House, Senate consider education reforms as session clock winds down
Top senator says sunset provisions on vouchers unacceptable
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Reforms intended to improve Pennsylvania’s taxpayer-funded public school system by giving more educational options to low- and middle-income families and holding teachers more accountable may not be resolved until next year.
Proponents of the school choice voucher measure said discussions continue to move in a positive direction, while the state Senate considered changes to the state's teacher evaluation system.
State Rep. Thomas Quigley, R-Montgomery, said Tuesday that an agreement on vouchers must be reached by the end of the week, or the education reform package will be on hold until next year
After lengthy closed-door meetings Monday and Tuesday, House Republicans reported some changes to the school voucher bill, which is targeted at low-income families in the state’s 144 worst-performing schools, but they had not reached an agreement giving them the requisite 102 votes to the pass the chamber.
Among the GOP changes discussed are:
Limiting the number of schools in the program to perhaps as few as 50;
Setting up the vouchers as a five- or 10-year pilot program.
In the voucher proposal, families of four earning up to $29,000 annually and with a student in one of the state’s “failing schools” would be eligible for a voucher of $7,000 in state funds, to be used for tuition at a private school. Families of four making up to $41,300 would be eligible for three-quarters of the voucher.
The state Senate passed the voucher bill in November, but any changes by the House would require the Senate to re-vote on the amended bill.
But state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the original sponsor of the voucher bill, threw cold water on that idea Tuesday afternoon.
Piccola said a sunset date on the voucher program “makes no sense,” though he suggested the Senate would listen if the House wanted to reduce the number of schools in the voucher program, though not dramatically.
“We don’t want to pass a bill that is vouchers in name only. We want a bill that is vigorous,” Piccola said. “You can pick any number you’d like, but it has to be a meaningful number, and the lowest 5 percent picks up a dramatic number of failing schools.”
Teachers unions and the vast majority of Democrats oppose vouchers, because it would redirect a portion of the state-level tax dollars currently spent on public education.
But for now, Republicans have not reached consensus either.
State Rep. Curt Schroder, R-Chester, leads a group of mostly rural Republicans who want to expand the voucher bill to include students beyond the failing schools, almost all of which are in cities.
If the voucher bill is going to be aimed at failing schools exclusively, Schroder said the income restrictions should be removed, so all students attending those schools can be free to use the vouchers.
“If the school is failing, what’s the point of helping the poor kids and leaving behind those whose families are a little better off,” Schroder said.
Students from some of the state’s failing schools were distributing white roses to lawmakers Tuesday here, as part of a message about the violence in the worst-performing public schools.
Research collected by the Commonwealth Foundation, an independent conservative think tank here, found that one incident of violence takes place in those schools, on average, every 17 minutes.
More than half of the states failing schools are in Philadelphia, where the districtwide graduation rate is 71 percent and fewer than 50 percent of students are performing at grade level in mathematics and reading.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who was visiting here Tuesday, said he was focused on ensuring a good working relationship between the city and state, but he was not concerned with the education reform measures.
“They are all important components, but we’ll have to see what comes out of the legislative process,” Nutter told PA Independent.
While House Republicans are debating the merits of the voucher plan, the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday examined another component of Gov. Tom Corbett’s education reform agenda — changing the way public school teachers are evaluated.
Teachers’ unions have supported the changed evaluation system, but have voiced concerns about including student performance as a measure of teacher success, since some factors are beyond teachers’ control, such as lower student performance scores in school districts with high levels of poverty.
StateSen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said he believed it would be wrong to say one teacher is better than another purely because of student test scores.
But state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, said the evaluation process would focus on progress — by the student and the teacher — instead of purely on test scores.
“There is nothing more helpful to any professional, and that includes teachers, than getting feedback on your work,” Dinniman said. “We expect achievement in the classroom, on the part of the students and the teachers.”
About 100 school districts and charter schools are engaged in a pilot program for new evaluations, which include various factors, such as classroom observation and student test scores, and a four-level scale instead of the current pass/fail system, said state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis.
Corbett wants the pilot program expanded to include all school districts.
In addition to the school vouchers and teacher evaluations, Corbett called for an expansion of the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC, program and more financial accountability for charter schools in the state.
Charter school reform bills are awaiting passage in the state Senate, while the EITC expansion could be tied to the voucher bill, if one is agreed to by all sides.
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