HARRISBURG – The controversy over expanding school choice to use tax dollars to help parents afford private school tuition has been renewed at the state Capitol.
A Senate panel in May approved a plan that would require the state to set up Education Savings Accounts that parents could tap into to cover some or all of the cost of private school if they live in an area served by a poorly-performing public school. Under the plan, school districts would have to transfer about $6,000 a year into the education savings account for each student who leaves for private school.
The move comes as the pro-school choice views of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has shifted the issue to the center of a national debate over whether the government should do more to help parents afford alternatives to the public school system.
Arizona, in 2011, became the first state to create education savings accounts like those proposed in Senate Bill 2, authored by state Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin. Since then, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee have approved similar plans, according to EdChoice, a pro-school choice group based in Indianapolis.
The major public school lobbying groups, including the Pennsylvania School Board Association and the state’s largest teacher union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, have roundly criticized the plan.
Gov. Tom Wolf has voiced his opposition, as well.
“Senate Bill 2 would set up schools to fail, and we cannot accept that as adequate for any of our children. I urge the full Senate to reject this measure,” Wolf said.
Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said it’s not been determined if or when the legislation will be put before the full Senate.
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said the measure will only come up for a vote if legislative leaders believe there are enough votes for it to pass.
Spicka said she is not convinced there is enough support for the measure to pass in the full Senate.
Marc LeBlond, a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free market advocacy organization, acknowledged that there is no obvious sign that the legislation is on the fast-track. Rather, he said that the best way to ensure that it gets action is for parents to contact their lawmakers to let them know they want action on school choice.
Advocates on both sides of the issue said they have polling that shows the public’s support for their view.
The PSBA commissioned a poll in April of Pennsylvania voters that found that 57 percent of those surveyed said they oppose using public tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition.
LeBlond said that a November poll found that 66 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed said they would support the type of education savings account proposed in Senate Bill 2.
The disparity comes as those on both sides of the issue paint dramatically different pictures of what the plan would do.
Spicka calls the education savings accounts “a clear and present danger” to public schools.
While the initial legislation targets small groups, once the plans are in place, school choice advocates will work to get them expanded to cover more children.
DiSanto’s office provided a statement from the senator saying, “Wolf should acknowledge the reality that Pennsylvania’s lowest performing schools are failing students, and it is wrong to deny these children the better opportunities they deserve.”
School groups that have opposed the legislation “advocate for continuing the educational monopoly that denies poor children an opportunity to attend better performing schools,” DiSanto said. “There are no do-overs for failing to educate a generation of our children.”
LeBlond said that under SB 2, parents would get about $6,000 to spend on private school tuition. On average, the state spent about $15,000 to educate each student in 2016-17, according to the Department of Education. School districts would get to keep the difference between those amounts even though they are no longer educating the students who leave for private school, LeBlond said.
The new program would follow existing tax credit programs used to encourage donors to contribute toward scholarships for children to attend private school. Senate Bill 2 would target the same students already served by the state Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. But that tax credit program only provides about an average of $2,668, compared to the $6,000 that would be available through SB 2, LeBlond said. Source