It’s being hailed as a lifeline for parents frustrated by struggling schools and derided by critics as a body blow to the Harrisburg School District.
Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, is pushing a plan to establish a tuition voucher program that could help Harrisburg families put their children in private schools. The House Education Committee approved the plan Monday.
The full House started a debate on amendments to the bill Wednesday night – all were defeated by Turzai’s majority Republican caucus on a series of party-line votes. But with more amendments still to be considered, final House floor votes on the bill won’t happen before next month.
Some in the city see merit in Turzai’s plan, calling it a way to offer a better future for students in the academically underperforming district. But Harrisburg School District’s administrators and community members have sharply criticized the bill (House Bill 1800). Critics such as Rep. Patty Kim, D-Harrisburg, say it’s an untested experiment that could divert desperately needed tax dollars away from the struggling district.
Kim has urged her colleagues to join her in opposition of the bill.
“This bill only targets school districts with funding problems and then mandates them to pay millions of dollars for vouchers,” she said at a Monday committee hearing. “This, I believe, is the biggest flaw of this bill.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has taken a similar position, saying earlier this year that the bill would not receive his signature.
That doesn’t mean a tuition voucher program hasn’t been spoken about favorably by others in the community, including local school-choice proponents and even Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
“Students in the Harrisburg School District deserve access to a quality education, and they have been denied that for too long by the mismanagement of the prior administration,” the mayor said in August. “We need to have a broader discussion about how to fix public education in places like Harrisburg. But we can’t let an entire generation go without access to quality education in the meantime.”
The bill would require some Pennsylvania school districts in receivership to make at least half of their per-student basic education funding — a state subsidy — available via tuition vouchers to students who want to leave the failing public districts to instead attend private schools and out-of-district public schools.
District funds would then be matched by additional state dollars.
As it’s proposed, the bill includes language to target only Harrisburg School Districts, though others could be affected in the future if they enter receivership.
The Harrisburg district, which for decades has struggled both financially and academically, has been under court-ordered receivership since June, when a Dauphin County judge appointed new leadership at the request of state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.
Since then, it has been the goal of receiver Janet Samuels and her team to make improvements. But that may take time, and until positive changes are made, Harrisburg’s children should not be forced to remain in the failing district, Turzai and his supporters have said.
“The bottom line is that these students and parents need relief now,” state Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said at the Monday hearing, calling Harrisburg School District’s academic and financial status “currently completely unacceptable.”
That might be true, but the receiver and her team have been in place only about five months, which is too little time to remedy all issues, Kim said. She cited the achievements of the district’s new leadership, including an accurate accounting of its financial standing.
“This is significant progress for us, and we expect academic improvement in the near future,” she said.
READ MORE: Harrisburg schools not broke, but financial situation is dire
The district’s financial picture was bleak, showing that it has little savings and is expected to operate at a more than $2 million deficit in the 2019-20 school year. The voucher system, Kim said, will only further complicate the effort toward recovery by moving funds out of the district.
Under the program, if a student resides in Harrisburg School District and chooses to attend a private school, Harrisburg officials must make about $4,100 available to the student via a scholarship grant — commonly called a tuition voucher. That money would be matched by the state, making about $8,200 available to each eligible student.
The idea is that the voucher system would help low-income families living in the Harrisburg district cover the cost of private education, which they might not be able to afford on their own.
While it’s not an accounting of all private schools in the region, Rachel Bryson, a spokesman for the Dioceses of Harrisburg, explained that “generally speaking,” the voucher would be enough to cover the cost of tuition at most area Catholic schools.
That’s true at all grade levels — elementary through high school, she said, adding that those schools also would have the capacity to handle an influx of students.
“We do support the bill,” Bryson said.
If 20 percent of Harrisburg’s current student body took advantage of the voucher opportunity, it could cost the district upward of $8 million, according to a letter sent to PennLive by a group of stakeholders, including school board member Carrie Fowler and Kia Hansard, the cofounder of Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg, a local parents group.
That’s an amount the cash-strapped district cannot afford, the letter writers claimed.
That claim has been contested by Turzai and supporters of his bill such as Otto Banks, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Reach Alliance, a school-choice advocacy organization.
They’ve pointed out that even if Harrisburg students chose to take advantage of the voucher program, the district would be able to keep any money they receive for those students beyond the cost of the vouchers.
This summer, Turzai elaborated in a post to social media: “Harrisburg SD has $22,501 for each student it educates. District will pay $4,100 in a tuition grant; the other $18,400 remains with HSD.” Turzai did not respond to requests for comments for this story.
“I think this is a great tool that could be utilized for the recovery of the district,” Banks said, explaining it would also give children immediate access to non-failing private schools. “This isn’t an issue of public versus private. This is an issue of children and tuition.”
RELATED: Harrisburg mayor open to helping students attend non-city schools, saying ‘we can’t let an entire generation go’
The letter writers were joined by Jody Barksdale, a district teacher and president of the Harrisburg Education Association, who last week spoke out against the voucher program, saying the district’s new leadership hasn’t been given enough time to make improvements.
“We’re less than six months in,” she said.
Officials with the Pennsylvania State Education Association said they also oppose the bill.
At the Monday House Education Committee hearing, Rep. Stephen McCarter, D-Montgomery, raised questions about whether Harrisburg School District’s new leaders were consulted and what they thought about the bill.
Hours later at a Harrisburg School Board meeting, Acting Assistant Superintendent Chris Celmer said any loss of funding would be a drastic setback to the district, which is exploring all cost-saving measures available to bring it back to good economic standing.
“If it’s $100 leaving the district, that’s too much,” he said. “Certainly, as we budget and we try to project where we’re going to move as a district, a House bill like House Bill 1800, could really throw everything off kilter very quickly.
“All the hard work that we are doing to really put a picture of sustainability and a plan of sustainability forward could really take a hit, a detrimental hit if a bill like that happened to become law.”
Celmer’s comments echoed a statement issued by district administrators late last week, when they called the bill’s consideration “ill-timed.” They went on to say that the potential loss of funding “severely undermines the recovery of the Harrisburg School District; and it virtually guarantees that the district will forever remain in financial distress.”
And Hansard wondered why Harrisburg was chosen as the pilot district under the bill, especially by Turzai, who represents the suburbs of Pittsburgh and not Harrisburg.
As Hansard sees it, Harrisburg School District has become the lab rat, in a untested experiment.
“I think people need to truly understand the consequences,” she said. “I don’t think it has enough attention.”
And despite its financial ramifications, the bill should be criticized as one that promotes inequality, Hansard said. That’s because the people who run private schools will have the final say on whether Harrisburg students can move over to their institutions. If they wanted to, those private school officials could cherrypick the best and brightest of Harrisburg’s student body, refusing to allow admittance to low-performing students or others in need of specialized help, Hansard said.
State Rep. James Roebuck Jr., D-Philadelphia, the House Education Committee’s Democratic chair, also touched on that issue at Monday’s hearing, where he said the bill “supports discrimination by allowing schools to receive taxpayer money but still deny students.”
The bill passed in committee Monday with a 13-12 vote. If passed by the full House – and many observers believe that is a close call at the moment – it would then move to the Senate for further consideration.
In August, Wolf said he would not sign the bill, and last week, his spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said nothing has changed.
“Governor Wolf opposes voucher programs that divert tax dollars from public schools to private schools. The solution is not to drain resources from Harrisburg public schools but rather putting leadership and changes in place to begin turning the district around to benefit all students,” Abbott said in a statement. “This voucher program could not help all students and many families still could not make up the difference between the voucher and private school tuition.”
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