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Legislative fight over vouchers may come to a head quickly

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

Supporters and opponents of a state-supported voucher system in Pennsylvania agree on one thing: the fight over the issue in the new legislative session is likely to be quicker and more focused than it was in the last session, when no bill reached Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.

Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), chairman of the House Education Committee, said that by the start of October, he expected his committee to have a bill different from Senate Bill 1, which failed to gain sufficient support last session.

"It will be narrowly drawn to help kids in failing schools," he said.

Senate Bill 1 would have increased family income eligibility limits to almost $80,000 for a family of four by 2015-16. Tom Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that it "grew into a middle-class bill. That became an albatross."

Gentzel, whose organization opposes vouchers, said that a more narrowly drawn bill might be tougher to defeat and that the governor might want to get something passed quickly because any bill is likely to be delayed by court challenges.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said that a key issue is the funding mechanism. Most state voucher programs are funded out of the general fund rather than from basic education funds as has been proposed in Pennsylvania.

Leach said that if Corbett takes the funds from the basic education subsidy, that means taking it mostly from poorer districts that are heavily Democratic. "The people who don’t support him traditionally would be paying for it," he said.

Rep. James Roebuck (D., Philadelphia), a House Education Committee member, pointed to a "lack of accountability" on the part of the schools getting voucher dollars. He said that the prospect of a voucher bill passing "is receding."