Pattye Benson

Community Matters

school vouchers

Much Awaits PA Legislators – Privatization of State Liquor System, School Vouchers, Redistricting and Marcellus Shale drilling policy

There is much awaiting lawmakers when they return to Harrisburg tomorrow. Several major areas require legislator’s attention before they depart for the winter holidays in three weeks – privatizing the state liquor system, school voucher program, proposed redistricting and natural gas drilling policy of Marcellus shale.

Since taking office last January, Gov. Corbett has been unwavering on certain agenda items, including the privatization of the state liquor system and pushing a school voucher program. Much has been discussed on these topics over the past 11 months and Corbett is seeking resolution by the close of 2011.

Speaking of the state liquor system, did you see that the PA Liquor Control Board has changed the rule on shipping alcohol? Shipping wine or liquor to PA residents was previously prohibited, but the LCB quietly changed the rule last week. Just in time for the holidays, residents can order from LCB’s online Fine Wine & Good Spirits store for home delivery.

This is a service that wine fans in the rest of the country take for granted but now is available to Pennsylvanians. However, the UPS delivery is pricey, $14 for up to 3 bottles, then $1 for each additional bottle delivered.

Initially I was excited about the change, until I realized that the new shipping rule was only applicable if you were purchasing wine from the LCB — buying from out-of-state wineries is still off-limits!

We know that Corbett wants the state out of the liquor business. A private firm reporting to Corbett has released a Public Finance Management Report that estimates a return of up to $1.6 billion for privatizing the state liquor system. So why bother rolling out an alcohol delivery program on the eve of this vote?

Another important agenda item for Corbett since taking office is the school voucher program. Corbett has been transparent in his push for a voucher system, which would permit money to go to parochial and private schools. One of the foundations of this country is the plan for children from all backgrounds to go to school together but if Corbett gets his way, a legislative vote may change public school education in Pennsylvania.

Although the state constitution prohibits using public money to send children to private schools, Corbett and other advocates of school vouchers, think they have a way around that legal matter. Instead of giving the money directly to private schools, they will give the money to parents who in turn give money to schools.

Is the voucher plan a new twist on constitutional law – give the money to parents to give to the schools will magically transform the money so it’s no longer taxpayer money?

Personally, I am opposed to Corbett sidestepping the constitution and continue to be opposed to taxpayer dollars funding nonpublic education. Funneling taxpayer dollars through parents to private schools ultimately weakens the public education system. If there are problems with specific school districts, then I believe that the state has a responsibility to ‘fix’ the school district. And giving some parents money to leave their failing school districts is not the answer nor does it fix the school’s problems for those students that remain. Moving the best students out of a failing school further weakens failing schools.

Besides legislative discussion on liquor privatization and school vouchers, lawmakers have to approve the state and congressional redistricting maps by the end of the year. This week closed the 30-day public comment period on the proposed redistricting and now the matter is in the hands of the legislators.

Redistricting is a powerful tool for elected officials to protect their own and undermine opponents and I have previously stated that sweeping nonpartisan redistricting reform is unlikely. However, I failed to mention that former State Rep Paul Drucker (D-157) introduced legislation (H.B. 2005) to reform Pennsylvania’s redistricting process in 2009. In describing his redistricting reform House Bill 2005 in a November 2009 press release, Drucker stated,

My legislation would establish a nine-person committee made up of the top eight legislative leaders in the House and Senate, or their designees, plus a chairman appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Under the bill, the chairman would have to be a registered voter in Pennsylvania for at least two years, could not hold a federal, state or local office, and not have held a position within a political party in the previous 10 years. The commission would meet in public and be held to specific rules designed to avoid districts drawn for political reasons. Any plan created by the commission would need to be approved by six of the nine members before moving to the full legislature for final approval.

Drucker’s redistricting reform bill would have increased the commission size from five to nine; established a PA Supreme Court appointed chair and created transparency of the redistricting process with public meetings! Unfortunately, Drucker’s redistricting reform bill did not get out of the House State Government Committee. If you are interested, here is link to House Bill 2005.

Another major issue for Harrisburg legislators to discuss in the next 3 weeks is the state policy on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale. The state House and state Senate have passed Marcellus shale bills that include per-well impact fee and a series of new environmental regulations but differences between the bills needs to be worked out.

Differences between the two proposals will need to be reconciled over the next few weeks if lawmakers are going to get a bill to the governor’s desk before they leave in mid-December.

Should Our Teachers be Graded on Student Achievement?

There was much discussion about public education reform during Governor Tom Corbett’s campaign and this week the Governor offered four broad proposals for reform (however, the specifics are limited).

