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July 11, 2014, 9:36 pm

Teachers union head questions voucher system

On the surface, House Bill 2468 — one of the amendments to the Public School Code of 1949 — appears to offer parents and students across the commonwealth a myriad of public education options, but it has drawn considerable scorn from one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful teacher unions.

Republican state Representative Jim Christiana is the prime sponsor of HB 2468, which has recently been sent to the assembly’s education committee for vote.

HB 2468 offers several additions and alterations to the public school code, such as raising income allowances of households with schoolchildren for tax credit purposes and increasing the maximum household income level; increasing the level of tax credits going to businesses that donate a certain percentage of proceeds to approved educational programs; redefining the rules governing scholarships; and the establishment of an educational tax credit program designed to enhance educational opportunities available to all students.

The amendment, for example, includes tiered raises of household income allowance, which is currently set at $10,000 per eligible child per household. That number increases to $12,000 for the year beginning June 30, and increases to $15,000 after June 30, 2013.

This coincides with the amendment’s increase in the maximum annual household income threshold, which is now capped at $50,000. That cap number rises to $60,000 for next year, and will top out at $75,000 for the year beginning June 30, 2013.

A $200,000,000 aggregate tax credit limit has been imposed as well, with $62,000,000 going to businesses that have made contributions to scholarship organizations.

A further $30,000,000 in tax credits is earmarked for businesses contributing to educational improvement organizations, while $130,000,000 combined will go to businesses that contribute to pre-kindergarten scholarship organizations and opportunity scholarship organizations.

Taken alone, each of the measures bodes well for heads of households concerned about school choice and educational environment. Of concern, however, to American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania President Ted Kirsch is that these measures, when coupled with the tax breaks given to businesses and corporations, equate to a stealth voucher system, designed to undermine the public school system — and parents’ faith in them.

“A week before the state budget deadline, Pennsylvania legislators should focus on finding new resources school districts need to strengthen public schools, instead of pushing through a stealth voucher bill that would undermine them,” Kirsch said in a letter released by AFT PA. “House Bill 2468, which would expand the Educational Improvement Tax Credit for corporations to provide scholarships to poor children in low-performing schools, is a back-door voucher that will divert needed taxpayer dollars away from cash-strapped public schools for the benefit of private and parochial schools.”

Language contained in HB 2468 seems to back up Kirsch’s contention. The General Assembly found that “providing the opportunity for inter-district school choice is a critical means of providing families with increased educational options within the traditional public school systems.”

“It is the long-term goal of the General Assembly to offer assistance to all families in the Commonwealth, to provide every child in this Commonwealth with diverse educational opportunities and options,” read the assembly’s findings, which are included in HB 2468 documentation. “As an initial step toward the long-term goal … this article provides assistance to disadvantaged school-age children in this Commonwealth who would otherwise attend persistently low-achieving schools.

“Many disadvantaged school-age residents of this Commonwealth enjoy comparatively fewer educational opportunities or options than school-age residents who possess greater economic means,” the assembly’s statement continued. “The accessibility to families of nonpublic educational alternatives decreases the burdens on the Commonwealth and local school districts and increases the range of educational choices available to Pennsylvania families, thus providing a benefit to all citizens of this Commonwealth.”

Kirsch said this simply isn’t true, and points to EITC’s recent, spotty history as proof.

“In the first 10 years of the EITC program, the state’s taxpayers spent $335 million to subsidize 38,000 children to attend private schools, with no accountability for how the money was spent by the schools or the scholarship organizations,” Kirsch said. “HB 2468 would increase the taxpayer subsidy to private and parochial schools to $300 million a year by 2014, and increase it every year thereafter. Despite the sizeable vouchers of $8,500–$15,000 per student per year, neither program includes any mechanism to evaluate its effectiveness, verify student achievement or ensure that it serves disadvantaged students.

“EITC and the new educational improvement scholarship credit, referred to as EITC 2.0, are unaffordable and unaccountable programs designed to subsidize private schools at the expense of public schools,” Kirsch continued. “At a time when school districts are slashing education programs, raising class sizes, eliminating art, music and sports programs, and limiting student access to nurses, counselors, advanced placement courses and career and technical programs, it is imperative that legislators focus their energy on making sure that the public schools, which serve 90 percent of the state’s children, are funded adequately and equitably, instead of creating a public lottery system where there are a few winners and a whole lot of losers.”

 

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .