Public hearing discusses school choice and tuition vouchers

Should par­ents get Pennsylvania tax dol­lars — money to be taken from spend­ing on pub­lic schools — to help them pay for tu­ition at private, non-pub­lic or charter schools?

Demo­crat­ic state sen­at­ors held a pub­lic hear­ing last week to hear some an­swers to that ques­tion. They got more than yes or no an­swers.

The hear­ing on school choice and tu­ition vouch­ers held at Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia’s North­east Re­gion­al Cam­pus on Town­send Road on Aug. 2 really was a pan­el dis­cus­sion between the pros and the cons. Only a few com­ments were taken from the pub­lic.

The ses­sion was hos­ted by state Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) and was chaired by state Sen. Lisa Boscola, Demo­crat­ic chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate Policy Com­mit­tee.

The state’s le­gis­lat­ors are con­sid­er­ing al­low­ing for tax-fun­ded tu­itions vouch­ers and tax-cred­it fun­ded schol­ar­ships so middle- and low-in­come par­ents can choose to send their kids to non-pub­lic or private schools like charter or Cath­ol­ic schools. Sev­er­al school choice bills are be­ing taken up by the Gen­er­al As­sembly.

One ar­gu­ment against the idea was that, by draw­ing from the $26 bil­lion Pennsylvania spends on pub­lic edu­ca­tion, vouch­ers would im­pov­er­ish the pub­lic sys­tem.

One speak­er noted that want­ing to go to a charter school, for ex­ample, is no guar­an­tee a child could get in­to that school. Oth­ers ar­gued that non-pub­lic schools are not well-reg­u­lated, so nobody can de­term­ine how well chil­dren are do­ing.

Vouch­ers wouldn’t help the chil­dren who re­main in the pub­lic schools, said Lawrence Fein­berg, co-chair­man of the Key­stone State Edu­ca­tion Co­ali­tion.

“They’re a dis­trac­tion, a waste of polit­ic­al time and polit­ic­al ac­tion,” said Fein­berg.

Le­gis­la­tion pro­mot­ing tu­ition vouch­ers “cre­ates private en­ter­prise, not edu­ca­tion,” said Joan Duvall-Flynn, NAACP Pennsylvania State Con­fer­ence Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee chair­wo­man.

Pro­ponents of school choice and tu­ition vouch­ers said par­ents are tax­pay­ers and if they want to send their chil­dren to schools out­side a pub­lic school sys­tem they don’t think is work­ing, they should get some of their own tax money to help them do that.

Low-in­come par­ents, es­pe­cially, they ar­gued, have to ac­cept the pub­lic schools be­cause they don’t have the funds to send their chil­dren to charter schools, private schools or Cath­ol­ic schools. Tax-fun­ded tu­ition vouch­ers would help them put their kids in­to schools out­side a pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem that has many fail­ing schools.

Vouch­ers, said Otto Banks, dir­ect­or of REACH Al­li­ance and Found­a­tion, “give par­ents a choice.” Tax­pay­ers should be al­lowed to make their own choices with their tax dol­lars, he said.

And Dawn Chav­ous, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Stu­dents First PA, countered the anti-vouch­er ar­gu­ment that there is no over­sight of charter schools and that there is no real ac­count­ab­il­ity in the pub­lic school sys­tem be­cause there are no con­sequences for fail­ure.

“It isn’t over­sight at all,” she said.

Sean McAleer of the Pennsylvania Cath­ol­ic Con­fer­ence ar­gued that Cath­ol­ic schools are run more ef­fi­ciently than pub­lic schools, and that school vouch­ers would give more fam­il­ies a chance to send their kids to Cath­ol­ic schools.

After more than an hour of back-and-forth, Stack said he saw a lot to agree with and a lot to dis­agree with. Meas­ures be­ing con­sidered in the le­gis­lature would take a lot of money from pub­lic schools, which he said he sup­ports when they’re work­ing and cri­ti­cizes when they’re not.

“We’re talk­ing about a bil­lion dol­lars go­ing from pub­lic schools,” he said.

There are points that need to be con­sidered, he said.

Do we have to hurt one sys­tem for the oth­er?

And, he said, “How do we solve this prob­lem soon?”  ull;•

Con­tact John Loftus at 215-354-3110 or at

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