HARRISBURG—Calling school choice “the civil rights movement of this century,” state Sens. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Jeffrey E. Piccola (R-Dauphin and York) announced the details of a highly anticipated “opportunity scholarship” plan today targeting the Commonwealth’s worst schools and most impoverished families.

The plan would allow 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 public, private or parochial school of their choice. For the Harrisburg School District, for example, that amount would equal approximately $9,000, based upon information from the state Department of Education website (2008-09 year).

“We are blessed with many outstanding public schools and teachers in this Commonwealth,” said Piccola, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “We also know that we have a group of schools that have been persistently failing, unsafe and falling short in meeting the needs of our kids and families who cannot afford to move to a better school district. Our plan targets these schools and those students who are trapped.”

“Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids in failing urban schools is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the ‘60s,” Williams said. “Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? All kids deserve access to a great education –regardless of race, income or zip code. Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

“Our education system is the last public monopoly in America. Taxpayers can no longer subsidize, support or ignore failure,” said Williams. “Too many children are trapped by their zip code in schools that are not making the grade. We are robbing our kids of a fundamental right.”
The Williams-Piccola plan would give scholarships to families meeting certain income limits for either public or private schools. The bill–Senate Bill 1 to reflect its priority status— also includes an increase of $25 million in the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, bringing the total tax credits available under EITC to $100 million.

The plan calls for a three-year phase-in. In the first year, only low-income students currently attending persistently failing schools would be eligible for a grant. In the second year, low-income students residing within the attendance boundary of those schools, but currently attending private schools, would be eligible; and in the third year, all low-income students regardless of school district would be eligible.

“Low-income” is defined as families whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level – a family of four would qualify at $28,665.

Piccola and Williams likened this phase-in to a rescue plan for a three-story burning building. The plan would rescue the most at-risk children first, then move to the lower two floors. And to those choice opponents who question what students should be saved, or what happens to those left behind, Williams responded, “This is an emergency. Why wouldn’t you save as many as you can?”

“Let’s give parents who are trapped an exit strategy,” Piccola said.

The Senate Education Committee held a 10-hour hearing on school choice in October, featuring testimony from proponents such as the REACH Alliance, the Philadelphia Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, and from opponents, such as the teachers’ unions and the Southeastern Pennsylvania School Districts Education Coalition. Another hearing is slated for mid-February.

Piccola and Williams said that by phasing in the plan, the financial impact can be spread out over time, allowing state revenues to rebound as the recession fades and the deficit is addressed.

“In the end, school choice has the power to save taxpayers money because it has traditionally cost less to educate children in a nonpublic setting,” Piccola said.

School choice was debated during the Ridge Administration in the late ‘90s in the form of bills known as “Kids I” and “Kids II.”

“This effort would not have been possible without Governor-elect Tom Corbett and his embrace of this concept,” Piccola said. “We are eager to work with the new Administration and the House to bring transformative change and competition to our schools. I am also excited to work with my friend Anthony Williams, who has been a visionary in rescuing kids from substandard schools and who elevated the importance of school choice in the Democratic primary for governor.”

“Providing access to a quality education for every child is the most important issue facing our state and our nation today,” said Williams. “The broad-based support for this bill transcends party and regional lines. The parents and taxpayers of this Commonwealth are speaking to us loudly and clearly. They cannot wait one more year or even one more day. They want school choice now. There can be no compromise on that. We must make school choice a reality with all deliberate speed.”

Governors in Florida, Nevada, Indiana and Wisconsin are also advocating plans to give private school grants to families. Today, 12 states and the District of Columbia have vouchers or tax-credit programs that provide scholarships to mainly low-income students to attend private schools, according to the Commonwealth Foundation.