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Amended Voucher Bill Clears Senate Appropriations Committee

With a 15-11 vote, this afternoon the Senate Appropriations Committee approved SB 1, the taxpayer-funded tuition voucher bill, after adding amendment that would greatly expand the program to allow children from middle-income families to be eligible to receive vouchers to attend private and religious schools. A final vote on the Senate floor may occur as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday.

PSBA is reviewing the language and will provide a detailed analysis soon. At this time, here are highlights of the omnibus amendment:

New “Middle-Income Scholarship Program” – As amended, vouchers are no longer targeted just for the poorest students whose family income does not exceed 130% of the federal poverty line. The new language makes vouchers available to children whose family income is at 130% – 300% of the poverty level. The new “middle-income scholarship program” would be available beginning in 2014-15, the fourth year of the voucher program.

Cap on Costs – The amendment would set a cap of $250 million beginning in the third year of the voucher program for costs for vouchers to low-income children who do not reside on the attendance boundary of an underachieving school. Language here clarifies that this provision does not limit the amount of vouchers that may be awarded to students who were eligible in the first and second years, or who live within the boundary of an underachieving school.

New Definition of “Persistently Lowest Achieving School” – The definition is revised and expanded to include the 144 schools already designated and any other school with the exception of those who met federal Adequate Yearly Progress requirements in at least one of the two most recent school years. (Charter and cyber charter schools and area vocational technical schools remain excluded) In addition, the bill requires all schools not excluded to be ranked based upon their most recent assessment data.

Lottery Selection for Public School Transfers – School districts that accept voucher students would be required to randomly select them from a pool of names, rather than the first-come-first-served basis that was under SB1.

Nonpublic Schools Administer Tests of Their Choice – The amendment establishes a weak system of “accountability” by requiring nonpublic schools to administer a test of their choosing to voucher students (only) in grades 3, 5, 8, and 11. The test may be a nationally normed standardized achievement test, or it can simply be “an assessment.” The nonpublic school must release the test results to the parents of the student, and post aggregate test results on its web site (if it has one), provided that the results would not reveal the identity of any student.

Limit on Laws Applicable to Nonpublic Schools — New language restricts the laws private schools have to follow to limit them to the ones that are in effect “on the date prior to the effective date of this section.”

New Pilot Public-to-Public Choice Program – Beginning in the fourth year, a public school choice demonstration program would be established to provide vouchers for public school students who wish to attend a nonresident public school. A district could not receive more than $500,000.

Other Voucher News:
Today PSBA released the results of a new poll pertaining to accountability standards of private, religious and other nonpublic schools enrolling students with a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher. According to the poll results, most Pennsylvanians feel private schools must meet certain accountability standards if they take public tax dollars in the form of tuition vouchers.

The survey asked participants if a tuition voucher law passed in Pennsylvania, would they favor or oppose private, religious and parochial schools that accept tuition vouchers being required to: 1) give the same tests as required of public schools; 2) report graduation rates and student achievement scores as required of public schools; and 3) report the same financial audits and financial reporting requirements as public schools.

The results show:

  • More than three quarters (75.9%) strongly favored or somewhat favored requiring achievement tests of private schools that accept vouchers. Only 23.8% opposed such a requirement.
  • Nearly 82% of participants strongly or somewhat favored requiring private schools to report graduation and student achievement rates if they accept tuition vouchers. Only 18% were opposed.
  • The vast majority (88%) strongly or somewhat favored private schools that accept tuition vouchers be required to report financial data. Only 12% opposed such a requirement.

Overwhelmingly, the poll results show that the public feels private schools need to be held to the same accountability standards as public schools if they are taking public dollars in the form of tuition vouchers.

What You Can Do:
SB 1 now goes to the Senate floor. Please call or email your senator immediately and ask him or her to vote “NO” on SB 1. In addition, it is not too early to contact your House members.

Also – please contact the parents in your school district to tell them about this bill and how it will impact your district, particularly in light of the budget crisis and reduced funding that will lead to less services and larger class sizes for your students.

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