Pa. District Gives Go-Ahead to Local Voucher Plan

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School officials in a small district just south of Philadelphia aren't waiting for the courts to tell them if they can send students to parochial schools at public expense.

By a 7-0 vote, with two abstentions, the Southeast Delco school board on March 18 approved a plan to give parents who choose private and religious schools--including families who already have children in such schools--publicly funded tuition vouchers beginning next year.

Almost certain to spark a lawsuit, the plan has thrust the 4,100-student district into the national debate over school vouchers. Both its supporters and opponents have won promises of support from Washington-based organizations in the event of a legal challenge.

The Pennsylvania program also comes as three closely watched voucher cases are pending before state supreme courts elsewhere. Of the three, the Southeast Delco plan most closely resembles a Chittenden, Vt., program that also originated locally. The school board there, which does not have its own high school, voted in 1996 to include religious schools among the private schools for which it would pay students' tuition.

Larger publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland were created by state legislation.

Some voucher proponents say the Southeast Delco plan may prove significant because, if upheld in Pennsylvania, it could open the door to similar programs throughout a state with 2.3 million students, the seventh-largest student enrollment in the country.

"If it works in Pennsylvania, which has 501 school districts, then that means there are 500 more places that could do this," said Dick Komer, a lawyer for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, a conservative legal organization that is considering supporting the school system if it is sued. "And it would be significant for any other state that provides sufficient flexibility for districts that they could do this on a district-by-district basis."

Aims at Stabilization

The Southeast Delco plan would annually reimburse parents who send their children to private and religious schools to help them defray the cost of tuition: $250 for each student in kindergarten, $500 for those in grades 1-8, and $1,000 for children in high school.

Although the area's overall population has not grown substantially in recent years, the district's enrollment has increased as more students leave the local private schools and enroll in the public system, said board member Byron Mundy, a major force behind the voucher proposal.

Mr. Mundy said the plan is aimed in part at helping to stabilize enrollment in both the local public and private schools. "This is just a way to empower parents so they can have a choice, and to create some more accountability for the public schools," he said.

The Southeast Delco board estimates that if the families of all the area's 1,890 children in private schools sought the vouchers, it would cost the district $1.2 million a year. Ultimately, Mr. Mundy said, the program could save the district money by eliminating the need to hire more teachers and build new facilities.

But the voucher plan likely will find itself in court long before the first dollar is ever paid out. Leaders of the Southeast Delco Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the union was "looking at all of the options," including a legal challenge.

"They are saying that somehow they're going to save money by paying families to keep their students in private schools," said Gail McCune, the president of the local teacher's union. "That doesn't sound too logical." Ms. McCune attributes the board's action in part to resentment over the latest teachers' contract, which helped bring about substantial pay increases.

Opponents argue that by including religious schools, the plan creates church-state entanglements that run afoul of both the state and federal constitutions. The liberal Washington-based People for the American Way Foundation has pledged to support a lawsuit challenging the program.

"This is a Robin-Hood-in-reverse plan to funnel money out of the public treasury to parents with kids already in private schools," said Judith E. Schaeffer, the group's deputy legal director.

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