Pattye Benson

Community Matters

School Voucher Discussion Continues in Harrisburg, Sen. Dinniman Offers Possible Solutions to SB1 Issues

Yesterday in Harrisburg, the Senate Education Committee held a hearing to discuss the Opportunity Scholarship and Education Improvement Tax Credit Act (SB1), the proposed school voucher legislation. We understand that in the first year, SB1 would provide approximately $9,000 in voucher dollars to low-income students enrolled in the 144 worst performing schools in the state. The second year of the proposed legislation would provide school voucher dollars to all low-income students who live within the boundaries of those 144 schools. If I understand correctly, the average cost to educate a student in Pennsylvania is more than $16,000 and a school voucher student would bring in $9,000. The school district would retain the difference, approximately $7,000. In the end, more money per student would remain in the school.

The Senate hearing included some proposed changes to SB1, specifically how the school voucher program would work in the third year. As currently written the proposed legislation would expand the statewide school voucher program to include all students in the third year. Although a school choice supporter, Sen. Andy Dinniman presented a pair of amendments to address some of the concerns of the proposed school voucher legislation. One of his SB1 amendments addresses the cost of the proposed school voucher program (specifically in the third year) and funding issues. Dinniman’s other amendment responds to teacher union and school board concerns in regards to accountability issues of the proposed voucher program.

As a way to handle the costs of expanding the school voucher program to all students in the third year, Dinniman proposes using the state’s existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. The current EITC program is funded by contributions made by businesses and is directed toward income-eligible students to help them to attend private or parochial schools. For their contributions, businesses receive a 70 percent tax credit (although Dinniman suggests lowering the tax credit to 65 percent).

This suggestion by Dinniman would reduce the high cost of extending the school voucher program statewide as the SB1 legislation currently suggests. There are projections that the implementation of the third year program in its current form, could range from $500M to $1B, depending on the number of students enrolled in the program. Since its implementation in 2001, the EITC program has benefited 244,000 students. Dinniman’s school voucher program would expand the EITC program, doubling the business contributions from $75M to $150M to help with school voucher funding.

Much discussion surrounding the SB1 legislation is concern over accountability in private and parochial schools. Dinniman’s suggestion to handle these concerns would be to mandate that students who leave the public school program must participate in the state’s standardized testing system. In theory I understand that the Senator is trying to address the educational standard concern that some may have over private schools but I am not sure how this proposed ‘standardized testing’ would work.

Use this as an example – Suppose a student decides to use the school voucher program, leaves the public school system and is enrolled in a private school. The private school has its own teaching methods and programming which may (or may not) align itself yearly to the curriculum of the state’s public school system. Perhaps, the private school teaches algebra in 7th grade and geometry in 8th grade whereas the public school reverses the order and teaches geometry in 7th grade and algebra in 8th grade. The seventh grade school voucher student is given the standardized math test, which includes geometry. However, this student is attending a private school that does not include geometry in the curriculum until 8th grade. As a result, the private school student (using the school voucher program) does poorly on the test. Obviously, this is a simplistic example of what could be a possible problem with mandating standardized testing in the private school arena.

Another possible problem but probably more easily addressed — the actual scheduling of the standardized testing. The school voucher student in the private school would have to ‘sit’ for the standardized testing and the scheduling of the testing may not be amenable to the private school schedule. It is my understanding that Sen. Dinniman’s two amendments are in the drafting stage, so I am confident that the accountability issues will be thoroughly vetted and a solution reached.

We know that the state’s teachers unions are generally opposed to the SB1 legislation as currently written. Michael Cross, VP of Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) reports that the union is open to further discussion if the legislation is amended. They would look at each of the amendments and see if it adequately meets the needs of the students. Although unwilling to comment specifically on Dinniman’s proposed amendment changes, Cross did remark that he would not support an amendment that takes funding from any of the state’s current education subsidies. Remember, Dinniman’s proposal to address SB1 funding concerns, doubles the EITC contribution.

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  1. if this program is based on giving another opportunity (or option) to students who are enrolled in the 144 worst performing schools in the state, i think it is toally reasonable to expect that these private school align themselves to the time frames and testing required to see what the actual performance is in their new school……of course they should be gauged on the same parameters as their public school counterparts especially if they are using tax payer money. I have had children in both public and Catholic schools and have seen no significant difference except that Catholic schools have the ability to refuse admissions.

    1. I agree. How will we know if our money is being spent wisely if there is no accountability for private schools? I would anticipate more and more charters opening around the state in order to capitalize on this Bill. How will we know that these schools are not just profit making enterprises?
      Private schools will have to adjust their schedules and curriculums in order to get the $.

  2. I have a few questions about the plan for the 3rd year, when vouchers would be available for everyone, not just low-income students.

