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Modified Corbett education reform plan readied for Tuesday vote in Senate committee

By   /   October 24, 2011  /   3 Comments

Lack of charter school authorization process could be stumbling block
By Eric | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — A controversial bill that would offer public school vouchers to low-income families whose children are in failing schools could pass the state Senate as early as Wednesday, but it lacks certain elements that could jeopardize long-term support.

The Senate Education Committee is expected to approve an amendment to Senate Bill 1, which will replace this bill, at a Tuesday morning meeting, setting the stage for a final vote. The amendment contains most of the new school choice proposal outlined earlier this month by Gov. Tom Corbett, primarily the voucher program, but not the teacher evaluation reforms and alternative charter school authorizations.
Leaders of the committee, including state Sen. Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, the original bill's sponsor, declined to comment on the pending vote, but proponents of education reform were upbeat about possible movement on one of the Republican’s top agenda items.
“This is the bill that will get out of the Senate,” said Ana Puig, co-founder of the Kitchen Table Patriots, a Bucks County-based tea party group. Puig has been lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the voucher proposal since early spring.
The amendment would establish a voucher program beginning in the 2012-13 school year and be open to students attending one of the state’s 143 “failing schools,” as defined by the state Department of Education. Those schools are in the state’s bottom 5 percent based on student performance as measured on standardized testing.
The student’s family must earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold, or $29,000 for a family of four, to be eligible for the full voucher. Families making up to $41,000 would be eligible for a partial voucher.
In the second year, the program would be open to students assigned to those failing schools, but not attending them, if they meet the same income guidelines. 
The proposed third year of the governor’s plan — in which eligibility would be further expanded — was not included.
Teachers unions oppose school vouchers, because they would redirect a portion of state-level spending from school districts to vouchers, which allow families to use those tax dollars to defray the cost of charter or private schools.
“This kind of spending is reckless, ill-advised and dangerous for the students who learn in Pennsylvania’s public schools,” said Jim Testerman, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. “Our public schools work, and tuition voucher plans don’t. It’s that simple.”
Two weeks ago, Corbett pointed to the state’s failing schools, which, on average, have fewer than 35 percent of students performing at grade level in reading and math.
“When we have failing schools, we know we have failing students," Corbett said. "We can't continue down the same path and think we're going to get a different result."
Whether the bill can get through the House is a bigger question, although the endorsement by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, of Corbett’s proposal two weeks ago is a big step.
Questions on charter schools remain
But what is getting more attention is what the bill does not include, such as a parallel route for charter school authorizations.
“It’s a good first step, but it is imperfect,” said Ken Kilpatrick, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, or PCPCS, which represents the interests of charter schools, of the Senate-proposed amendment. “We’re looking forward to working with the Legislature on the House and the Senate side.”
PCPCS supported Corbett’s plan to create vouchers and a second track for the authorization of public charter schools. Much of that support hinged on establishing a statewide body under the Department of Education that would create new charter schools and regulate them.
Under law, only school districts can create new charter schools, which the PCPCS said causes a conflict of interest.
Districts might oppose new charter schools because they believe the new schools would cause them to lose money, Kilpatrick said.
The Pennsylvania School Board Association, or PSBA, which represents school district governing bodies, opposes Corbett’s charter school reform plan because of the costs that charter schools incur on school districts. The PSBA opposes the state-level authorization of charter schools, because it would eliminate local control of the process.
“The key problem with a central or multiple authorizers is that they would have no direct connection or responsibility to the local communities and taxpayers who will pay the bills,” said the PSBA in a statement responding to the governor's proposal.
Debate in House also looms
The amendment to be voted on Tuesday also will expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, or EITC, a 10-year-old program that provides scholarships to low-income students and is funded by corporate contributions to a scholarship fund. 
In the Senate amendment, the EITC will grow from $75 million this year to $100 million in next year's budget and $125 million in the following year. The EITC would continue to expand by 5 percent annually thereafter.
The EITC component of the legislation should have widespread support; a similar plan passed in May with 190 votes.
But vouchers could remain a sticking point in the House.
Democrats generally oppose them, with the exception of state Rep. Tony Payton, D-Philadelphia, who tried to engineer a voucher bill compromise before the budget was passed.
“We cannot afford vouchers in Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, on Monday. “We just cut $1 billion out of our education budget, property taxes went up, and we had to lay off thousands of school employees.”
Republicans hold a 112-91 majority in the state House, but not all members of the GOP are sold on the narrow voucher plan.
“I think we’re waiting to see what comes over to us from the Senate,” said state Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester. “But I would still support as broad of an approach as possible.”
Schroder is the author of a plan to make vouchers available to all students, regardless of income level or geography, which has some backers among rural Republicans.
The Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools is withholding comment until the bill officially is amended Tuesday.