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School voucher fight shapes up in Pennsylvania

School voucher legislation is taking center stage again in Pennsylvania after stakeholders spent the summer recess evaluating how a GOP-led Legislature and governor’s mansion failed to see through any of the five school choice bills in the previous legislative session.

Yesterday Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a scaled-back voucher package that would only permit the lowest rung of families to move their children from low-performing schools into private schools. The language is similar to a piece of legislation proposed by Republican Rep. Jim Christiana in last season’s legislative session. The American Independent outlined his bill here.

The governor also wants to expand a tax credit program that rewards businesses and families for raising scholarship money towards private school enrollment, called the Expanding the existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). The House approved the measure before the summer recess, but the senate failed to take the bill to a vote. SB1, a bi-partisan proposed voucher law introduced in the senate, never came out of committee despite much fanfare and hype.

“We are on board with the reforms [the governor] suggested, “says Brendan Steinhauser, director of state and federal campaigns at FreedomWorks in an exchange with TAI. “We are ramping up the emails, phone calls and other grassroots activity around the state in the days and weeks to come.”

FreedomWorks had an outsized presence in the Keystone state in the final weeks before the legislation session closed in June, even rattling Republican lawmakers who felt their aggressive campaigning for a package of school choice laws did more harm than good.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) opposes the renewed interest in vouchers, arguing the governor’s priorities are mislaid following a 2011-2012 budget authorization that cut $900million from public education spending. PSEA is a state affiliate of the largest teachers union in the U.S., The National Education Association.

“No matter how you slice, Pennsylvania public schools have fewer resources than last year,” PSEA spokesperson Wythe Keever told TAI. “Governor Corbett refused to go along with extra funding despite the fact when the budget was signed there was an additional $700million in surplus revenue available to the commonwealth and he refused to use it.”

Michael Wood, a research director at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning non-profit, told TAI the 2010-2011 fiscal year enjoyed a $786million budget surplus as a result of better than projected revenue. Roughly $300million is expected to come in this year over the revenue haul from 2010-2011, Wood adds.

While a voucher program would not directly pull money from public school spending, education and healthcare take up the lion’s share of the general fund budget, meaning money to subsidize a child’s private school tuition with tax dollars would likely hurt public school spending.

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