A powerful coalition of Pennsylvania lawmakers is promoting a forthcoming education savings account (ESA) bill that would allow thousands of students in the state to use public money to pay for private school tuition.
The proposal could dramatically alter the state's K-12 education landscape, potentially siphoning away about a fifth of the state's overall support for public schools.
With this savings account plan, funds now allocated for support of public schools would be deducted from state coffers and made directly available to parents to help cover the cost of a list of education-related expenses, including private school tuition, textbooks, industry certifications, and tutors.
"The people of the United States have decided to fund education in a public manner, but they have not given the government authorization to decide where children go to school," said John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, the bill's lead sponsor. "The world's changing."
The plan aligns with the priorities set forth by President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Eligibility would be limited to parents who have a student now attending a public school who lives within the catchment of a public school deemed by the state to be in the bottom 15 percent of quality, based on standardized tests.
Funds would be distributed and overseen by the state treasury. Each student would be entitled to $5,700 per year, the average total per pupil allotment that Pennsylvania school districts receive from state government.
How many students would that affect? How much of the state's education budget could be impacted?
"I'm not sure what the number of kids are in the bottom 15 percent," said DiSanto, a freshman senator.
A Keystone Crossroads analysis of enrollment data found that there are more than 220,300 such students in nearly 400 schools spread across 44 of the state's 67 counties.
So that means that more than $1 billion potentially could be taken away from public schools, possibly forcing further school closures and consolidations.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, says that the plan would be an abdication of the legislature's constitutional responsibility to support a "thorough and efficient system of public education."
"It takes the limited dollars that are in the system and takes them out of public education and drives them into private schools with no accountability and no oversight of what happens in those schools that are using public taxpayers' money," said Hughes.
How would he respond to a parent in his district who was enthusiastic about the chance to send his or her child to private school, someone unwilling to wait any longer for the traditional system to improve?
"It would be a difficult conversation," said Hughes, "but we have to have the conversation in the context of the whole. Are we in support of taking money from one child who is deserving of funds and giving it to another?"
In Philadelphia, by far the state's largest district, at least 85,000 students in 146 schools would be eligible. Under the current proposal, students who attend a charter or a magnet school who live within the catchment of a bottom-ranked school would also be eligible for the ESA.
DiSanto's office downplayed the idea of a large cut to public school coffers, saying the program likely wouldn't reach maximum eligibility. The office pointed to examples elsewhere where participation rates have been only a small fraction of the school-aged population.