failure in some of our schools, whether in your district or not, is costing your constituents dearly.”

At the schools where the vouchers bill would have applied, two in three students were not proficient in math or English on state tests. In the class of 2010, 34,000 Pennsylvanian students dropped out, which will cost them $8.4 billion in lifetime earnings. These schools averaged one act of violence every 17 minutes, Ostrich said.

“Our special interests are so deeply rooted within the political scene in Pennsylvania, we have legislators who seem like they are willing to sacrifice the interests of children on the altar of self-interest,” he continued.

‘Educational Lifeline’
Pennsylvania reformers have been trying to implement vouchers since the mid-1990s. Corbett has made the reform a priority of his administration since arriving in office in 2010. Pennsylvania legislators will likely keep the issue afloat.

“This could drag out until [the end of session],” Miskin said. “I don’t think it will—nobody wants it to. We’re trying to get it done, but need to get a consensus among ourselves. That will take as long as it takes.” 

While legislators dicker, Pennsylvania’s poorest schoolchildren wait, Ostrich said.

“We’re asking for any legislator to answer a few questions,” he said. “One, would they allow their son or daughter to attend these schools? And, two, what are these children supposed to do if we’re not going to throw them an educational lifeline?” 


Image by Martin Taylor.