School choice – You either love it or hate it; there seems no middle ground. The same is true for a new school choice plan proposed by Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola, (R- Dauphin and York), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia).
School choice is considered to be an option for children’s education other than attending traditional public schools. Those who favor school choice say it offers alternatives to children who aren’t getting a quality education because their public schools are failing. Those who oppose it say that takes taxpayer money away from public schools and put it into private hands.
Sen. Piccola and Sen. Williams on Tuesday introduced Senate Bill 1 (SB1), the Opportunity Scholarship Act, will establish opportunity scholarships for needy children to be phased in over three years. The proposal in the first year would allow parents of needy children in failing schools to use the child’s state subsidy and apply it to the public, private or parochial school they choose, according to a news release issued by the senators. By the third year of the program, any needy child could apply for an opportunity scholarship.
The Piccola-Williams proposal also would increase the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program by $25 million.
Among those groups favoring school choice is the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
“We’re 100 percent behind it,” Sean P. McAleer told RockTheCapital about the proposed SB1. McAleer is director of elementary and secondary education of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, one of the organizations credited by Piccola for working with him and Williams to develop the new plan.
“It will offer disadvantaged families options they would never have without it. The proposal will help those who are less fortunate and who really need the help,” McAleer said. “This will change education in Pennsylvania.”
He lauded the opportunity that the proposal would create to allow a needy child to transfer not only from a public to a private school, but also from one public school to another, if the child’s original school is failing.
The two Senators identified more than 140 public schools –“lowest performing schools” — whose needy students would be eligible for opportunity scholarships under the proposal. Some Harrisburg city schools are included on the list, though most of the failing schools are in Philadelphia.
With 144 schools considered failing, McAleer said, that could mean that 88,000 children could be eligible to apply for opportunity scholarships.
In addition, McAleer said, changes proposed for the EITC program in SB1 could double the amount of money available for scholarships awarded through that program.
But there are skeptics. “We’re taking your money and mine and giving it to private and religious schools,” Lawrence A. Feinberg told RockTheCapital. He’s a member of the Haverford Twp. School Board and co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition.
He said that private and religious schools are not required to administer standardized tests as public schools are, are not subject to the same mandates, and are not required to open their financial books to the public as public schools are.
SB 1 would be “a direct take-away from public schools that need the money,” said Joe Bard, executive director of Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.
The Piccola-Williams plan proposes that the amount of an opportunity scholarship award would be based on the state’s per-pupil subsidy to the school district in which the child lives.
But Mark Miller, a member of the Centennial School Board in Warminster, said that this plan would hurt school districts. Even if a child is educated elsewhere, the school district still has to pay its fixed costs which are covered under the state subsidy, he said. The Centennial School Board unanimously adopted a resolution opposing SB1 on the same day the details of the proposal were announced. Miller said he expects other districts to take similar action.
Katrina Currie, a spokesman for the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, said that otherschools are able to educate children for less than public schools, and competition should improve schools all around. She noted that a recent poll showed that 50 percent of Pennsylvanians supported school vouchers, another term for state funds for alternative schooling.
Otto Banks, executive director of REACH Alliance, an organization dedicated to school choice, said ‘We’re all excited and pleased that both sides of the aisle joined together so that every child in Pennsylvania has access to a quality education.
“SB1 would redefine school choice” for Pennsylvanians, Banks said. Until SB1, school choice has been considered to be a choice of private, charter/cyber schools or home-schools. If SB1 is enacted, it would allow parents to choose other public schools for their children, he said.
Tim Allwein, assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, called the proposal “problematic.” Currently, school districts receive students from other districts on a case-by-case basis. Receiving a number of students from another district raises issues like transportation that would have to be addressed.
Allwein also asks the question that plagues many in the public schools: What will happen to those schools that are considered failing if opportunity scholarship-eligible students leave?
Feinberg has the same concern. “We can’t pick and choose students the way private or parochial schools can. If motivated parents take out their motivated children, we’ll still need to educate the children who remain,” no matter what their issues are, Feinberg said. “What’s the plan for that? I’m not hearing an answer.”
“There should be legislation addressing the issues in those schools,” Allwein says, “and not firing all the teachers, converting them to charter schools, or closing them, but actually addressing” the problems.
Miller agreed. “The state should satisfy adequacy and equity in education – fix our schools before starting to send kids to private schools,” he said.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association has consistently opposed taxes funding private and religious schools, Wythe Keever, assistant communications director of PSEA told RockTheCapital.
“It’s not a surprise that PSEA would be opposed to this proposal,” he said.
(Rock The Capital’s Scott Paterno has sized up SB1 and he favors it.)
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