INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

HARRISBURG - During a day-long hearing before a state Senate committee Wednesday, school-voucher advocates argued that the issue boiled down to a matter of choice.

Low-income families, voucher proponents argued, should have the same kind of choice that wealthier families have always had - to opt out of local public schools in favor of private or parochial schools.

Opponents countered, with equal passion, that by taking money and students out of public schools, vouchers would hurt the schools that needed the most help.

Wednesday was the Education Committee's first hearing on a bill that would create a program to allow low-income students to attend private and parochial schools with the aid of taxpayer-funded vouchers.

In its first year, the program would be open to students whose families earned up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line and who attended the "persistently lowest-achieving schools."

In the second year, low-income children who were already enrolled in a private or parochial school but who lived within the attendance boundary of a persistently lowest-achieving school would also be eligible.

In the third year, low-income children living anywhere in Pennsylvania would be eligible for vouchers.

The amounts of each voucher would vary from district to district. In addition, the bill would increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which provides businesses tax credits for helping to fund scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend private and parochial schools, from $75 million a year to $100 million a year.

The hearing lasted more than nine hours and yielded heated rhetoric from both sides.

Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), a sponsor of the voucher bill, estimated the legislation would cost taxpayers less than $50 million, including the $25 million increase for the tax-credit program.

"This bill is not an attack on public education," said Piccola, who chairs the education committee. "It is an attack on expensive failures."

Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), who is also sponsoring the bill, urged his colleagues to take action to help the students who have been trapped in failing public schools for generations.

"I'm here today for one reason," Williams said. "I'm here to speak for a generation that has no one speaking for it. I'm compelled by my conscience and my compassion. I'm here because it's fair. Those who have can make choices. . . . Those who don't are obligated and relegated."

Piccola and Williams, like many of the voucher proponents who testified Wednesday, argued that school choice is the civil-rights issue of the age.

"We are out of time," said Otto Banks, executive director of REACH Alliance, which advocates for school choice. "We can't afford to allow another child to be left behind."

Ronald Tomalis, Gov. Corbett's nominee to lead the state Education Department, in his first extended public comments said the Corbett administration supports the idea of parental choice in education.

"For too many of our students in the commonwealth, failure is the only option," Tomalis said.

He said that while low-income students in failing schools had the most pressing needs, school choice has the potential to help improve all schools, by spurring schools to compete.

"I believe it is not our job to defend a system when that system fails to meet the needs of children," Tomalis said.

Critics of school vouchers argued that the proposed legislation does not require financial or academic accountability of the private or parochial schools that would receive public dollars.

"There are no requirements in the bill for private or religious schools to be successful, no standards or measures to make sure they are successful, before or after they get the vouchers," said Baruch Kintisch, director of policy advocacy for the Education Law Center, which advocates for families with the neediest children in public schools. "Those schools could be worse than the neighborhood schools that they're coming from."

Voucher proponents argued that parents would be the best people to determine whether a school would work for their child and that, armed with vouchers, they could vote with their feet.

Michael Crossey, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers' union, which opposes the legislation, said the bill "lacks even the most basic accountability measures."

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery-Delaware) was among those who argued that vouchers would hurt the public schools by draining away funds. Even though some public schools would have fewer children to educate, fixed costs would remain the same.

"This is not a neutral bill," Leach said. "This is a bill which takes the money from the kids left behind. Rather than saying 'this is saving five starving people,' this is saving five starving people by taking the food from the other 50. This is a bill that helps a few people, possibly, but hurts everyone else."

Leach also took issue with the idea of children attending parochial schools with publicly funded vouchers and being subject to religious instruction that contradicts their own beliefs. Voucher proponents responded, again, that parents were in the best position to decide whether a school's religious instruction was appropriate for their child.

"Let's not spend the money on a program that will benefit a few and leave the rest in a worse situation," said Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "Let's spend the money where it will do the most good."

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 215-854-2624 or alu@phillynews.com.