    Will parents be allowed to “make up” the difference between the amount of the vouchers ($9K) and the actual costs of either a private or public school – regardless of the school district in which they reside?

    Will there eventually be in-district and out-of-district cost schedules?

    Would those parents who home-school their kids receive the equivalence of the vouchers – either in a direct cash payment or as a tax credit?

    I’m trying to understand all of the implications of this proposal…if anyone knows the details of the plan, please post.

    1. Sure, families can “make up” the difference by paying the tuition not covered by the voucher. But the poor and disadvantaged kids targeted by the bill come from families that will never be able to afford the additional tuition, effectively limiting their choices to schools that cost $9,000 or less. Again, as I have pointed out many times elsewhere, the “choice” offered by vouchers is illusory.

      As for giving home school families an equivalent in cash or tax cerdits – this just makes no sense whatsoever. If they want to use a voucher to pay tuition at a private school, fine. But give them cash? Why on earth would the state want to do that?

    2. Another thought regarding the plan going state-wide:
      I don’t know the details, but as I understand it the bill would offer the state’s education subsidy equivalent dollars in the form of a voucher. But the state subsidy is far, far, less than $9000 in affluent districts like T/E, for example. T/E gets a very small percentage of its budget from the state. If the value of the voucher is tied to the state subsidy in the specific district, and not on some arbitrary benchmark, then the real value of the voucher in many districts will be very insignificant.

      1. Constitutional,

        Let’s remember that vouchers are meant for students in failing schools. As far as I can tell none of the schools are failing in TE. Demand for vouchers in TE would be insignificant and the small value of TE vouchers** is a non-issue.

        Universally, failing schools are in low socioeconomic areas with high basic education support from the State.

        **The basic education State subsidy to TE is about $3M for 6,000 students or $500 per student.

  3. Come on, John, a $50 decrease in a tax credit for a $1,000 business contribution may technically result in a tax increase but is hardly a disincentive – compared to the much more modest tax benefit for individual taxpayers. They enjoy a maximum 35% benefit.

    The EITC will remain a very attractive way for businesses to support education.

    If a 7% deduction in the tax benefit of the EITC offsets the huge additional cost of implementing a statewide voucher program, it is fiscally prudent.

    However, any reasonale person should ask why our beleaguered state would consider a program that will cost a projected $500 million -$1 billion when fully implemented. Just imagine how education dollars could be better used to improve existing public school programs and expand charter schools.

    S.B. 1 is a gift to parochial and private schools and an attempt to dismantle the underperforming public schools instead of fixing them.

  4. A couple of bloggers above have suggested that private schools should be required to conform their curriculum and schedules to accomodate standardized state testing, and should submit to other controls and accountability (similar to that required of public schools) in order to qualify for public money.

    This only further illustrates the problems inherent in mixing public and private, in blurring the line between two separate spheres of action that were originally contemplated as separate, and which should remain so.

    Private schools will not willingly submit to public control. They will understandably resist conforming to the same schedules, curriculum, and standards imposed on public schools. Essentially, they will want the public money without the corresponding government contol and interference. I expect this will be especially apparent in the case of religious schools.

    Ironically, they may use the “constitutional” argument in reverse – claiming that the government has no power to regulate their private conduct.

  5. While I was a student of private schools, and my mother and Uncle both worked as teachers and later administrators of top private schools (my uncle was a headmaster on a few occasions), I can say I’m very much NOT in favor of vouchers.

    There is a major benefit to society to have everyone get a good basic level of education. I strongly believe that while some students may benefit (mostly those with already-involved parents, though that’s arguable, given the self-selection by motivated parents), the vast majority of the students will be worse off.

    A few students with motivated parents will win. While they would have done better than their peers anyways, they’ll do even better in a better school, especially with that parental support. The students left behind will lose. The argument that some of the money is “left behind” is bogus – most costs of a school are fixed – heat, maintenance, administration, teachers (to a large degree). Taking a single student out of a school will not cut the costs at that school by $9000-10000, and if it doesn’t, then the remaining students will suffer.

    They’ll also suffer in ways not directly related to funding – with the ‘good’ students, those with parents who care and who stayed out of trouble, leaving them behind, the remaining students won’t have peer support, won’t have role models among the students, will have more-disruptive (and less safe) classes – and they’ll know they’re being abandoned. Try to imagine what it would be like in that school, in those classes. Senator Leach had it right in his discussion today on WHYY with Senator Williams – this is nothing short of giving up on those schools and abandoning the majority of the students in them – washing our hands of them, in order to help parochial and evangelical schools, and to woo religious and conservative voters.

    Make no mistake, while the EITC reduces the apparent cost to the state, the majority of it comes straight from state revenues, which in the end means it comes from state funds for education, just indirectly, and increases the deficit.

