HARRISBURG—Calling school choice "the civil rights movement of this century," state Sens. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Jeffrey E. Piccola (R-Dauphin and York) announced the details of a highly anticipated "opportunity scholarship" plan today targeting the Commonwealth’s worst schools and most impoverished families.
The plan would allow the parents of a needy child to take the state subsidy that would have been directed to their home school district and apply it to the public, private or parochial school of their choice. For the Harrisburg School District, for example, that amount would equal approximately $9,000, based upon information from the state Department of Education website (2008-09 year).
"We are blessed with many outstanding public schools and teachers in this Commonwealth," said Piccola, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "We also know that we have a group of schools that have been persistently failing, unsafe and falling short in meeting the needs of our kids and families who cannot afford to move to a better school district. Our plan targets these schools and those students who are trapped."
"Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids in failing urban schools is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the ’60s," Williams said. "Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? All kids deserve access to a great education –regardless of race, income or zip code. Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity."
"Our education system is the last public monopoly in America. Taxpayers can no longer subsidize, support or ignore failure," said Williams. "Too many children are trapped by their zip code in schools that are not making the grade. We are robbing our kids of a fundamental right."
The Williams-Piccola plan would give scholarships to families meeting certain income limits for either public or private schools. The bill–Senate Bill 1 to reflect its priority status— also includes an increase of $25 million in the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, bringing the total tax credits available under EITC to $100 million.
The plan calls for a three-year phase-in. In the first year, only low-income students currently attending persistently failing schools would be eligible for a grant. In the second year, low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of those schools, but currently attending private schools, would be eligible; and in the third year, all low-income students regardless of school district would be eligible.
"Low-income" is defined as families whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level – a family of four would qualify at $28,665.
Piccola and Williams likened this phase-in to a rescue plan for a three-story burning building. The plan would rescue the most at-risk children first, then move to the lower two floors. And to those choice opponents who question what students should be saved, or what happens to those left behind, Williams responded, "This is an emergency. Why wouldn’t you save as many as you can?"
"Let’s give parents who are trapped an exit strategy," Piccola said.
The Senate Education Committee held a 10-hour hearing on school choice in October, featuring testimony from proponents such as the REACH Alliance, the Philadelphia Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, and from opponents, such as the teachers’ unions and the Southeastern Pennsylvania School Districts Education Coalition. Another hearing is slated for mid-February.
Piccola and Williams said that by phasing in the plan, the financial impact can be spread out over time, allowing state revenues to rebound as the recession fades and the deficit is addressed.
"In the end, school choice has the power to save taxpayers money because it has traditionally cost less to educate children in a nonpublic setting," Piccola said.
School choice was debated during the Ridge Administration in the late ’90s in the form of bills known as "KIDS I" and "KIDS II."
"This effort would not have been possible without Governor-elect Tom Corbett and his embrace of this concept," Piccola said. "We are eager to work with the new Administration and the House to bring transformative change and competition to our schools. I am also excited to work with my friend Anthony Williams, who has been a visionary in rescuing kids from substandard schools and who elevated the importance of school choice in the Democratic primary for governor."
"Providing access to a quality education for every child is the most important issue facing our state and our nation today," said Williams. "The broad-based support for this bill transcends party and regional lines. The parents and taxpayers of this Commonwealth are speaking to us loudly and clearly. They cannot wait one more year or even one more day. They want school choice now. There can be no compromise on that. We must make school choice a reality with all deliberate speed."
Governors in Florida, Nevada, Indiana and Wisconsin are also advocating plans to give private school grants to families. Today, 12 states and the District of Columbia have vouchers or tax-credit programs that provide scholarships to mainly low-income students to attend private schools, according to the Commonwealth Foundation.
A complete summary of the bill is below.
