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Finger pointing, frustration between Republicans as school voucher bill in Pa. falls flat

MahurinPointing_Thumb1_1571.jpg
MahurinPointing_Thumb1_1571.jpg

Finger pointing and agitation is quick on the heels of disappointment following a collapse in negotiations between Pennsylvania House and Senate leaders over a school voucher bill despite Republicans controlling both chambers and the governor’s office.

The state will likely have to wait until after lawmakers return from their two-month summer recess following a last-minute failure to cobble together legislation both chambers could agree. Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R), chairman of the Senate Education Committee and co-sponsor of the controversial proposed voucher legislation SB1 accused the House of being “unable or unwilling to engage in any meaningful discussions to finalize” a compromise.

That remark did not sit well with Republican Rep. Curt Schroder, who authored two bill proposals that would establish a school voucher program in the state. “All I know is that for six months [the Senate] was telling us they would send a school choice bill and they didn’t do that,” said Schroder in an interview with TAI. “Failure to do that can’t be pinned on the House. So it is beyond me as to why they’d be using that reasoning or excuse to hide behind in this instance.”

A spokesperson for House Majority Floor Leader Mike Turzai repeatedly told The American Independent the representative would consider any bill from the Senate, but as TAI has written before, the upper chamber never put a school voucher bill to a floor vote.

Brendan Steinhauser, director of state and federal campaigns for FreedomWorks, a group that at times used blunt tactics and organizing efforts to compel Republican legislators to support SB1, told TAI in an email:

I think the entire General Assembly and the Governor can share the blame for botching this. I’m especially curious to know how much PSEA money it took for Mike Turzai to find a way to kill this effort. I guess we will know soon enough, but I suspect tens of thousands. The Republican Party in Pennsylvania really missed an opportunity here, and the teachers unions are grateful for that.

For Schroder, however, the conservative group did more harm than good. “Instead of trying to shove one bill or concept down everyone’s throat they need to back off and let others of good will try to come together to form a consensus,” he said. “FreedomWorks is spewing their venom and poisoning the well.”

The representative’s criticism is consistent with the frustration Turzai’s office expressed in a previous interview with TAI, in which the spokesperson accused FreedomWorks of harassment and bullying. And both offices agree out-of-state groups like FreedomWorks need to reconsider their game plan.

Schroder puts the blame on timing as well, explaining budget negotiations for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, due June 30, pushed aside necessary dialogue between the two chambers over what a school voucher bill should look like.

“Part of the problem now is people who support school choice have not been able to agree on parameter,” he said. “We should use the summer as an opportunity and work out the differences between the chambers and versions of the bill.”

Supporters of school vouchers, which would use public funds to pay for a child’s private school tuition, were hopeful the Senate would tack on voucher language to HB1330, a proposed expansion of the state’s popular tax credit to donors subsidizing private school costs for students.

A total of five school choice bills including SB1 were on the table in the Legislature, with four attempting to create an expansive voucher program that would use public tax dollars to fund child education at a private school.

The three voucher bills in the House vary in their proximity to the terms in SB 1. One would place no income eligibility or geographic restrictions on who could qualify for the tuition vouchers, set at $5,000. Another proposed law, written by Republican Rep. Jim Christiana, is more restrictive than the Senate version, capping the income eligibility to 250 percent of the federal poverty line versus the upper chamber’s 350 percent. A third bill would grant $5,000 to students enrolled in a persistently struggling public school. TAI has written extensively on what each bill entails and their associated costs.

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