(1) Charter school reform — Give the process of approving charter schools to a new state commission rather than to local school districts;

(2) Expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program — The program offers businesses tax credits for providing funding for scholarships or other educational improvement organizations;

(3) Voucher program — Create ‘opportunity scholarships’ that would allow low-income students in poor-performing schools to attend a different school;

(4) Grading teachers — Review and beef-up the teacher evaluation system in Pennsylvania’s schools.

As Tredyffrin Easttown School District candidates prepare for the League of Women Voters debate on Tuesday (7-9 PM at the Tredyffrin Township building), it was Corbett’s fourth initiative on public education reform that caught my attention. I wonder what school board candidates think about Corbett’s proposed teacher grading system. And how, if any, would a grading system challenge the TESD teacher contract negotiations of 2012?

My understanding is that Corbett is proposing a grading system for teachers much like the way students are graded. Currently teachers are graded ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ and 99.4 percent of teachers in public school in Pennsylvania receive an ‘A’ . . . satisfactory rating. However, counter to the teacher’s ratings, some school systems in the state have barely 50 percent of their students performing at grade level. The new proposed multiple-point grading system for teachers would include “distinguished”, “proficient,” “needs improvement” or “failing.”

We know that most local school teachers are good, but are there not any bad ones? Is it accurate that less than 1 percent of teachers in Pennsylvania are unsatisfactory? Especially in light of the number of failing students and Pennsylvania’s ever-increasing high school drop out rate. Is there any correlation between the quality of teaching (performance of teachers) and the performance levels of students? Corbett’s is suggesting a reform of the teacher evaluation system that combines classroom observations and student performances . . . linking student achievement to teacher performance.

Is it possible that a single, statewide pay-for-performance model will work in each of the state’s 500 school districts? Should the grading of teachers take into account a teachers’ longevity?

I believe that the most important school-based factor in children’s success is good-quality teachers. Isn’t there a real possibility if we tie the merit pay of teachers performance to student achievement, this will discourage teachers from taking on the needier students and push the educators to ‘teach to the test’?

Most of us would probably agree that students with experienced, highly skilled teachers tend to do better academically. And that poorer schools have a more difficult time in attracting and keeping those teachers. The real challenge is what is the solution?

Taking that logic a step further . . . if vouchers and charter schools remove the highest-performing students from the poor school districts, isn’t there a real risk that the failing school districts will not be fixed by Corbett’s proposed public education reform?

Our State Senator Andy Dinniman Votes in Favor of Pennsylvania’s School Voucher Bill, Awaiting Response from State Rep Warren Kampf

We now know that State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) supports the school voucher bill. As a member of the Senate Education Committee, this week Sen. Dinniman cast his vote in favor of the proposed legislation. I have been contacted concerning State Rep Warren Kampf’s opinion of the school voucher program and sent the following email this morning asking for a statement. I look forward to Rep. Kampf’s response and will post it when received.

Dear Rep. Kampf,

You recently introduced a bill that would reduce costs for school districts by exempting them from prevailing wage requirements for public works contracts. Your proposed ‘School Construction Cost Reduction Act’ indicates an understanding of the economic issues facing many of the state’s school districts. As Pennsylvania’s school districts struggle to balance their budgets, legislation that supports schools and taxpayers is appreciated.

There has been much discussion about the proposed school voucher bill S.B.1. which would help the state’s poorest children from the lowest-performing schools by providing options of attending public, private or parochial school. This week the Senate Education Committee voted 8-2 in favor of the bill and the proposed legislation will move forward in the process.

It is important for constituents to know where our elected officials stand on all important issues, including the school voucher program. State Senator Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) serves on the Senate Education Committee and voted in favor of the proposed school voucher legislation. As our State Representative, could you please offer your thoughts on the proposed ‘opportunity scholarship’ legislation? In your response, please address specific issues including the plan’s estimated price tag of $860 million, the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and the issue of funding parochial schools with taxpayer money.

Thank you and I look forward to your response.

King regards,

Pattye Benson
Community Matters

Red-Hot State Voucher Program Clears Initial Hurdle

Teacher unions and school board members must be lining up across the state this morning in opposition to the latest Senate Education Committee vote.

Calling the proposed school voucher bill, an ‘opportunity scholarship’, the committee voted 8-2 yesterday in favor of the proposed legislation. The bill intended to help the state’s poorest children from the lowest-performing schools by providing options of attending other public, private or parochial schools, did not pass the committee without debate. The troubling issues that many of us have discussed, including constitutionality, religious freedom and the cost to public schools were sticking points for two members of the committee.

