HARRISBURG – The Senate Education Committee took a historic and monumental step today as it endorsed legislation sponsored by Chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin/York) and Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) reigniting the debate on school choice in Pennsylvania by giving parents the right to choose the best school for their child, regardless of school district or residential zip code.
Known as Senate Bill 1 to reflect its significance and legislative priority, the measure was approved in committee by a vote of 8-2 and would provide scholarships for public or private schools to families meeting certain income requirements.
The bill includes a three-year phase-in allowing the parents of a needy child to take the state subsidy that would have been directed to their home school district and apply it to the school of their choice. In the first year, low-income students attending persistently failing schools would be eligible for a grant. Low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of those schools, but currently attending private schools, would be eligible in year two. In the third year, all low-income students, regardless of school district, would be eligible. Senate Bill 1 defines “low-income” as families whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.
In addition to state-funded opportunity scholarships, the bipartisan legislation includes an increase of $25 million to Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, bringing the total tax credits to $100 million. EITC provides financial assistance to working and middle class families seeking educational options for their children.
Following two comprehensive public hearings on the issue, most recently focusing specifically on their legislation, both bill sponsors applauded the panel for its action.
“Recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to educating our kids particularly for those who may be trapped in a struggling educational establishment, we’ve taken steps to assist our worst performing schools and rescue our most impoverished families. 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,” said Piccola.
“Today is an important milestone in a journey that began more than 20 years ago” said Williams. “While we still have a long way to go with many daunting challenges ahead, 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 end if we are successful, our efforts will be seen as a victory for the future of our Commonwealth but more importantly for the future, our children.”
During the committee meeting, a number of amendments were offered to Senate Bill 1. Amendments introduced by Piccola and adopted by the committee focused on the issue of athletic recruiting, particularly prohibiting the recruitment of students for athletic reasons by a public or private school. Requirements for nonpublic schools were also addressed in an amendment and would establish guidelines for those participating nonpublic schools, such as requiring them to be nonprofit entities and to make available written policies pertaining to their tuition, admission, academics, and extracurricular activities.
“I am eager to continue working with my colleagues in both chambers of the Legislature and the Corbett Administration to bring this transformative change and competition to our schools once and for all. It has been over a decade since this issue was last publicly debated and addressed in Pennsylvania, and our families shouldn’t have to wait any longer for this opportunity,” Piccola said.
“Providing every child with an opportunity to receive a quality education is the lynchpin of nearly everything we seek to accomplish throughout the state. Opportunity scholarships and EITC are key elements in reaching that goal. An educated populace is inexorably tied to our economic competitiveness both nationally and globally,” said Williams. “It impacts job creation, attraction and retention as well as the crime rate, the need for social services and correctional facilities. So this is indeed a defining moment for this Legislature and for the Commonwealth. I am looking forward to joining all of my legislative colleagues as we seize the moment and make school choice a reality.”
If Senate Bill 1 is enacted into law, Pennsylvania would join a number of other states which already have vouchers or tax-credit programs in place that provide scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools. The legislation now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.
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