Public hearing discusses school choice and tuition vouchers

Should parents get Pennsylvania tax dollars — money to be taken from spending on public schools — to help them pay for tuition at private, non-public or charter schools?

Democratic state senators held a public hearing last week to hear some answers to that question. They got more than yes or no answers.

The hearing on school choice and tuition vouchers held at Community College of Philadelphia’s Northeast Regional Campus on Townsend Road on Aug. 2 really was a panel discussion between the pros and the cons. Only a few comments were taken from the public.

The session was hosted by state Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) and was chaired by state Sen. Lisa Boscola, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Policy Committee.

The state’s legislators are considering allowing for tax-funded tuitions vouchers and tax-credit funded scholarships so middle- and low-income parents can choose to send their kids to non-public or private schools like charter or Catholic schools. Several school choice bills are being taken up by the General Assembly.

One argument against the idea was that, by drawing from the $26 billion Pennsylvania spends on public education, vouchers would impoverish the public system.

One speaker noted that wanting to go to a charter school, for example, is no guarantee a child could get into that school. Others argued that non-public schools are not well-regulated, so nobody can determine how well children are doing.

Vouchers wouldn’t help the children who remain in the public schools, said Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Coalition.

“They’re a distraction, a waste of political time and political action,” said Feinberg.

Legislation promoting tuition vouchers “creates private enterprise, not education,” said Joan Duvall-Flynn, NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference Education Committee chairwoman.

Proponents of school choice and tuition vouchers said parents are taxpayers and if they want to send their children to schools outside a public school system they don’t think is working, they should get some of their own tax money to help them do that.

Low-income parents, especially, they argued, have to accept the public schools because they don’t have the funds to send their children to charter schools, private schools or Catholic schools. Tax-funded tuition vouchers would help them put their kids into schools outside a public education system that has many failing schools.

Vouchers, said Otto Banks, director of REACH Alliance and Foundation, “give parents a choice.” Taxpayers should be allowed to make their own choices with their tax dollars, he said.

And Dawn Chavous, executive director of Students First PA, countered the anti-voucher argument that there is no oversight of charter schools and that there is no real accountability in the public school system because there are no consequences for failure.

“It isn’t oversight at all,” she said.

Sean McAleer of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference argued that Catholic schools are run more efficiently than public schools, and that school vouchers would give more families a chance to send their kids to Catholic schools.

After more than an hour of back-and-forth, Stack said he saw a lot to agree with and a lot to disagree with. Measures being considered in the legislature would take a lot of money from public schools, which he said he supports when they’re working and criticizes when they’re not.

“We’re talking about a billion dollars going from public schools,” he said.

There are points that need to be considered, he said.

Do we have to hurt one system for the other?

And, he said, “How do we solve this problem soon?” ull;•

Contact John Loftus at 215–354–3110 or at jloftus@bsmphilly.com