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Wisconsin and Pennsylvania lawmakers can’t agree on statewide school voucher expansion

Legislatures in two states that school choice advocates were hoping would pass statewide voucher programs are struggling to corral enough lawmaker support.

Wisconsin and Pennsylvania each have governors that support using taxpayer money to subsidize student enrollment in private schools. And while key players in the school choice movement — a coalition of wealthy investors, prominent Democrats, frustrated minority groups and many Republicans — agree on the core principle of providing an outlet to needy children in struggling school districts, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Tom Corbett (R-Pa) would like to expand their respective states’ voucher programs to all students; Walker would like to lift income eligibility requirements for his state’s voucher program.

In addition, both governors appeared at a national policy summit this week in Washington, D.C., for major school interest group, American Federation for Children, to tout vouchers and the progress school-choice proposals were making in their respective states.

In the Badger state, such an expansive role for vouchers is being met with pushback from the governor’s own party. The GOP president of the state Senate, Mike Ellis (Neenah), told the Journal Sentinel, “We have problems with the elimination of the income threshold because the idea behind this program was to help poverty-stricken students who don’t have the wherewithal to go to private school.” The senator used stronger language in a follow-up: “This is a complete blowing up of that concept. Throw this (new proposal) in and I have to do some serious thinking about the rest of this.”

Milwaukee, the only city in Wisconsin with school vouchers, is a model for school choice advocates and has the longest running program of its kind in the country. Professor Howard L. Fuller of Marquette was instrumental in arguing for the inception of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program in 1990, but in recent weeks, has voiced opposition to lifting the income qualifications associated with the voucher program. In an op-ed that appeared in the Sentinel, Fuller wrote:

The governor’s plan would dramatically change the program’s social justice mission and destroy its trailblazing legacy as the first and still one of the few in the nation that uses public dollars to help equalize the academic options for children from low-income and working-class families. I did not join this movement to subsidize families like mine, which may not be rich but have resources and, thus, options.

Fuller also attended the national policy summit in Washington this week; numerous speakers paid tribute to Fuller throughout the two-day event.

On Wednesday, the state assembly of Wisconsin passed AB 92, which would lift income eligibility requirements in the voucher program of Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the lower and upper chambers of the state legislature are at a standstill over how far-reaching a proposed school choice bill should be. The House has been reluctant to institute a full voucher program, instead preferring to expand the state’s ten-year-old Educational Improvement Tax Credit. <a href="http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/breaking/s_736328.html">From the Pittsburgh Tribune Review:</a

Under the House bill, the $60 million available for tax credits would increase to $100 million for the 2011-12 school year and $200 million in 2012-13. Income eligibility limits for a family of four would increase from $50,000 to $60,000 next school year and to $75,000 after June 30, 2012.

Though the bill was approved with a strong majority, 190-7, on Wednesday in the House, Senate Chair of the Education Committee Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, (R-Dauphin County), called the bill dead-on-arrival. He is co-sponsoring SB 1, legislation that would offer a voucher program to all low-income students throughout the state. SB 1 also includes an EITC spending increase. SB 1′s other co-sponsor, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) has stated earlier the passage of his bill could compel other legislatures in surrounding states to pursue similar legislation.

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