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Voucher bill explained by its sponsor

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

by Paul Jablow

Senate Bill 1, which would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for low-income children to attend non-public schools in Pennsylvania, has passed the Senate Education Committee and is now in the Appropriations Committee. The bill was sponsored by Sens. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin) and Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila).

The voucher concept is supported by Gov. Corbett, according to his nominee for secretary of education, though Corbett has reservations about some parts of the bill. There is no movement on voucher legislation in the state house of representatives.

The Notebook talked about the bill with Sen. Piccola, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

NOTEBOOK: The bill’s opponents have a fairly grim scenario – at least for the first two years. A few kids transfer to a non-public school and get a better education, a few transfer and get an education that isn’t any better and the rest suffer because the public school system is strapped for funds and still saddled with virtually the same fixed costs. What is your scenario?

PICCOLA: My crystal ball is much more positive, much more enlightened. We’re creating a new dynamic of education choice. We’re creating power in the customer in education. The opponents don’t understand this because they’re used to working in a monopoly system. They think everything is status quo and all you have to do is feed the beast more money. Here, you’re creating an incredible market.

[Under SB 1] the public school system will be enhanced. They’ll be forced to. In those school districts with the bulk of the failing schools, you’ll see many students exercising the voucher. And that demand will create new educational opportunities. For example, now you see school districts getting into cyber schools.

I’m not as down on the Philadelphia schools as some of my colleagues. I see some good things happening there. The Renaissance schools, for example. And we’ll be introducing companion legislation relieving them of some mandates, giving them the right to furlough teachers for economic reasons.

NOTEBOOK: Is there any estimate of how many slots would be available in Philadelphia and how many of these would require something more than a $7,900 voucher?

PICCOLA: I don’t have that estimate. But what you have to look at is a dynamic where new schools pop up left and right to meet the demand. I’m not sure the current number will be relevant in a couple of years. I do know that the tuition in parochial schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese is less than the voucher – $3,125 in elementary and $6,255 in the high schools – and there are 13,748 open seats in [Archdiocesan schools in] Philadelphia alone.

NOTEBOOK: In a recent committee meeting, Sen. Williams said that "There is a need to mandate that the child is better off academically, not just socially." How can this be done – and how can parents do it?

PICCOLA: The academic record of the private and parochial schools exceeds the record of the public schools academically. We are looking at requiring the private schools to do some sort of testing. Not necessarily the PSSA. The PSSA isn’t as rigorous as some of the tests these schools give. We have a disclosure requirement for parents. Each system has to be accountable for itself.

NOTEBOOK: Is it possible that parents will choose schools for social reasons only? Or is it possible that at some point people will choose the program to opt out of the public school system and into a religious-based system at taxpayer expense?

PICCOLA: That’s possible. Parents have to make the choice and it’s not always because it’s a failing academic school. One of the big reasons charter schools have a waiting list in Philadelphia is safety.

[Sen. Piccola, a Catholic, said he sent his son to a parochial high school, not for religious reasons but because he felt his son needed the structure. He left his daughter in the public school system.]

NOTEBOOK: Will students with any "liabilities” that make them more difficult – Special Ed, ELL, discipline problem, performing below grade level – have any protections that they won’t get excluded?

PICCOLA: We’re not requiring any school to take anybody. There are private and parochial schools that meet the needs of special ed students. Some public schools now are paying tuition to send kids to other schools when they get their IEP. But I believe the market will solve it. Schools will pop up to accommodate these kids.

NOTEBOOK: What evidence is there that the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which SB 1 is planning to expand, actually serves low-income students who were stuck in low-performing schools and gets them into better schools?

PICCOLA: I don’t know that there’s any survey out there. I think it’s met a tremendous need.

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