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Pa. school voucher bill passes key committee

A controversial proposal to allow school vouchers in Pennsylvania cleared a key legislative committee on Tuesday.

A controversial proposal to allow school vouchers in Pennsylvania cleared a key legislative committee on Tuesday.

The Senate Education Committee voted in favor of a bill that would phase in a voucher program for low-income students over three years.

It is unclear whether the bill will pass in the Senate and, if so, what its fate would be in the House. Both chambers are Republican controlled.

Gov. Corbett supports school choice, but has yet to endorse the committee-approved legislation, sponsored by Sens. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) and Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia). "He plans to work with members of the House and the Senate to move the issue forward," said Janet Kelley, the governor's deputy director of communications.

The bill would allow qualifying low-income families to receive vouchers equal to the amount of per pupil state aid, which ranges from district to district but would be about $7,900 per student in Philadelphia. The vouchers would go toward tuition at private or parochial schools.

In the first year of the program, students from low-income families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level attending "persistently failing schools" could receive vouchers. In the second year, low-income students living within the attendance areas would also be eligible. In the third year, all low-income families also would become eligible, regardless of where they lived.

The bill also would expand the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit program from a total of $75 million to $100 million. Under the program, low- and middle-income students can receive scholarships paid for by businesses that receive tax credits from the state for their contributions.

"I am pleased my committee recognized the merits and need behind Senate Bill 1 and that opportunity scholarships, as well as the educational improvement tax credit, are critical to rescuing and affording our children the means to a better life," Piccola said.

"While we still have a long way to go with many daunting challenges ahead," Williams said, "our battles in this chamber pale in comparison to the daily struggles of parents trying to find a way to provide their children with a quality education."

In the 8-2 committee vote, Sens. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) and Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny) opposed the measure. Arguments against vouchers have included that their use would take away much-needed resources from struggling public schools and violate the state constitution.

Leach, Ferlo and Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) proposed various amendments, none of which was approved. Several aimed to improve the fiscal or academic accountability for the schools that receive voucher students.

"It seems in no other context do we give tax money so freely and get so little back in terms of accountability," said Leach.

"We are looking to parents for accountability, not to Pennsylvania," responded Piccola.