Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Tredyffrin Esttown School District

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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