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Pa. voucher bill clears first hurdle on 8-2 vote

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

Senate Bill 1, better known as "the voucher bill," passed the Senate Education Committee March 1 in an 8-2 vote. The senators who co-sponsored the legislation, Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) and Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) predicted that it would come to the floor in April. First, it must get past the Appropriations Committee.

The bill would allow low-income families to receive vouchers equal to the amount of per-pupil state aid for their district to use toward tuition at private or parochial schools. In Philadelphia, this would be about $7,900 per student.

In the first year, students from families with incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and attending "persistently failing" schools would be eligible for the vouchers. Eligibility would expand in the second year to students in those attendance areas, and in the third year to students from all low-income families.

Opponents have attacked the bill, saying it deprives public schools of needed resources and violates church-state separation. Attempts by Democratic senators to attach amendments mandating performance testing and greater fiscal accountability in schools accepting the vouchers were defeated.

Senators Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) and Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) cast the two dissenting votes. "It’s a dramatic transfer of wealth from the poorest public schools to the Catholic church," said Senator Leach. "It’s the most wing-and-a-prayer bill I’ve ever seen. What’s needed is to fund these [public] schools adequately."

The bill would also expand the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program from $75 million to $100 million. That program provides tax credits for businesses contributing to scholarships for low- and middle-income students.

State Education Secretary nominee Ronald Tomalis said that Gov. Tom Corbett supports the bill in concept, but has some reservations that he will want to discuss with legislators. Corbett has said his budget includes money to allow children to transfer from failing schools to non-public schools if enabling legislation is passed.

"By my math, it doesn’t require any additional money," said Budget Director Charles Zogby. "The funds are already there."

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