Pennsylvania Senate Approves Sweeping School-Choice Plan
By Debra Viadero
The Pennsylvania Senate last week approved a broad educational choice plan that would allow parents to use state stipends to send their children to any public, private, or religious school.
If enacted, the proposal would be the most sweeping school-choice measure yet approved by a state.
Offered as an amendment to an unrelated education measure, the choice proposal passed the Senate on a 28-to-22 vote after more than 12 hours of debate.
As approved by the Senate, the bill would authorize the state to pay $900 stipends to parents to use in defraying the cost of tuition at private schools or public schools outside their own school district. It would also appropriate $300,000 to establish an office in the state education department to oversee the program.
Supporters of the choice proposal contend it will spur public schools to improve in order to retain students. At the same time, they say, it will give less-affluent parents the freedom to shape their children's education.
"Our educational system is failing us," said Senator Frank A. Salvatore, who brought the proposal to the Senate floor. "We have to have accountability and we have to have competition."
But opponents of the plan contend it violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on state establishment of religion. They also say it would cost too much and take needed funding away from the public schools.
"You don't promote people to exit a system as a way to better that system," said George Badner, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which has led opposition to the proposal.
Powerful Lobby Campaign
Mr. Salvatore, a Philadelphia Republican, said he brought the idea directly to the Senate floor because he did not believe his original bill would get out of the Senate Education Committee soon. Both the House and Senate education panels held hearings on the issue this fall and are expected to report on their findings before the end of the year.
The timing of the Senate vote also capitalized on the momentum the educational-choice movement has gained over the past six months. The state's powerful Catholic Conference and a coalition of citizen groups, Christian-school educators, and business people known as Road to Educational Achievement through Choice, or REACH, have led a campaign that has generated thou- sands of letters to lawmakers on the subject. One key legislator said letters to his office were running two-to-one in favor of school choice.
"When this first surfaced, it seemed to be a fringe-type thing," said Bernard Shire, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference. "But now it's gaining credibility."
Across the state, 344,335 children already attend non-public schools, according to the state education department. Two-thirds are enrolled in Catholic schools, which have experienced declining enrollments in recent years.
Based on those numbers, state officials estimate the program could cost more than $300 million.
While school-choice proponents contend the cost is a bargain in comparison to the $2.9 billion the state will spend on public education this year, Gov. Robert P. Casey and other state officials have voiced concerns about it. To close a $454-million budget gap, the legislature this summer approved the biggest tax hike in the state's history. Since then, the state's economic outlook has not improved.
The Democratic Governor has not yet said whether he would sign the Senate proposal into law.
Even if it becomes law, both sides agreed, the proposal is expected to face a court challenge. In addition to its potential church-state problems, opponents say the proposal runs counter to the Pennsylvania constitution, which bars the payment of state education grants to individuals.
"Now, the legislators can go back to their Catholic constituencies and say, 'We voted for this, but it's tied up in the courts,' "said Mr. Badner of the teachers' union.
Some critics also say the choice plan favors wealthier families, who can better afford to pay the difference between the $900 stipend and the cost of private- or public-school tuition. When the issue comes before the House later this month, some lawmakers are expected to advocate targeting the stipends to those most in need.