Gearing up to sell Pennsylvania’s Scholarship Act

Posted by By at 12 January, at 08 : 32 AM Print

New opportunity scholarships for needy public school children and an increase in the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program are elements of two state senators’ plans for educational choice in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola, (R- Dauphin and York), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia), plan to introduce Senate Bill 1 (SB1), the Opportunity Scholarship Act, possibly as early as next week, Diane McNaughton told RockTheCapital.  She is deputy director of Sen. Piccola’s office. In the meantime, Piccola and Williams are expecting more senators to join the seven who have already agreed to sponsor the education proposal with them.

The new option to be offered by the proposed SB1 would be scholarships for low-income children to attend other public schools if theirs is failing. The state subsidy that would have been designated for the child’s public school would instead be used to pay tuition in the school her or his parents choose.

The proposed opportunity scholarship act would expand over a three-year period. The first year, only low-income children attending  “persistently lowest-achieving schools” would be eligible for the scholarship. The next year, low-income children living within the attendance boundaries of lowest-achieving schools would be eligible. This would include those attending public or private schools. The third year, the scholarships would be for low-income children, even if they live in the attendance area of a school that is not failing.

We have “a group of schools that have been persistently failing, unsafe and falling short of meeting the needs of our kids and families who cannot afford to move to a better school district. Our plan targets these schools and those students who are trapped,” Piccola said in a news release.

The amount of a scholarship award would be based on the state’s per-pupil subsidy to the school district in which the child lives. If a child would be awarded more money than the actual cost of tuition at the school he or she will attend, that sum would be deposited in a dedicated fund. That special account is to be used to help support the scholarship program for existing private school students in the second and third years, according to the SB1 proposal.

In a news release, Piccola and Williams said that by phasing in the plan, the financial impact would be spread out, “allowing state revenues to rebound as the recession fades and the deficit is addressed.”

The funds necessary to implement this plan were not specified, because it is uncertain how many will use the plan, McNaughton said. The proposed education program would have to be funded when the next state budget is approved.

The proposal calls for the creation of an Educational Choice Board. This board is to have three members, appointed by the governor with Senate confirmation, to serve for four-year terms. This board would be charged with developing guidelines for implementing and administering the program, according to the Piccola-Williams proposal. The board “may hire” an executive director and staff, with the state Department of Education to provide office space, funding and equipment, according the new plan. It would receive student scholarship applications, determine the scholarship amounts and distribute the awards, the memorandum said.

In addition, the proposed legislation would increase the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit program by $25 million, up from $75 million to $100 million in available tax credits.

The proposed bill, if passed into legislation, “would help those who are trapped,” Sen. Williams said. Even if schools are failing, if parents don’t have money, they can’t send their children to the schools that fit their needs. “This levels the playing field.”   Sen. Williams also called school choice “the civil rights movement of this century.”

Last year, Williams sponsored legislation to create an opportunity scholarship program, but it did not leave the education committee.  The new proposal is the result of efforts of the two senators and their staffs, as well as groups that favor school choice such as the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and REACH Alliance, according to a memorandum from Piccola seeking co-sponsors for the bill. Hearings on the issue of school choice were held last October. Hearings on the new scholarship opportunity act are expected to be held Feb. 16.

(Jan Chaplick covers education exclusively for Rock The Capital.)

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