Vouchers, Parent Trigger Resurface in Pennsylvania

Published October 3, 2011

Pennsylvania lawmakers and advocacy groups say they hope to funnel students toward universities and productive careers instead of prison and indolence by introducing school vouchers and a Parent Trigger this legislative session.

“We have more than 100,000 kids trapped in 144 failing and violent schools here in Pennsylvania,” said Jay Ostrich, director of public affairs at the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation. “We have more than doubled spending in education in the past years, from $13 billion to $26 billion, and we’ve seen test scores stagnate and violence rise. We know we’re failing, and we’re hemorrhaging money to fail.”

Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said a voucher plan is one of his top priorities this fall, but disagreements between the state House and Senate may cause the plan to fall through again.

Though the Senate Education Committee approved a voucher and Parent Trigger bill (Senate Bill 1) in the spring, it failed to move farther. Several senators are working to reformulate SB 1 this session.

Giving Poor Parents Options
In an October news conference, Corbett proposed vouchers for students in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools, currently about 140 Pennsylvania schools. Families earning up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $29,000 in annual income for a family of four, would be eligible.

The governor also suggested expanding the state tax credit for businesses underwriting scholarship programs.

In the 2008-2009 school year there were more than 3,000 assaults on teachers and children in Pennsylvania, including seven rapes and more than 150 robberies in the state’s worst 5 percent of schools.

“Vouchers are incredibly important because [they] allow parents who don’t have options right now to have their children educated in a safe place,” Ostrich said. “Vouchers would help open up tens of thousands more opportunities for children. We’re not giving our children enough opportunities.”

‘Getting Closer’
“In late April we sent [SB 1] back into the education committee because at that point it was clear that we still had additional negotiations with the governor and the House. Our hope is that we’ll be able to resolve any remaining disagreements before the bill advances through the Senate. We’re getting closer.” said Erik Arneson, communications and policy director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware).

SB 1 focuses on “persistently low-achieving” public schools, defined as the lowest 5 percent of public schools in the state. Between the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC) and vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” students in these failing districts would receive state funding to attend a higher-achieving school.

The most likely bill to come from the negotiations would increase the tax credit, which funds private scholarships through tax deductions, said Otto Banks, president of the REACH Alliance, a Pennsylvania school choice advocacy group helping form the legislation. Legislators have discussed creating a sliding scale based on family income to determine the amount a voucher recipient would receive, he said.

Including vouchers and expanding the EITC will open more funding for middle- and upper-income families, since low-income children who currently receive EITC scholarships would no longer need those under the voucher system, Banks said.

Prioritizing Vouchers
“My preference for a voucher plan is that it be far more generous on the means-testing and get away from just limiting it to poor families—that it be able to be used for any school a parent wants,” said Jake Haulk, president of the Alleghany Institute for Public Policy.

Vouchers would net taxpayers a much better return on their education spending and increase the choice parents have to pick schools that fit their child best, Haulk said.

“Politically, I’m concerned,” he said. “Last year, this died on the vine. I think the governor’s job will be to convince the House, because it needs to pass this year. They need to do it this fall if they’re going to do it, before a new election year.”

Sense of Urgency
The biggest division between legislators seems to be over which funding streams to convert to vouchers and which family income levels will determine eligibility.

“We’re making progress,” Arneson said. “The range of issues has been narrowed, but we have not yet reached an agreement. We are optimistic that we will be able to work out the remaining differences and get a bill to Gov. Corbett.”

While suggesting amending Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system because 99.2 percent of teachers received a “satisfactory” rating in 2009-2010, the governor also selected natural gas regulation, liquor privatization, and transportation as additional legislative priorities, and some worry these supersede vouchers.

“We missed an opportunity in the spring, and we can’t miss an opportunity again this fall, because we are condemning thousands of citizens to failure,” Ostrich said. “We have some tremendous leaders in the House who have recognized very clearly that though these problems don’t reside in their own districts per se, they come back to affect every Pennsylvanian.”

That sense of urgency may determine how SB 1 fares in its second go-around, Ostrich said.

“You’d think with a Republican House and Senate they could all get together and say this is what we’re going to march through while we have control here,” Haulk said. “But evidently there’s a lot of friction between the Senate and the House, so things are not happening as they should. These opportunities come along rarely in a ‘blue’ state like Pennsylvania.”