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Sen. Piccola: House-passed school choice bill DOA in Senate.

By   /   May 10, 2011  /   3 Comments

Senate still pushing voucher program over EITC expansion.
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG —The education reform battle heated up on Tuesday as the state House passed a measure to expand an educational tax credit program, but the highest ranking member of the Senate Education Committee immediately threw cold water on the proposal.
The state House voted 190-7 to pass a bill expanding the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC, program, which provides scholarships to low- and middle-income families to attend private or faith-based schools.
The EITC is capped at $60 million this budget year. The bill passed Tuesday by the state House would increase it to $100 million next year and $200 million annually beginning with the 2012-13 budget year.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Tom Quigley, R-Montgomery, also would increase the maximum donation from a single business from $300,000 to $750,000 annually and would raise the income standard for families participating in the program from $60,000 to $75,000.
The EITC is funded through contributions from businesses to nonprofit scholarship organizations, which distribute the scholarship funds to eligible students who wish to attend private or religious schools. In return for their contribution, businesses receive a 75 percent tax credit.
Since the program was enacted in 2001, more than 250,000 students have received EITC scholarships.
State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, said the bill was “dead on arrival” in the state Senate, where another, broader school choice proposal is waiting for a final vote. Piccola’s proposal would create a statewide voucher program for lower- and middle-income students who wish to leave public schools.
The voucher proposal would redirect the per-student portion of the state’s basic education subsidy to school districts, allowing students to apply those funds to a school of their choice. The amount of the voucher would vary from district to district.
Dave Transue, Piccola’s chief of staff, said the senator was fully committed to the voucher plan, which includes a provision to increase the EITC to $100 million.
Quigley said the House bill was a “win-win” for Pennsylvania’s students and business community.
“I think it would be a mistake to say that it’s all or nothing,” said Quigley.
Republicans in the state House and state Senate are looking to expand education opportunities for Pennsylvania families, but cannot seem to agree on how to do it. After several months of informational hearings on school choice, the Senate voucher bill appeared ready for a final vote in the chamber last month, but tepid support from the governor and House Republicans delayed the vote.
House Republican leadership remains reluctant to publicly support the Senate proposal, even after some changes were made to bring Gov. Tom Corbett on board two weeks ago. Senate leaders are negotiating with House Republicans before taking a final vote on the bill.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, a co-sponsor of the voucher bill, encouraged Republicans to find a compromise on the two bills. He also urged Corbett to spend more time in Harrisburg pushing the voucher proposal.
“What’s so strange about this is that while the governor has gone off to Washington to praise vouchers, he has not been able to convince the House Republicans to support the vouchers here,” Dinniman said, referring to Corbett’s appearance at a national education reform rally Monday in the nation’s capital.
Corbett has proposed increasing the cap to $75 million next year, and last week Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis said the administration was sticking to that plan.
If the Senate does not accept the House’s plan to increase funding for the EITC program above that level, it will revert back to $75 million next year.
The Senate’s plan, meanwhile, remains in limbo, but House Republicans promised the bill would at least be on life support if it made it to their chamber.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said he intended to hold hearings on the voucher bill if the legislation passed the state Senate
“But we need to get the budget done on time,” Turzai said.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, opposes the Senate voucher bill because it would redirect a portion of state education dollars to the vouchers. The organization has not taken a position on the EITC expansion proposal passed by the state House.