Pennsylvania's school voucher legislation isn't about low-income students
Published: Tuesday, June 14, 2011, 5:00 AM
By Patriot-News Op-Ed
By Sharon Kletzien and Larry Feinberg
Proponents of tuition vouchers, including legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett, often promote the idea as one needed to help children from low-income families “escape” from struggling schools to attend private or religious schools.
CHRIS KNIGHT, The Patriot-NewsSchool voucher proponents say it's all about helping low-income students succeed, but in Pennsylvania, that's not what the proposed bill does.
News media outlets, including The Patriot-News, have unwittingly or passively played right along with that story line. But facts are stubborn things. And the facts show a completely different picture.
Senate Bill 1, the voucher legislation that Gov. Corbett professes to support, was initially introduced by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin County) as a program targeted to provide tax-funded vouchers to low-income families in 144 public schools identified as struggling, based on standardized test scores.
But facing criticism from those who favor a more wide-open tuition voucher plan, S.B. 1 has been amended in a way that dramatically changes the focus, along with the intended beneficiaries, of the proposed program.
In its current form, S.B. 1 would send more taxpayer money to middle-income families whose children are already enrolled in private schools.
The current version of S.B. 1 increases eligibility by increasing income limits ($78,225 for a family of four).
This “reverse Robin Hood” scheme would cap voucher spending for low-income students and provide more to middle-income families.
The move marks a complete reversal of course from the original stated purpose of the bill: to provide low-income students in failing schools with options to attend private schools.
Amendments added to S.B. 1 would siphon tax dollars from the families that voucher proponents claim need vouchers the most.
The Senate’s own fiscal note projects that only 8 percent of students from the original 144 public schools that S.B. 1 targets will use a voucher.
That’s 6,500 of 72,000 eligible students.
However, 65 percent of the students who would receive a voucher under the amended version of S.B. 1 are already attending a private and parochial school.
This means most of the money from this will go to students who aren’t in public schools, further diminishing available resources.
Low-income families might still have to pay the difference between the voucher and the private school tuition. That’s money that many families do not have. The majority of low-income children will be left in under-resourced schools that will have even less support, which means fewer programs for students.
S.B. 1 is definitely not a solution for poor students. The mythology behind tuition vouchers goes further. Proponents like to claim vouchers will give parents a “choice.”
Once again, the facts make clear that claim just isn’t so. No student is assured access to private schools. Their application can be rejected for any reason. Voucher programs enable private schools to maintain their “choice,” not parents.
Private and religious schools have the ability to reject any student they want to reject for admission and later can expel any student.
Another myth that the proponents like to trot out is that tuition vouchers will save taxpayers money. Sorry, but that’s also untrue.
S.B. 1, according to official estimates, will cost more than $1 billion in tax dollars to implement through the initial four years. Public schools cannot “save” money when a few students across different grade levels transfer to a private school.
The cost of a voucher program would inevitably be drained away from the public schools, which by law must educate all students who enroll. S.B. 1 also would add an additional level of bureaucracy to administer the vouchers, another expense for taxpayers. Pennsylvania cannot afford to invest $1 billion in a program plagued with no proven track record of success.
That’s why the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Keystone State Education Coalition — and all 30 of the organizations who make up the Pennsylvanians Opposed to Vouchers coalition — oppose this legislation.
Sharon Kletzien is education specialist for the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. Larry Feinberg is co-chair of the Keystone State Education Coalition. They are involved in Pennsylvanians Opposed to Vouchers (www.paopposedtovouchers.org).
Related topics: Pennsylvanians Opposed to Schol Vouchers coalition, School Vouchers