This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Patrick Gailey
The state Senate’s Education Committee held a hearing on Oct. 13 to discuss the future of proposed Senate Bill 1405, which would amend current state law to allow for a publicly funded voucher program in Pennsylvania. The bill was proposed by Sen. Anthony Williams who, along with Sen. Andrew Dinniman and Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, led the hearing.
While compelling arguments were presented on both sides of the issue, the senators – especially Williams—defended vouchers against all criticism and harshly challenged some of those who questioned their value as a school reform tool, as this video shows.
A highlight of the hearing was testimony from students, some very emotional, who have benefited from scholarships to private schools funded through the existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. EITC gives companies tax breaks for donating to organizations that provide private scholarships.
Williams argued with Sheila Simmons of Public Citizens for Children and Youth when she reported that an analysis by Research for Action of studies of the three biggest and oldest voucher systems – in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, DC – shows “little evidence that vouchers increase achievement for students who utilize vouchers.” He claimed that RFA had drawn conclusions at odds with those of the researchers themselves.
It wasn’t until the end of the day, long after most of the onlookers were gone, that discussion turned to the actual content of the bill itself, which lacks much detail and possibly is unconstitutional as it stands. Ronald Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, raised questions about capacity and accountability of private schools who receive voucher students, as well as safeguards that the vouchers will in fact expand access to needy students rather than support those already in private schools. The bill says that students below a certain income level in districts with at least one chronically failing school are eligible.
The 10-hour hearing, however, is clear evidence that key legislators on both sides of the aisle hope to push this bill quickly as soon as a new administration takes office in an effort to reshape education policy in the Commonwealth. They can hardly wait for the exit of Gov. Rendell, whose agenda focused on early childhood, funding equity, and increasing state education aid to districts.