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School voucher bills in Pennsylvania House rush in to beat June 30 deadline

A raft of school-choice legislative activity is at play in the Pennsylvania General Assembly with three education voucher proposals coming out of the House in the past week.

The bills vary in their proximity to the terms in SB 1, the senate bill originally sponsored by Republican Senate Education Chairman Jeffrey Piccola and Democrat Sen. Anthony Williams. The proposed law would gradually roll in a program that would provide public dollars for students of lower economic status to attend private schools. The bill has been slow to win support from conservative senators who view the legislation as too costly.

But with a June 30 deadline looming, Piccola has indicated he is open to coming up with new language towards a voucher bill. An e-mail from his office stated Piccola “welcomes the introduction of additional school voucher bills by members of the House and is more than willing to negotiate a compromise regarding years one and two and the EITC program.”

EITC stands for the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a program that rewards tax credits to families and third party groups that make funds available for low- and middle-income students to attend private schools. Williams chose not to comment on legislative activity in the lower chamber.

The bill likely to gain the most traction is House Bill 1708, proposed today by Republican Rep. Jim Christiana and sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, also a Republican.

The representative’s proposal differs from the Senate voucher bill in several ways. A narrower swath of the population would be eligible, and as a student’s household income increases, the value of the voucher will go down. Below is a breakdown of Christiana’s eligibility requirements, with FPL standing for the federal poverty line.

Up to 100 percent of the FPL: 1.0

101 percent to 150 percent of the FPL: .90

151 percent to 200 percent of the FPL: .75

201 percent to 250 percent of the FPL: .50

SB1 would cap income eligibility at 350 percent of the poverty line, the equivalent of just over $78,000 for a family of four.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an affiliate of the National Education Association, is opposed to school vouchers of any kind that use taxpayer dollars, says Wythe Keever, a spokesperson for the NEA. Keever says Christiana’s bill would cost the state $400 million, a figure based on the number of students eligible through HB 1708.

The cost is not the organization’s only concern. “There are no measures requiring students from public schools participating in the voucher program to take state-administered tests,” Keever says.

The current school choice legislation is “cloaked in this guise of helping low-income students, “ he says, “but the rhetoric is to help private students already in private schools.”

An article critical of SB 1 that appeared last week in the Patriot-News indicates the Senate’s own fiscal note projects only 8 percent of the students attending the 144 worst schools in the state will take part in the program. The authors also wrote that, “However, 65 percent of the students who would receive a voucher under the amended version of S.B. 1 are already attending a private and parochial school.”

Keever is also skeptical any school voucher bill will come before Gov. Tom Corbett–who has long endorsed a “mobile” option for public education dollars–explaining legislators have been promising a vote in both chambers since SB1 was introduced in January. While Pennsylvania’s student-age population has declined since 2006, private school enrollment has fallen nearly 15 percent since 2006 in the state compared to 3 percent in public schools.

Critics of school voucher legislation have called the proposed legislation a bailout for private schools, but Keever explains not even all Republicans have an incentive to shift tax dollars away from public schools.

“The parochial schools are clustered in and around the larger cities (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Erie, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre),” he says. “Therefore, the issue doesn’t play well with many Republican legislators representing mostly rural areas, where there are few if any private schools of any kind.”

The other two bills coming out of the House were introduced by Republican Rep. Curt Schroder yesterday. In a press release announcing the legislation, Schroder said the following:

House Bill 1679… is broad-based school choice bill that would offer a $5,000 voucher to all students who attend or live within the attendance boundaries of a persistently low achieving school. Unlike Senate Bill 1, which establishes income limits for voucher eligibility, my legislation ensures all students attending a failing school would receive a school choice option.

His other piece of legislation, House Bill 1678, would offer a $5,000 scholarship to all students regardless of income or residency.

In an article by The Pocono Record, Schroder says the costs of his proposals have not been determined, nor would he estimate how students would take advantage of his legislation.

Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, the conservative political group that has aggressively pushed for school choice expansion in Pennsylvania, told TAI that universal vouchers would be preferred, but Christiana’s proposal is a “good start.”

He said, “politics is about getting what you can; if we need to do this incrementally, we will.” Steinhauser also indicated FreedomWorks could come back in the fall to pursue legislation that would make eligible a wider swath of students.

For him, any successful school choice bill is a defeat for the teachers unions. “Teachers are good people; teachers unions are bad, ” he said. “I really believe that.”

Steinhauser opposes any lobbying group that seeks benefits from the government, but indicated FreedomWorks is out to show “teachers unions can’t control a monopoly market on education.”

However, Keever of PSEA views the involvement of FreedomWorks in Pennsylvania affairs as questionable. “They say we line the pockets of legislators with money… even though Piccola accepted donations from us.” “FreedomWorks is an outside group from out of state,” Keever says. “We’ve voters in every district of the state.”

Lawmakers have set deadlines for education legislation before June 30 to have laws on the books before the end of the fiscal year. General Assembly leaders have scrambled to piece together a budget that would honor the governor’s request of $2.6billion in spending cuts, including $1billion in public education.

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