The Anatomy of School Choice

Posted by By at 21 February, at 08 : 27 AM Print

Senate Bill 1, the opportunity scholarship act – will it educate children by opening the schoolhouse door to free enterprise or will it redirect public monies away from it, and  choke the public school system?

These are some of the questions and concerns on SB1 that were addressed during some nine hours of testimony before members of the Senate Education Committee. The committee includes Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, (R-Dauphin and York), chairman, and Sen. Anthony H. Williams, (D-Philadelphia), both co-sponsors of SB1. At times during the hearing, both of them expressed anger at some of those giving testimony.

SB 1 proposes opportunity scholarships for low-income children attending “persistently lowest-achieving schools” during the first year of the program, allowing them to attend either private or parochial schools, or other public schools. The second year, low-income children living within the attendance boundaries of lowest-achieving schools would be eligible for the scholarships. This would include those attending public or private schools. The third year, low-income children no matter where they live would be eligible for opportunity scholarships.

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. There was little argument on this portion of the bill, as it is considered to be a successful program.

“We’re designing a new system to include the private sector,” Williams said. He repeatedly expressed his concern, even anger, about children who must attend failing schools because they cannot afford to go to other schools. When he and Piccola introduced SB1, they included a list of 144 “persistently failing” schools whose students would qualify for the opportunity scholarships. Many failing schools are located in Philadelphia.

“SB1 is not an attack on public schools,” Piccola told those in the crowded hearing room. It provides for state vouchers, he said, so parents can choose the school best suited to their child’s needs, giving them a ticket to success.

But some do view SB1 as an attack on public schools.

“The bill will not serve the neediest students, strengthen pubic schools, or give all children a fair opportunity to learn,” said Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center. “The bill was designed to transfer taxpayer dollars from public schools to private and religious schools with the fewest strings attached.”

SB1 was criticized because it would transfer public money – state education funds — to private institutions. The constitutionality of this part of the proposal was questioned by several giving testimony. However, Philip J. Mirren, a lawyer who has been involved in cases related to religious freedom and the rights of parents, said that while SB1 may be challenged, it is unlikely a court would strike down “school choice legislation under any available precedent.”

The lack of accountability – both academic and financial, for those private and parochial schools enrolling scholarships students is pinpointed as a failing in SB1.

For example, Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that SB1 doesn’t require follow-up on students to determine if they are making progress after they leave public schools.

In his statement, Gentzel questioned that shortcoming, noting that “when public dollars are involved  there must be accountability to the public.” He also questioned the lack of financial accountability, as well as the cost of the proposed program. He cited costs as high as $50 million the first year, $100 million the second, and even higher costs during the third year.

Gentzel said PSBA is “unequivocally opposed to the use of publicly funded tuition vouchers that can be used to pay a student’s tuition to non-public and private schools. In short, we (PSBA) believe that SB 1 would implement a system that is unaccountable, unaffordable, unpopular, unproven and unconstitutional.”

Ted Kirsch, president of AFT Pennsylvania, made similar observations regarding accountability in his statement. “The lack of regulation, monitoring, transparency and oversight of private and parochial school operators subsidized with taxpayers funds under this bill would encourage unqualified operators to take advantage of poor families by opening fly-by-night schools, hiring unqualified teachers and taking fat salaries for themselves and their families, without providing a quality education,” Kirsch said in his statement.

Williams disagreed with such comments. “Bad charter schools would go out of business,” Williams said. “Failing public schools are still around.

”The discussions about accountability included comments regarding mandates with which public schools must comply, which private, parochial and charter schools do not. Gentzel provided a list of educational mandates that has continually increased over the years.

Piccola said that proposals calling for mandate reform, and charter school reform can be expected this spring.

Among proponents of the bill was Darlene Callands, president and CEO of Philadelphia Black Alliance for Educational Options. Some parents and children who benefit from the current EITC program accompanied her to the hearing.

“Over the past nine years, BAEO has given out 677 scholarships for parochial and private schools, with 77 percent of the scholarship money funded through the EITC program,” she said. The SAT scores and college acceptance rates of the parochial and private school students show that these schools are performing well, while public schools in Philadelphia are not.

Otto Banks, executive director of REACH Alliance and Reach Foundation, praised SB 1 for creating the scholarships for low-income families. “Choice and competition are hallmarks of SB1 and REACH believes those pillars will raise student achievement levels and improve ‘customer’ satisfaction in our education system,” he said.

Secretary of Education Designate Ron Tomalis said while there are some choices such as career and technical schools, charter and cyber schools, blended learning programs in traditional public schools, specialized private schools for children with severe disabilities and the EITC program, the range of opportunities for certain children is still insufficient.“

The injection of competition in almost any system is a natural motivator that forces each individual component of that system to improve itself. With competition comes diversity, and with diversity, adoption of programs to meet the individual needs of the student,” Tomalis said.

(Senate Piccola has taken issue with the cost figure unions’ have attached to his measure, you can read more about it by clicking on Rock The Capital.)

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