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February 03, 2011
By: Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17

Recently, there has been a lot of attention paid to Senate Bill 1, which would for the first time create a system of taxpayer-funded vouchers which parents could allegedly use to “choose” what school their child can go to if their current school is inadequate. This is certainly a bold idea. It creates a very expensive, new entitlement program in the midst of an unprecedented budget crisis. Given that, as a member of the Senate Education Committee, I feel it is important to subject this legislation to the scrutiny that any proposal this far-reaching deserves.

SB 1 proposes to give each eligible student an average of $9,000 to use at any other public or private school that is willing to take them. Over the course of the first 3 years of the program, this will cost the state several hundred million dollars. The first obvious question is where all of that money is going to come from. “School-choice” advocates say it will follow the child from the old school to the new.

The problem with that is that the old school will not save $9,000 when the student leaves. Most of the costs of running a public school are fixed. If a child leaves, you still need the same teachers, you still need to heat the building, pay the nurse, hire a security guard, etc. So if more money is taken from the school than is saved by the child leaving, the old school is left worse off than before: poorer, and with fewer resources per child for those left behind. This is particularly important because the bill creates a structure where the overwhelming majority of children won’t actually get to “choose” anything and will instead remain at their current school.

The bill says a student can use the voucher at either another public school or a private one. But no school is required to accept any child. Both public and private schools are not only free to set their own criteria for admission; they are free to not accept vouchers at all.

In the case of private schools, most charge far more than $9,000 per year. Supporters of SB 1 do not explain how the “low-income” people eligible for vouchers would come up with the additional thousands of dollars they would need to “choose” to go to their favorite private school. Further, it is highly unlikely that those private schools with strict academic or performance standards will alter those in order to participate in a voucher program. So even if such schools do participate, only the top students of any given school are likely to be accepted, leaving the rest of the students exactly where they were.

Similarly, public schools are also likely to accept few, if any, children with vouchers. We are facing dramatic cuts in state aid to public education. In this climate, “better” public schools are unlikely to subsidize the education of many students from outside of their districts. Who will pay the difference between the $9,000 voucher and the $20,000 or more that most of the better public schools spend per child now? Absent a source of those additional funds, most public schools will, quite reasonably, use their resources to educate the children of their own taxpayers.

The tuition at some (but certainly not all) religious schools is low enough that the proposed voucher would cover it. But putting aside the constitutionality or wisdom of using taxpayer dollars to fund specific Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or other religious education, this will also not be an option for most low-income children. Parochial schools have been closing all across Pennsylvania. There are now 35 counties without any such schools at all. It is unlikely that the remaining religious schools will actually have room to educate more than a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of children eligible for vouchers each year.

There are many other questions raised by this voucher proposal, including whether schools accepting the vouchers would be required to comply with Federal legislation regarding children with special needs, or what level of accountability will be imposed on now unaccountable private schools who start taking state money. But for me, the key concern is that we don’t end up subsidizing a few children to go to private school by depleting our public schools. If we create a system where the slogan “my-child, my choice” is an empty false promise, and results in most children being relegated to schools that we incrementally abandon, we will have failed our children utterly and robbed our future of its greatest potential.

Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17