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Voucher bill passes state Senate

After a four-hour debate, the Pennsylvania Senate passed legislation Wednesday approving vouchers and revising the charter school law.

The vote was 27-22. Three Democrats joined 24 Republicans in supporting the bill.

The Patriot-News of Harrisburg is reporting, however, that House Speaker Sam Smith said it was unlikely that the House will consider the legislation – a priority of Gov. Corbett’s – any time soon.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, in estimating the bill’s cost, calculated that most of the expense by the second year of the program, 2013-14, will be to provide vouchers to students already attending private and parochial schools – not those students seeking to leave poor-performing public schools.

In the Senate bill, only in the first year, 2012-13, will eligibility be restricted to students currently in the low-performing public schools.

The so-called Fiscal Note assumes that in the second year, 5 percent of eligible students in the low-achieving public schools will get vouchers, while all the students in the attendance boundaries already attending private schools will apply for and receive them. More than $50 million of the $76 million cost that year will go to those students who are already in private schools.

The overall cost will start at $42.6 million and rise to more than $94 million by 2015-16.

The bill does not require private schools receiving vouchers to publish achievement data if they do not have a public website.

The debate concluded with an impassioned plea from a Philadelphia Democrat, Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who co-sponsored the legislation with Republican Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

He said that no parent or child should be trapped in bad schools. “The only reason that parents take their children out of these schools is because they don’t work,” he said. “We’re tired of waiting.”

Others, including his fellow Philadelphia Democrat Vincent Hughes, argued that the vouchers would take money away from public schools that are already underfunded and overwhelmed. Corbett slashed basic education aid this year, contributing to a more than $600 million shortfall in Philadelphia. The District eliminated 3,800 jobs overall, cutting programs and services. Layoff notices have gone to hundreds of blue-collar employees; some 400 central office workers were laid off along with more than a thousand teachers, although many teachers were called back.

“We cannot escape the budget reality that exists in this conversation,” Hughes said.

The vote came about an hour after School District of Philadelphia Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch told the School Reform Commission that even more cuts will be necessary, including reductions to individual school budgets, professional development for teachers, and athletics, to help close the remaining budget hole.

The charter revisions would make it easier for charters to expand. Among other things, the bill creates a standard application for charters and increases the length of the original charter from three years to five and lengthens the time for renewal from five years to ten. 

The legislation also included substantial increases in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which provides tax breaks to businesses that give private school scholarships. Over three years, the cost of that program will grow by $56 million.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.