Democracy Raising Newsletter

Member Group : Democracy Raising PA

Wanted: U.S.A. for Education Vouchers

As the state Senate begins to debate education vouchers, the discussion so far has centered on choices. The voucher program would give an entitlement to children whose family income is below 130% of the poverty level. They would be permitted to choose a school other than their neighborhood public school and take state and local tax dollars with them.

That’s where the discussion stops for us because the voucher proposal in its current form is entirely unaccountable, both academically and financially. In fact, it is not merely unaccountable; it is hostile to accountability. First, we’ll recite the problems. Then we’ll propose a solution.

Hostile to accountability.
The voucher proposal,
Senate Bill 1, [ ]
does at least seven major things to defeat accountability.
* It says that the state cannot in the future impose any new accountability
measures on non-public schools. There can be no new academic accountability
requirements or financial accountability requirements.
* It exempts the agency that runs the program from adopting its regulations
through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC). This means that
policies covering hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps billions; no one
knows) and hundreds of thousands of students are created and enforced without
any requirement of public knowledge and opportunity for public participation.
* The agency, a board, consists of three gubernatorial appointees with no one
political party allowed to have more than two seats on the board. Board members
need not have any qualifications, and their terms end only when the Senate
decides to confirm a replacement. This makes both the board and its members
political, not educational.
* The voucher program is explicitly exempted from the Commonwealth Attorneys
Act. This act gives the Attorney General authority to investigate and prosecute
cases involving organized crime, public corruption and consumer protection,
among other things.
* The voucher program is explicitly exempted from the Commonwealth Documents
Law. This law ensures that government agencies don’t exceed their legal
authority in adopting policies and procedures. It also requires the publication
of regulations in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, which is the official publication
of state government.
* The voucher bill gives the board a new, large and therefore expensive
state bureaucracy to manage. Nothing in the bill requires the board to hire
civil service employees with qualifications and salary caps. This permits
patronage hiring with arbitrary qualifications and salaries.
* The voucher board is authorized to study and report on its own effectiveness
rather than requiring the Auditor General to conduct independent studies and
In keeping with standard legislative priorities, those who serve on the voucher
board receive no salary. This is true of just about every board in state government
except, of course, the Gaming Control Board, whose members receive a base salary of
$145,000 a year.
USA to the rescue.
Apart from these "features" of the voucher proposal, there is another huge problem:
Low-income parents who are given a choice of schools for their children have no
objective information available to them that would allow them to compare the quality
of non-public schools with the quality of public schools.
The remedy for all of these problems is the USA, the Universal System of
Accountability. Its premise is simple: Any school, public or non-public, that
receives taxpayer dollars should be required to participate in an academic and
financial accountability system that is common to all schools. This means taking the
same tests of academic achievement and making the same reports on the expenditure of
taxpayer dollars. If there are any current requirements for the public schools that
are seen as too onerous for non-public schools, those requirements should be removed
from the public schools as well.
Only if SB 1 is amended with the USA or something like it can low-income parents,
like patients facing a decision about surgery, make an informed decision about the
risks and rewards associated with moving their children from one school to another.
Only with the USA or something like it can taxpayers be sure they are getting a
better deal for their money.
Another choice.
The voucher proposal, while cast as a debate about choice, does not provide the one
choice that most parents want: a high-quality public school close to home or
accessible by public transportation. The voucher proposal, therefore, allows the
General Assembly to walk away from creating the schools that parents want and that
the PA Constitution requires lawmakers to provide in
Article III, Section 14. [ ]
While you’re there, take a look at Section 15 and see what you think it says.
Perhaps while lawmakers debate a USA amendment to SB 1 and prepare nonpublic schools
to follow it in exchange for public tax dollars, they can spend their time actually
doing what they have taken an oath to do, namely obey the Constitution and provide
high-quality schools in every PA community.
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