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Vouchers advance in Harrisburg

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

UPDATE: According to state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, Senate Bill 1 is on Wednesday’s Senate agenda.

School vouchers have taken another step forward in Pennsylvania.

And they’re taking charter school reform with them.

On Tuesday, an amended version of Senate Bill 1, as the measure is known, was approved by the Senate Education Committee. The new plan calls for a limited school voucher program, as well as a package of changes to state charter school law that had been advancing separately, reports Mary Wilson of WHYY/NewsWorks.

The plan restricts school vouchers to students from low- to middle-income families who attend or live within the district of one of the state’s 143 failing schools…School districts would be able to convert a public school into a charter under the bill, which also calls for charter school transparency and accountability rules.

The "opportunity scholarships," as the vouchers are called, would be available to families with students in the "bottom 5 percent" of Pennsylvania’s schools, including 111 elementary schools and 32 secondary schools. The list includes 63 Philadelphia elementary and middle schools, and 25 Philadelphia high schools:

  • Audenried
  • Bartram
  • Ben Franklin
  • Douglas
  • Edison
  • Fels
  • FitzSimons
  • Frankford
  • Germantown
  • Kensington Business
  • Lamberton
  • Learning Academy North
  • Learning Academy South
  • Martin Luther King
  • Olney East
  • Olney West
  • Overbrook
  • Roxborough
  • Sayre
  • Simon Gratz
  • South Philadelphia
  • Strawberry Mansion
  • University City
  • Vaux
  • West Philadelphia

The office of state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola provided the Notebook with a list comparing each Pennsylvania school district’s average per-pupil expenditure with the value of a potential voucher. In Philadelphia, which spends $13,272 per student, eligible families would receive $6,779 to spend towards education in a participating public school or non-public school of their choice.

Families making up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line (about $29,000 for a family of four) will be eligible for a full voucher. Families making up to 185 percent of the poverty line ($41,000 for a family of four) will be eligible for 75 percent of the full voucher amount.

A press release on Piccola’s website details the proposed charter reforms:

The amendment would streamline the process by which charter schools are created by establishing a standard application for all applicants to use; lengthening the initial term and renewal term of a charter school; clarifying the illegality of enrollment caps for charters; and providing for direct pay.

The last provision allows for the state to send money straight to the charter schools, rather than through its authorizing school district.

Gov. Corbett had sought the creation of an independent entity to authorize new charters, but that provision was not included in the bill passed by the committee Tuesday. Piccola indicated that he hopes such a provision can still be included in a final bill.

The amended bill also calls for an expansion of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, through which businesses can make donations to private entities that provide scholarships to students in lieu of paying some taxes. The program would expand from its current $75 million per year to $100 million in the first year and $125 million in the third year.

Piccola, a Republican from Dauphin County, is co-sponsoring the bill along with Philadelphia Democrat Anthony Williams.

The amended SB-1 now moves to the full Pa. Senate for consideration.

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