Pennsylvania is in the middle of a financial crisis. After years of Gov. Ed Rendell’s spending increases to public education, which was aided by federal stimulus money, the state must reconsider spending priorities when it comes to education especially since the stimulus funding runs out after this year.
The use of state-funded school vouchers to improve school choice among the poorer of Pennsylvania’s children is at issue in the state legislature. Charter and private schools are those that would most likely benefit from the enactment of school vouchers as it would allow those families that would have kept their children in the state system to move their kids to the private system, using state money. Republicans support vouchers stating that competition posed by private and charter schools would lead to improved public schools, thus raising the figurative tide.
Democrats contend that vouchers do not lead to better test scores and learning opportunities for kids who move from under-performing schools to better-performing schools. The money would be better spent, opponents of vouchers contend, if it were spent on improving public schools as they are. Moving the good students in underperforming, poor community school districts to affluent, non-diverse, better-performing public or private schools simply gives to the schools that do not need help and takes from the ones that do need the help.
On Wednesday, the U.S. House passed a resolution mostly along party lines that would financially revive the SOAR voucher program in the DC school system. The costs would be $60 million over a 5-year period, costing $300 million, or $2 per American over the 2012-2016 period. The bill’s main sponsor is House Speaker John Boehner who uses the argument stated above that increased competition will improve all schools through competition. The Washington Post said that the Obama Administration, which opposes the bill, claims the voucher program did not produce better results when it was enacted from 2004 to 2009. This is refuted in this study that shows that compared to those who applied for a SOAR voucher but were rejected, those who received vouchers had higher graduation rates and their parents gave their children’s new schools higher recommendations.
Voting Yes: Mike Kelly, R-3, Glenn Thompson, R-5, Jim Gerlach, R-6, Pat Meehan, R-7, Michael Fitzpatrick, R-8, Bill Shuster, R-9, Tom Marino, R-10, Lou Barletta, R-11, Charlie Dent, R-15, Joseph Pitts, R-16, Tim Murphy, R-18.
Voting No: Robert Brady, D-1, Chaka Fattah, D-2, Jason Altmire, D-4, Mark Critz, D-12, Allyson Schwartz, D-13, Mike Doyle, D-14, Tim Holden, D-17.
According to the Commonwealth Foundation, Senate Bill 1 would only help public schools that lose students through the voucher program. In Pennsylvania, property taxes fund local school districts. In the case of SB 1, parents of students who receive school vouchers would still be required to pay property taxes while their child or children would not attend the local public school. They would in essence be paying twice for one education; once to the local school district and once, with state funds, to the new private or public school their child will attend. Therefore the endowment per pupil would increase to the schools losing students to vouchers. If two or three students do this, the school is left with thousands of dollars in expendable funds to spend on the remaining children. This seems to play to some opponents’ arguments that more funding is needed in poorer performing schools to improve them.
The Commonwealth Foundation highlights Harrisburg’s School District as an example of SB 1’s benefits. With per-pupil expenditures at $17,675, if a low-income student received a voucher to attend an out-of-district public or private school, approximately $8,828 would be provided to the student to pay tuition at the new school while the rest of the $17,675 ($8,847) would stay in the district.
One problem many have is that money would go to religious schools in which students would be subject to a certain religious study. The idea that the state must protect parents from choosing to send their son or daughter to a school that objects to their beliefs seems to be too much of a responsibility for any body of government. An argument raised by the Commonwealth Foundation is that the state has been indirectly subsidizing religious school tuition through the Education Improvement Tax Credit program for years where parents have chosen their child’s school.
Rights groups such as the ACLU have opposed voucher programs like SOAR for funding religious education and also for private schools’ exemption from complyiance with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. More on this later.