(Is there ANY state other than NH proposing non-targeted vouchers? Emphasis added in the editorial below)
The case for school vouchers -- with improvements to SB 1
Published: Wednesday, December 07, 2011, 6:00 AM
By Patriot-News Editorial Board
The state House of Representatives is the last hindrance to passing school vouchers in Pennsylvania. In the coming days, lawmakers should take the proposed bill, amend it for the better, and pass it.
The case for vouchers is obvious: There are about 150 schools in this commonwealth that have consistently underachieved. Some of those schools are in the Harrisburg School District — mere feet from the state Capitol.
Any middle-class family would simply move to a better school district or send their children to a private school. That is not an option for lower-income families.
A museum could be built for all the remedies that have been tried in failing schools and made little difference. The state has substantially increased public education funding in the last decade, there are more charter schools, and a parade of principals and superintendents have given it their best shot. There have even been state takeovers of various districts, where the elected school board steps aside and some sort of appointed board takes the reins. [does this sound like NH? (No.)]
While there have been pockets of success — such as Harrisburg’s SciTech High School — the overall situation remains dire in certain places. Vouchers are not another Band-Aid; they are a true game changer. If the legislation is done correctly, a student can potentially transfer from a school that is not achieving to one that is.
The loudest concerns about vouchers are cost, access and accountability. These are all valid issues.
Money is tight for everyone, including the government. Vouchers work by giving students up to about $8,000 to take with them to another school. There is no doubt that struggling districts will be impacted by students transferring, although it’s important to note that $8,000 is about half of what many of these districts spend per student.
The way to keep costs manageable is to limit the voucher program to only low-income students in the lowest-performing schools. At the moment, Senate Bill 1 does just that — for the initial years.
After year seven, Senate Bill 1 expands beyond the worst schools to include schools where at least half the students score below grade level in math or reading tests. The House should strike that provision. It is an issue that could be revisited later. The focus should be solely on students who are in the worst-case scenarios.
The second complaint is access. The reality is there are not enough open spaces at private and charter schools in this commonwealth to accept all the students from the state’s worst schools.
A far better option is to do what Gov. Tom Corbett said in his October education speech and allow low-income students to also use their voucher at another public school. At the moment, SB 1 does allow that, although public schools are not required to take voucher students.
The final piece of the puzzle is accountability. Introducing vouchers in Pennsylvania means a lot of public dollars — hundreds of millions — going to private schools. Taxpayers need assurances their dollars are not wasted. The House should amend the bill to make private schools — or at least students on vouchers — take PSSAs. It is the only fair basis of comparison. Those results should be publicly reported.
Vouchers could change lives for young people in this commonwealth who were simply born in the wrong school districts. But to make this work, the House should modify SB 1 to keep costs manageable and ensure taxpayer dollars are accountable.
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