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Taxpayer Funded Voucher Bill Positioned to Move Quickly: Call Your Senator Today
This morning in the Senate Education Committee:
The Senate Education Committee will be meeting at 10 am today to consider amendments to SB 1, voucher legislation originally sponsored by Sen. Jeff Piccola. The expected plan is to gut the existing language from SB 1 and insert a comprehensive amendment that includes proposals for taxpayer funded vouchers that is phased in over a three year period for low-income children. and expansion of charter schools and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. The amendment will be offered by Senators Piccola and Anthony Williams as Amendment # A05700. (It is not being offered on behalf of Gov. Corbett’s office and does not include all elements of the plan suggested by the governor earlier this month.) PSBA received a copy of the amendment late yesterday and a summary is provided below.
If reported out of the Senate Education Committee this morning, SB 1 is expected to be placed on the calendar for third and final consideration by the full Senate on Wednesday. It is critical that you call or email your senator as quickly as possible to voice your opposition to SB 1. Ask your senator how he or she intends to vote, and press for a commitment if necessary. Tell them to vote “No” on SB 1.
Piccola/Williams Amendment Summary:
Vouchers: The amendment creates a voucher program that provides taxpayer dollars to religious institutions without accountability. Beginning in 2012-13, low-income children who both: (1) attend a low achieving school during the current (2011-12) school year or will be a kindergarten student during the 2012-13 school year, and (2) will live within the attendance boundary of a low achieving school as of the first day of classes of the 2012-13 school year are eligible for a voucher. In the following year, 2013-14 and each school year thereafter, low-income children who will live within the attendance boundary of a low achieving school as of the first day of classes of the school year for which the opportunity scholarship will be awarded.
The amount of the voucher is 100% of the state’s per pupil subsidy to the resident school district for those household income up to and including 130% of poverty. The amount of the voucher would be 75% of the state’s per pupil subsidy to the resident school district (not to exceed the actual tuition) for those individuals in households above 130% of poverty, up to and including 185% of poverty. Accountability for the use of those taxpayer dollars is not equal to those of district-led school districts. Beginning in 2012-13 school year, the amendment defines low achieving schools to be those public elementary or secondary schools ranking in the lowest 5% of its designation as elementary or secondary, based on combined math and reading scores from the assessment administered in the most recent school year. In 2018-19 school year and each school year thereafter, the voucher is applied to low achieving schools, but the definition shifts to include a public elementary or secondary school with this Commonwealth in which 50% or fewer of its students scored proficient or above in math or 50% of fewer students scored proficient or above in math or 50% or fewer of its students scored proficient or above in reading on the assessment administered in the most recent school year.
Charters: The amendment does not include language creating a statewide authorizer for charter schools and retains school boards as the authorizing body. The State Charter School Appeal Board (current law) within the Department of Education is expanded from seven members to nine. The amendment includes a charter school administrator and a cyber charter school administrator to that panel, as well as a parent of a student who attends a charter/cyber charter school. The amendment expands the renewal term of a charter school from five years to 10 years without adopting any self-executing revocation of low-performing charter schools. Equally troublesome is the amendment removes any requirement from the law that would require the charter school to serve as a model for other public schools, which runs contrary to the original public policy objective of giving charter school greater freedom from state-imposed mandates in exchange for creating innovation in education and serving as a model to district-run schools. A statewide advisory committee would be created to explore charter school and cyber charter school funding issues and make recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor. The bill requires payments from the Department to flow directly to the charter or cyber charter school. The school district will no longer serve as a pass-through for funding to charters or cybers. The department will be charged with developing forms for all charter school applicants and school board directors to follow throughout the process. The application will also contain more information upfront about the role the education management service provider will play in the charter school, if any.
EITC Tax Credits: The amendment also expands the educational improvement tax credit (EITC) program from $67 million to $92 million for the next two fiscal years and then to $115 million in 2014-15 for scholarship organizations and educational improvement organizations. It also proposes a 5% escalator (beginning in 2015-2016 and each fiscal year thereafter) in the amount of the tax credits if 90% of the total aggregate amount of tax the tax credits available are approved. There is no additional accountability of those tax credits.
Talking Points in Opposition to SB 1 and the Piccola/Williams Amendment
* Unaccountable to Pennsylvania taxpayers as there is no provision to require any follow-up on the academic progress of students who enter into nonpublic or private schools using a voucher and no oversight of the taxpayer dollars that will flow to private and religious schools.
* Unaffordable to taxpayers, to schools, and to the students who will remain in struggling schools. The costs of this program would come at a time when many taxpayers are facing unemployment or under-employment and the loss of benefits and when many school districts are facing severe economic challenges. Sending valuable taxpayer dollars out the door to private and religious schools undermines a school district’s ability to provide the remaining students with the quality education they deserve.
* Unpopular with Pennsylvania residents, as 65% of residents opposed taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers based on a recent survey by Terry Madonna Opinion Research. This is the third time in a year that the majority of Pennsylvanians have responded to this question with a resounding “no”.
* Unconstitutional, possibly violating three provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Charter School Reform:
* Perpetuates the injustices of the current charter school funding formula to taxpayers and school districts. In these challenging economic times, our school districts are losing valuable taxpayer dollars to charter schools based on a funding formula that is based upon the cost of educating a student in the resident district, not in the charter school. Any charter reform proposal must include modification of the funding formula to reduce or eliminate the financial burden of charter schools on school districts, ensuring that taxpayers are not overpaying for the services these schools provide. Moving forward with this proposal before remedying the funding formula is irresponsible to taxpayers and school districts, especially as this proposal gives charter schools direct funding and places the burden of proof on school districts to show that funding has been incorrectly allocated to a charter school.
* Purges charter schools of innovation. Despite the fact that charter schools were originally granted freedom from many of the state-imposed mandates so they could develop innovative educational techniques and practices that could serve as a model for school districts, this important public policy objective has been exorcised entirely from Amendment #A05700, no longer obligating charter schools to strive for innovation in education. If charter schools are no longer required to fulfill these public policy goals for which they were created, then there is no longer any need to continue to relieve them of state-imposed mandates.
The expansion of the EITC program:
* Must include increased accountability. Where public tax dollars are involved, in this case state tax credits, accountability to the public is necessary. Public schools are accountable on many levels for compliance with state and federal laws and regulations. While public school performance on assessments and corrective action is all public, nonpublic school students are not required to take the PSSA, Keystone Exams or any state measure of student achievement, and nonpublic schools do not have to tell anyone anything about how their students perform. Students who enter into nonpublic or private schools using EITC scholarships should be subject to follow-up on the students’ academic progress. Any school entity benefitting from public tax dollars should be subject to the same fiscal and academic reporting standards as public school entities.