Pa. senate approves plan for taxpayer-funded school-tuition vouchers

Posted: October 27, 2011

HARRISBURG - The push for school choice cleared its first major legislative hurdle - but not its last - when the state Senate voted Wednesday to provide taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for impoverished students in failing public schools.

The upper chamber approved, 27 to 22, a measure that would extend vouchers to low-income families with children in the bottom 5 percent of poor-performing public schools..

The bill would help families with incomes of $29,000 or less transfer their children to private or parochial schools by offering them state-funded vouchers of anywhere from $5,765 to $13,905, depending on the district. In the second year, the vouchers would also be offered to low-income students already attending private schools.

The bill mirrors many of the school choice proposals that the Corbett administration supports, and the governor on Wednesday called it "a strong education reform package that will help improve opportunities for thousands of school children throughout Pennsylvania."

Although proponents hailed Wednesday's Senate action as a victory for their cause, the bill faces an uncertain future.

The House has shown considerably less enthusiasm for tackling vouchers. Asked about it Wednesday, House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) made no promise to take up the voucher bill before the end of the year.

"We haven't really vetted vouchers," Smith said. "It's not something we're going to take up in the next couple of weeks."

Only five scheduled session weeks remain before the legislature breaks in December.

Aside from providing vouchers, the Senate bill would boost the number of charter schools by giving school boards expanded powers to convert public schools to charters. It would also set new academic and fiscal standards.

In addition, the measure would lift the $75 million cap on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide tuition funding for low-income students. The EITC program would increase to $100 million, with more hikes planned in future years.

"This is the most significant effort at education reform in well over a decade," Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), one of the main sponsors of the bill, said as the measure was being debated Wednesday.

Added Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), another key sponsor: "Families should not suffer because their local school is not providing their child with a quality education . . .. These families are one step closer from freeing themselves from the trap of failing education."

Most Democrats in the chamber disagreed.

"This is a death spiral for public education," said Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), decrying the state's failure to adequately fund public schools. "Lower test scores, fewer in college, condemning those left behind to a lifetime of suffering, all because we don't have guts to fix their schools."

In all, 17 districts in the state have schools that would qualify for vouchers, according to a list prepared by the Senate Education Committee.

The districts include Philadelphia, where 88 schools would fall under the voucher umbrella, and where the tuition help would average $6,779; Delaware County's Chester Upland district, with six schools and vouchers averaging $9,984; and Delaware County's William Penn district, with three schools and vouchers averaging $5,836.

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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