This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia) has continued his advocacy for school vouchers in Pennsylvania by introducing the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Senate Bill 1405, introduced last month, would require the Department of Education to create an opportunity scholarship program for low-income students in districts with at least one chronically failing school.
The bill so far has three Republican cosponsors, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, Sen. Donald White, and Sen. Mike Folmer.
Since the legislation promises scholarships to all low-income students in districts with any failing school, rather than only to those assigned to low-performing schools, it would trigger vouchers all across Philadelphia and many other districts.
The bill defines a school as chronically failing when “more than 40% of students scored in the basic or below basic range in both reading and writing and mathematics subject areas in the two prior school years” or if “more than 65% of students scored in the basic or below basic range in either reading and writing or mathematics subject areas in the two prior school years.”
Scholarship funds would come from a combination of state and district per-pupil aid. Students would be eligible for these scholarships if they come from a household that earns no more than 2.5 times the federal poverty level.
The total scholarship amount would depend on the local municipality’s annual per-pupil school funding amount as well as the child’s household income. The bill asserts that this total would be enough to allow low-income students to attend a non-public school tuition-free. It is unclear whether scholarships would cover the costs of tuition at pricey private schools.
However, similar acts in other states have been criticized for taking money out of public schools and forcing taxpayers to fund private schools that cannot accommodate most of the children who would be eligible to opt out.
A vote on the bill by the Senate Education Committee is still pending.
The Pennsylvania legislature three times voted down school vouchers plans promoted by then-Gov. Tom Ridge between 1995 and 1999.