    And these arguments haven’t even touched on the constitutional aspect – I find school vouchers to be in practice a direct attempt to subvert the constitutional separation of church and state. Proponents with religious goals are exploiting the most-at-risk and most disadvantaged in order to move towards their real goal – financial support for religious schools, and for parents to move their kids to religious schools. I’m not saying all supporters of vouchers have that goal, but a large block of them do. They also hope that once established and part of standard practice, the other money “left behind” will end up following the students, which will especially end up helping religious schools (and parents) in more-affluent districts that get little money from the state – and finishing off the destruction of the poor schools and the destruction of the futures for students in those areas, or effectively forcing those students to go to religious schools.

  6. Randall,

    I’d like to challenge the notion that “most costs of a school are fixed”. The school budgets I’m familiar with have about 50% of the budget for teacher salaries and another 20% for administrators and support staff. The next biggest pieces are debt service for buildings, energy costs and special education costs. You’ll also find that those percentages hold constant for schools of sizes between 1,000 and 10,000 students.

    If a school experiences a “substantial” drop in enrollment or closes a school, teachers and administrators can be furloughed. Support staff can be terminated at will if there is no collective bargaining agreement. So, while downsizing is not easy, schools can be closed and employees removed. Most costs are NOT fixed!

    I’m also having problems with your idea that students with motivated parents should be trapped in failing schools so they can be “role models” for the “more disruptive and less safe” students. I wonder if your outlook would change if your child was trapped in a failing, disruptive, unsafe environment.

    I’m unsure if SB1 is constitutional. I’ll leave that to the courts.

    1. Not all are fixed – but a lot are, and many more aren’t directly or quickly changeable. Just because 50% of a budget is teachers doesn’t mean if 10% of the students leave suddenly that you’ll save 10% on teachers, or security (much bigger in those schools than TE), or administration. Perhaps you may eventually get close to that, but I could also see them never even getting close to that.

      If 5 or 10% of the students use the vouchers, the savings on teachers and administrators would be minimal. The best you would likely get would be a small reduction in class sizes, but you still need nurses, security guards, administrators, heating, lighting, water/sewer, snow removal, repairs, debt service, etc. Would you save some? Probably, though to save anywhere near a proportional amount would need reshuffling, downsizing, merging, etc. Possible, but can’t be done overnight.

      Then there’s year two:

      “In the second year, when students currently attending non-public schools become eligible to apply, thousands more students could become eligible for the program (there are 30,000 students in Philadelphia’s Catholic school system, for example),and the cost could therefore be much greater. And since these non-public students were not attending Philadelphia public schools previously, they would not be “taking their money with them.””

      And yes, proponents see SB1 as a stepping stone to broad use of vouchers in all districts, and not limited to state-supplied funds or low-income students; their end goal is to have all students be able to take the full per-student amount, including local tax money. Some of them dislike SB1 because they think the step-by-step approach will fall short – but the backers don’t.

      Philadelphia schools *have* made progress: 24 to 51% in reading at grade level in 8 years and 20 to 57% in math. *Lots* more to do, but the money that has gone into those schools has made a difference. They’re changing a bunch to Renaissance schools, where they can change the staff and teachers.

    2. As I have pointed out in detail on other threads in this blog, vouchers are totally unconstitutional in PA. I expect they will not make it through the court challenge.

  7. C’mon Randall,

    The only fixed cost at TE is the 5% of the budget dedicated to debt service which has to be paid by law. A 10 % reduction in students CAN result in a 10% spending decrease. Sure, it’s an effort to reshuffle, downsize, merge and close schools. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done. And remember the district gets to keep the local portion of funding to help them through the transition.

    I’m happy that some Philadelphia schools have made progress. If so, then they shouldn’t see an exodus of students. For those Philadelphia schools that are chronic under performers I hope you would support the children in their attempt to get a better education elsewhere. Or do you think they should be denied a better opportunity? Should they have to wait a few years for things to, maybe, get better?

    1. By saying that a 10% decrease in enrollment could amount to a 10% decrease in spending I assume that you are expecting teacher furloughs to be a significant component of the expense reduction. But this premise is flawed, the furloughs would occur at the lowest levels of the salary matrix first, and working the way up. So in essence the furloughs (layoffs) would result in a disproportionately lower reduction of salaries to the enrollment decrease. Ultimately resulting in a higher cost per student within the district with no expectation whatsoever of an increase in quality of the education.

      There are many, many fixed costs and disproportionate reductions within the budget. Schools, like many other businesses benefit significantly from economies of scale.