CONTACT: Diane McNaughton of Sen. Piccola’s Office at (717) 787-6801
and Mike Nixon of Sen. Williams’ Office at (267) 248-9100
KEY FEATURES OF PROPOSED SENATE BILL 1 – "OPPORTUNITY SCHOLARSHIP AND EDUCATIONAL IMPROVEMENT TAX CREDIT ACT"
• Includes scholarships for both public-to-public and public-to-private school choice
• Includes an EITC funding increase bringing the program to $100 million and moves the EITC provisions back into the School Code
0. An increase of $25 million over the $75 million that will be in effect in fiscal year 2011-2012
• Program will be administered by an Educational Choice Board (an independent board inside the Pennsylvania Department of Education)
• Pennsylvania Supreme Court will have exclusive jurisdiction over challenges, with the ability to render a declaratory judgment on the law’s constitutionality
• Funding for the scholarship program will be subject to annual appropriation, with funds distributed on a pro rata basis if the program is underfunded
II. Scope of Scholarship Program
• Eligibility: All low-income children, phased in as follows:
o Year 1 – low-income students currently attending persistently lowest-achieving schools only
o Year 2 – all low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of a persistently lowest-achieving school
o Year 3 – all low-income students regardless of school
• Definition of "persistently lowest-achieving school": A public elementary or secondary school in Pennsylvania achieving within the lowest measured group of 5% on the most recent assessment for which data is posted on PDE’s website.
o 144 schools fall within this category
• Definition of "low-income child": 1.30% of federal poverty level (see chart below)
The 2010 Poverty Guidelines for the
48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia
Persons in family Poverty guideline*
2 14,570 (1.3% = $18,941)
3 18,310 (1.3% = $23,803)
4 22,050 (1.3% = $28,665)
5 25,790 (1.3% = $33,527)
6 29,530 (1.3% = $38,389)
7 33,270 (1.3% = $43,251)
8 37,010 (1.3% = $48,113)
*For families with more than 8 persons, add $3,740 for each additional person.
III. Amount of Opportunity Scholarship
• Amount of opportunity scholarship:
o Base amount of 100% of the state’s per-pupil subsidy to the child’s resident school district
o Not to exceed the student’s actual tuition at the school district or private school attended
• Excess scholarship fund for existing private school students:
o During year 1, any amount awarded to a student over and above the student’s actual tuition charge will be placed into a dedicated fund that will be used to help fund the scholarship program for existing private school students beginning in year 2
• For public-to-public enrollment:
o In addition to the state-funded opportunity scholarship, a student’s resident school district may create a locally-funded scholarship equal to at least 35% of local per-pupil spending
Locally-funded scholarship serves as an additional incentive for a district to receive nonresident students
o Student applies directly for admission to other public school districts
o School districts will not be required to accept scholarship students, but instead will develop their own admissions policies requiring that, if any students are accepted, they are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis
School districts may give priority to students whose resident school districts award a locally-funded scholarship
• Enrollment applications: Students apply directly to the school district or private school desired, which notifies the Educational Choice Board of the student’s enrollment
• Scholarship applications: Students apply directly to the Educational Choice Board, which determines the scholarship amounts and distributes the awards
o For students attending private school:
Priority in granting awards to elementary students will be given to students whose private schools will "match" the opportunity scholarship award up to the amount of tuition
Payment made by check to the parents, payable only to the private school the student attends
o For students attending public school: Payment made by transfer from the Commonwealth directly to the public school the student attends
• Education Choice Board:
o 3 members appointed by the governor with Senate confirmation
o 4-year terms
o Develops guidelines for implementation of the program and administers the program
o Board may hire an executive director and staff
o PA Dept. of Education provides office space, funding and equipment
• Increases EITC funding level to $100 million
o An increase of $25 million over the $75 million that will be in effect in fiscal year 2011-2012
• Ratio of credit amount made available to scholarship organizations vs. educational improvement organizations will be changed from 2:1 to 3:1
• Other proposed changes to program:
o Applications for tax credits will be accepted in the following priority:
–Tax credits for the second year of a two-year commitment AND tax credits for an educational improvement organization that is also school foundation
–Tax credits for the renewal of a two-year commitment
–Applications by pass-through entities
o Credits may be claimed on joint returns
o Automatic increase mechanism:
o Beginning in the 2014-2015 fiscal year (the fourth year of implementation of the opportunity scholarship program), the available EITC credit would automatically increase by 5% if, in any fiscal year, the amount of credit approved equals or exceeds 90% of the amount of credit available
o Increased available credit amount would be the base amount available going forward