The Senate Education Committee is composed of six Republicans and four Democrats. Co-sponsoring the proposed legislation is Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams and Senate Education Committee Chair Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin). All six Republicans supported the bill, as did two Democrats, Williams and Sen. Andy Dinniman. If you recall Dinniman had some suggested amendments to the bill, including testing and accountability from the non-public schools. The opposing school voucher bill members of the committee were Democrats Jim Ferlo and Daylin Leach.

Leach debated the proposed legislation on the grounds that the bill is not constitutional. Ferlo and Leach are concerned that the voucher system could erode public schools whereas the others feel that the legislation actually offers a lifeline to those children trapped in the low-performing schools. The opposing sides present two distinctly different ways of looking at the same situation. Piccola suggests that Leach’s argument that the school voucher legislation is unconstitutional is an erroneous interpretation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The chair of the Senate Education Committee also dismissed the argument that the bill is in conflict with the state constitution in regards to support of religious schools with public money.

With all the questions swirling around this legislation, why did the Senate Education Committee seemingly just push it along through the system? Usually, I would be complaining about the slowness of government process, but it is amazing the way this school voucher bill is bulldozing its way through Harrisburg.

Aside from the many questions, concerns and debates swirling around this voucher bill, why don’t we hear much about the cost of this ‘opportunity scholarship’? Gov. Corbett swept into the Governor’s office under the umbrella of austerity and budget constraints, so can someone please explain to me how the estimated $860 million in taxpayer costs by the end of the third-year phase of the voucher program, meets that mission? And the $860 million does not take in to consideration the dollars the bill will siphon from the public schools.

Help me understand . . . what am I missing?

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

Is Pennsylvania Ready for a School Voucher Plan? Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could?

I wonder if the school voucher discussion is going to threaten the position of teacher unions, especially during contract negotiations. Gov. Tom Corbett is planning to make good on his campaign promise to move forward toward school vouchers for Pennsylvania parents. Contained in his inaugural address were the words, “Our education system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition, and choice in our education system.” Corbett issued a commitment to a voucher program, stating “Today’s Pennsylvania’s tradition of character and courage carries on in the single mother who works an extra job so she can send her children to a better school.”

However, pushing a school voucher program is not strictly a Republican initiative. Senators Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat and Republican Jeffrey Piccola from Daphin County have co-sponsored legislation that would give state money to poor students who want to transfer to a private school or another public school. In its current design, the Senate Bill 1 initially will only affect the 144 poorest-performing Pennsylvania schools. (101 of the schools are located in either Philadelphia or Delaware counties.) After two years, the program would expand to include all low-income students in the state. In the current budget year, the state is spending more than $9 billion on education, with more than $5.1 billion on basic education alone. This year the state is spending more than $14,000 per student in the public school system, though the amount per student fluctuates from district to district.

Sen. Williams believes that school choice is a civil rights issue. In a statement accompanying the introduction of the voucher bill, he states “Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue to the segregation of the ’60s. Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? … Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

Not surprising, the powerful state teacher unions and their supporters are not fans of a school voucher plan, claiming that this type of legislation amounts to abandonment of public school education. Can one argue that this type of school voucher plan actually removes financial support from the public school that need more support rather than less? Teacher unions worry about accountability for private and religious schools, which are not held to the same governance standard as public schools. What happens if school choice passes and a student leaves a failing school and does not improve at a charter or private school? Whose fault is it then?

Former Gov. Tom Ridge failed with his school choice initiative in the 1990s. Is there significant change in the political climate in 2011 to support a voucher initiative? If Philadelphia is any indicator, there seems to be a movement among parents in big cities wanting better (and safer) schools for their children. Historically, there has been support for unions in the big cities, but parents are tired of waiting for the public schools to improve. To succeed, Corbett and his legislative supporters will need to balance the interests of urban parents who want better schools for their children with the suburban parents (like those in the T/E school district) who believe that public school may not need to change.

I support the right of all children to attend ‘safe’ schools but as we know from news reports, that is not always possible in Philadelphia. Is a school voucher plan the only option for parents to keep their children safe from violence, gangs, drugs in some of Philadelphia’s inner city schools? Unsafe public school must change, but how?

Does anyone share my uneasiness that a school voucher program may potentially violate Article III, the separation of church and state, contained in the state’s constitution? A voucher system cannot regulate where the money goes . . . I would think that using state tax money for religious schools would violate the constitution.

Would you use school vouchers for your kids if you could? I’m curious to hear what others think about a school voucher plan. Do you think that the school voucher discussion is going to affect the teacher contract negotiations, one way or the other?

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