  8. I read SB1 and you can too. It is 48 pages. People who home school, you can not access the funds. The bill specifically says not to you. The figure $9,000 is an example, as I understand it, is based on the Harrisburg District of Sen. Piccola. The money from the district follows the child. Some will carry more than $9,000 with them depending on the home district’s per pupil expenditure annually. Some will carry less. What it does is decrease the funds left in your local district while it will still cost as much to run the district. Also, it comes down to taxation without representation if the bill passes because there is no public redress process. The Bill specifies that the only challenge to the law is through the state supreme court as it decides on the Bill’s constitutionality. If you do not want your local tax dollars for education reassigned to non-public schools, or to some for of church school, contact your senator and representative and express you objections. The bill does not address improving schools for the students whose families make an income above the poverty rate, and who remain in the schools from which funds have been depleted.

  9. Isn’t it interesting that SB1 sponsor State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams is linked to a failing charter school AND received almost all of the campaign money for his campaign for governor FROM charter school owners. Hmmmm…..the following is from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

    “Academically, the charter (Hard Williams Charter School) has failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks for the last three years. And, despite receiving taxpayer money, the school did not file federal tax returns for five years. Last school year, the school received $9.2 million.

    Williams, whose candidacy was boosted by $3.2 million in contributions from supporters of charters and school vouchers, pledged that the school would do better. He cited the school’s leadership under a seasoned executive, its new principal, and an increasing number of certified teachers.

    “At the end of the year, I want to measure it based on academic outcomes,” said Williams, who remains on the school’s board although he stepped down as chair in September. “I’m pretty tough on everybody. I don’t want excuses and neither do parents.”

    The charter, which enrolls 807 students from kindergarten through ninth grade, has posted test scores that lag the state’s and the district’s.”

  10. “There is no way for the school district to guard against this. ”

    I beg to differ… In Mt. Pleasant, we have some strange man who sits in his car at the beginning of the school year, right across from the bus stop at the corner of Upper Gulph and Mt. Pleasant Avenue. (The parents here were a little freaked out by this…thinking the man might be some sort of pervert or stalker.) I’ve been told he was hired by the school district to make sure that that that the kids boarding the bus actually live in the neighorhood.

    1. Who told you that….that’s kind of a key piece of information missing. Were you officially told, or has someone concluded that?
      Perhaps there is a history of kids coming from that area who are dropped off by relatives to another location to come to TESD. Mt. Pleasant is on the edge of Upper Merion, which by many is considered an inferior district to TESD, so a simple drop off is not beyond imagination.
      Culturally, therre may be kids who claim residence with their parents/grandparents in Mt. Pleasant but may in fact live with a relative who is their legal or custodial guardian but does not live here.

  11. John,

    You are correct. When I was on the board, evey once in a while we learned of a student attending illegally. There is a process used in such cases to expel the student and bill the parents for the cost of the time the student attended our schools. The theory of restitution is essentially theft of services.

    Of course the motivation is to attend a better school. Is it possible- even likely – that there are students attending illegally at any given time, ones who don’t get caught? Answer – yes.

  12. As a taxpayer, you should make the district aware of anyone who is gaming the system. It’s theft of services. There is a policy in place that allows seniors to continue to attend CHS if their parents move some specific distance away, which is pretty generous and kid-friendly. The rules require that you sleep in the place that you claim as home. If you are not legally living at that address (legal guardian or parent), then you are stealing. The only way for the district to manage that is for residents to report it. Failure to report is not very responsible.

      1. But isn’t that equally irresponsible? Suggesting that there are kids gaming the system, without having specific knowledge?

  13. John, before you accuse the school district of racism in residency investigations, perhaps you should check your facts.

    Ask any current or former School Board member, and you’ll find that there are numerous residency cases brought by the school district every single year. They wouldn’t be able to discuss cases by name (due to privacy rights for minors), but they can certainly explain to you how students are selected.

    Generally, the district receives a tip from someone in a neighborhood or another parent at the bus stop. Sometimes a student will even mention to another student or to a teacher that they don’t really live in the district. Or perhaps the mail sent to the student’s address will be returned because it turns out that the address doesn’t exist. There are many things that would trigger a residency investigation, and it is really wrong of you to imply that racism is a factor.

    If there is an investigator in Christine’s neighborhood, it is likely because someone in Christine’s neighborhood tipped off the school district or mentioned their suspicions.

    When a non-resident student comes to the school district, it hurts everyone in the school district– especially when there are funding shortfalls. It’s not cheap for the district to educate students (around $17-18k per student), and it’s a good thing that TE is among the strictest districts in the region for investigating non-resident students.

    1. Racism has never been a factor. “Really John?” is correct in pointing out some of the ways the school administration might become aware of a non-resident student. Decisions to enforce are entirely based upon residency or lack thereof. I was on the board for 8 years and I don’t believe I ever saw even a hint of racism.

      Having said that, John Petersen is right that enforcement is difficult and that someone might make an allegation of racial motivation. I’m sure JP did not intend to say that T/E is racist, only that someone might make that allegation in a particular case.

  14. School Observer — I imagine there would be a record of payment for these services. Also, maybe a record of calls made to the authorities regarding “suspicious persons”.

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