By Thomas J. Gentzel
Senate Bill 1 - the taxpayer-funded tuition voucher legislation - has been steadily losing favor in the state Capitol recently despite massive amounts of pressure and dollars spent by out-of-state interest groups to keep it alive. Even many of the organizations in favor of vouchers are acknowledging that SB1 is no longer a viable option to forward their agenda of using tax dollars to pay for a small segment of the population to go to private and religious schools.
In its place are springing up legislative "flavors of the week" that promise new approaches to vouchers. Each one expands the program in different ways in a desperate attempt to make taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers more palatable to a larger cross-section of legislators. These ideas don't address the issues of cost, accountability, or constitutionality, and they are just as unproven, unaccountable, unpopular, and unconstitutional as SB1.
These eleventh-hour attempts to sell vouchers and rush them through as part of the state budget negotiations would create a major shift in education policy. Further, they would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. How can Pennsylvania afford such a new entitlement program when public schools are facing almost a $1 billion cut?
The original intent of SB1 was to take low-income children out of the 144 most persistently failing school buildings. Amendments to the legislation and new proposals would expand the income eligibility of the program to families well within middle income. This raises some very serious questions. If voucher legislation is no longer about "saving" low-income children from underperforming schools, what is the purpose? Why pull millions of dollars from schools that desperately need it and most certainly will decay faster without it? Why "save" some students and leave others behind?
School board members across the state applaud the brave senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle who are standing up to the enormous pressure and seeing vouchers for what they really are - just another attempt to slowly dismantle Pennsylvania's public education system that has served us well for more than 175 years. Test scores prove it.
Results of the 2009-10 state assessment scores show that 82 percent of Pennsylvania schools met the required academic goals, and a national report ranked the state seventh among states for K-12 student achievement and ninth overall. Our schools are showing great progress and are among the top performers compared with other states. Voucher proponents would have you believe all schools are failing. This is an insult to teachers, administrators, board members, staff, parents, and communities.
Legislators are now using the frenzy of the final days of state budget negotiations to slip voucher legislation through. This tactic will not sit well with citizens who overwhelmingly have said in a recent Terry Madonna Opinion Research poll that they do not favor using tax dollars to pay for private education (67 percent oppose). It's time the General Assembly stop experimenting with new flavors and realize tuition vouchers are something none of us can stomach.