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PA: Tax credit school choice plan may replace vouchers

By   /   June 11, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers are planning for a final push that could give about 30,000 students a way out of the state’s poorest performing school districts.

State Rep. Jim Christiana

State Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Allegheny, plans to introduce legislation Tuesday that would create a business tax credit program to fund scholarships for students in the 15 percent worst performing school districts.  (Click here to read a memo outlining the proposal.)

The plan would mirror the Education Improvement Tax Credit program, which directs business contributions to scholarship accounts for students from families who make less than $75,000 annually.

The new plan would be called the Education Improvement Scholarship Credit.

The EITC would remain on schedule to increase to $200 million next year, but Christiana’s proposed program would be capped at $100 million the first year and grow to $200 million by the third year, he said Monday.

“It’s an attractive program for those who want to get students out of violent, failing schools,” Christiana said.

He warned that the bill could change after House Republican leadership signed onto the plan.

Gov. Tom Corbett

Gov. Tom Corbett and Senate Republicans spent most of last year pressing for a voucher program that would direct some state tax dollars from public schools to scholarships for low-income students in failing schools.

The plan passed the state Senate in October, but did not receive much traction in the state House.

Christiana said the tax credit proposal — in which businesses would contribute to scholarship accounts and be rewarded with a partial tax break — has advantages over the voucher plan.

“It gets rid of some of the concerns about taking dollars out of the public schools in a year when the education budget is flat-funded,” he said.

The state House passed a measure to expand funding to the EITC last year with more than 190 members voting for it, an overwhelming show of bipartisan support for the program.

That bill awaits action in the state Senate, where the Republican majority would prefer to pair it with a voucher plan.

But this latest plan might not face smooth sailing.

Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats, said the real issue for many members was the Corbett administration’s decision to reduce funding to basic education.

“The real solution is proper funding of public schools and not experimental voucher plans,” he said.

The budget bill passed by the state Senate included $100 million for financially struggling school districts. It’s unclear how that would change if the state House approved $100 million for Christiana’s proposed program.

Proponents of school choice in the Legislature said the new proposal would accomplish the same goals as vouchers via different means.

State Rep. Tony Payton

“This is just the beginning, because the reality is that the status quo sucks and anyone who is going to argue for doing nothing has to own that fact,” said state Rep. Tony Payton, D-Philadelphia, a cosponsor of the plan and a proponent of school choice.

“It’s going to have an immediate impact on the kids in those schools,” said Anastasia Przybylski, a pro-voucher lobbyist for FreedomWorks who hails from Bucks County.

Earlier in the day, Corbett said he wanted to see three education reforms included in the upcoming budget deal: teacher evaluations, charter school reforms and special education funding.

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