The Pennsylvania School Board Association announced Thursday its stand against school vouchers, an opening salvo after a reference to school “choice” in Gov. Tom Corbett’s inaugural speech indicates the issue is back on the table after 15 years.
Among the association’s objections: The latest bill doesn’t require schools to accept anyone with a voucher — one of several “striking” similarities between it and the bill proposed under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, said Tim Allwein, the association’s assistant executive director of governmental and member relations.
“That is key,” Allwein said Thursday, “because the program is touted as parental choice. Without a provision that requires admission, it’s really the choice of the (school). They can refuse students for any number of reasons.”
Allwein said this “destroys the whole concept of parental control. That’s a problem for us.”
Senate Bill 1, which state Sens. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R-15, Dauphin County) and Anthony H. Williams (D-8, Delaware and Philadelphia counties) announced Jan. 12, would grant children of low-income families who attend consistently under-performing public schools a state subsidy to attend the public, private or parochial school of their choice.
The subsidy would be about $9,000, or what their home school district would receive per child.
This latest voucher plan would phase in over three years:
n In Year One, only low-income students attending persistently failing schools would be eligible for a grant.
n In Year Two, low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of those schools but attending private schools would be eligible.
n In Year Three, all low-income students regardless of their school district would be eligible.
Low income is defined as families whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, according to information on Piccola’s website. A family of four would qualify at $28,665.
The program’s constitutionality is another issue, said Stuart Knade, the association’s chief counsel, who added passing the bill “would be a long shot without amending Pennsylvania’s Constitution.”
Three “huge obstacles” in the state Constitution, Knade said, are that money raised to support public schools cannot be used for sectarians schools; appropriations cannot be made to denominational schools; or to any school not under the commonwealth’s control.
The issue of school vouchers rising again in Pennsylvania sat well with the leaders of several private Valley schools, albeit with some reservations.
Sister Margaret McCullough, principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School, in Coal Township, said vouchers “would help a lot of parents. It would give them money for their choice of education.”
Lourdes, a K-12 school, gets an assessed contribution from parishes based on their yearly income, money which goes toward school operations and student cost.
McCullough said “It’s getting harder” for families, whose tuition payment can be equal to their mortgage payment. “Some have $700 to $800 payment per month,” she said.
Susan Bickhart, principal at St. Monica School in Sunbury, said a voucher program may help bring back some students who had to leave the school because of costs.
Tuition at St. Monica’s, a pre-K-8 school with 135 enrolled students, is $2,352, with a sliding scale for each subsequent child from one family.
St. Monica’s also get contributions from parishes, Bickhart said.
H. William Wilhelm, administrator of the Watsontown Christian Academy, in Watsontown, said he “absolutely” supports school vouchers, for both public and private schools.
“It will raise the level of competition” among schools, he said, “and that’s always good in producing a better product.”
Tuition at Watsontown Christian, a K-12 school with 67 enrolled students, is $3,900 per year; tuition is reduced for each child from one family. There is a $100 fee for middle school students and $200 for high school students.
Pastor John Rees, principal of Northumberland Christian School, in Northumberland, said he believes the school would welcome vouchers, but much depends on how the program would be set up.
Tuition at Northumberland Christian, a K-12 school with 212 enrolled students, is $4,020 for the elementary school, and $4,320 for the high school, with a sliding scale for each subsequent child from one family.
All schools interviewed use funding from Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).
Enacted by the state Legislature in 2001, EITC grants a tax credit to businesses that pay Pennsylvania’s corporate income tax for contributions they make to scholarship organizations that give to eligible children in private schools.
Northumberland Christian has offered $155,000 of scholarships through EITC, Rees said. Of the school’s enrollment, Rees said 100 students now receive scholarships averaging $1,000.
“We have been thankful for that for the last seven years,” Rees said, but noted the state budget crisis trimmed scholarship funds in the last year.
One important question Rees said needs addressing is what end result is wanted for a voucher program.
“For parents paying tax dollars and sending children where they chose, it would be great, instead of paying to support public schools and using other money to send them where they want,” he said.
Watsontown Christian Academy’s Wilhelm agreed. The vouchers “are taxpayer money,” he said. “Parents are footing the bill. Since it’s their money, they should have the opportunity to decide where that money is directed.”
Accepting everyone who applies, however, is an issue.
“Who can come here and what we can teach are very important to us,” Rees said. “Students don’t have to be Christians to come here, but we teach from that perspective and would want to continue in that.”
Administrators meet with the child and family to see if the fit is right, St. Monica’s Bickhart said.
“We like to know the reason they’re considering us,” she said. “We have a lot that have moved in or have transferred.”
His emotions are mixed on the issue, Wilhelm said.
“We have given students opportunities that other schools have not,” he said “We’ve even had students suspended from public school who’ve come here and proven themselves capable, given the chance and expectations here.
“On the other hand, I know that to continue offering high quality education, we need to be careful of influences that are brought into the student body.”
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