Tuition vouchers will do more harm to Harrisburg’s recovering schools than good | Opinion

Harrisburg, Pa. (Jayme Frye / Flickr)

By Kia Hansard, Carrie Fowler, and Jody Barksdale

For the first time in many years, the Harrisburg School District is on the right track. The district finally has the right administrative team and a supportive school board to turn things around after years of fiscal mismanagement by the prior administration. Challenges still lie ahead, but the path is clear now.

Why then would we want to upend this progress and replace it with an untested tuition voucher program that will siphon millions of dollars in funding from Harrisburg’s financially distressed schools?

That is what some lawmakers in Harrisburg, led by Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, want to do.

Turzai has introduced House Bill 1800, which requires Harrisburg’s receiver, Dr. Janet Samuels, to establish a tuition voucher program for students in the district.

Harrisburg has been in receivership for less than six months now. When Speaker Turzai first floated this voucher program in August, district officials rightly pointed out the proposal was ill-timed and could disrupt the district’s recovery process.

Now, the proposal is set for a vote in the Pennsylvania House Education Committee on Monday and could get a full House vote soon after that. Lawmakers should defeat it.

The legislation doesn’t give Dr. Samuels the option of creating a voucher program. It orders her to create one. The bill also forbids the district from putting any limits on the number of vouchers issued and even prevents officials from putting student accountability standards in place.

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As members of the Harrisburg community, we are deeply troubled by this. It couldn’t come at a worst time — just as the recovery process is starting to work in Harrisburg.

And the price tag is astronomical. Let’s assume for a moment that the 600 Harrisburg students who already attend private schools, along with about 20 percent of students from our district schools, get vouchers. The cost to Harrisburg, by Turzai’s own estimates, would be more than $8.5 million. If more students sign up, the price tag will be even bigger.

Harrisburg schools simply cannot afford to lose $8.5 million or more to an unaccountable voucher program. It will set our district back for a very long time. Instead, we need to make sure that we provide a great neighborhood public school to every student in Harrisburg.

We are also deeply troubled by what will happen to students in a voucher program that is completely lacking any accountability measures.

Strong accountability measures in education help prevent students from falling through the cracks, but this bill expressly prohibits the commonwealth or the district from putting additional accountability standards in place for students who receive vouchers.

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Furthermore, there is nothing in this bill to prevent religious or private schools from refusing to admit students, including those with special needs.

Then there is the ample evidence from other states showing the devastating effects that vouchers have had on student achievement.

Multiple studies have found that students in voucher programs trail their public-school peers. A study released earlier this year found that a Louisiana voucher program hurt students’ math scores, and those scores didn’t recover, even years later. The Louisiana findings bolster research from IndianaOhio, and Washington, D.C. all showing major negative impacts of vouchers on students’ math test scores.

If vouchers are costly, do not improve the achievement of students who use them, and do nothing to improve public schools, then why are we talking about them in Harrisburg?

Harrisburg’s district leaders are aggressively addressing the district’s financial and academic problems, and we’re starting to see the fruits of their labor. Any voucher scheme that diverts millions of dollars from neighborhood schools to private schools will stop that progress.

Let’s do the right thing for Harrisburg schools. Say no to vouchers.

Kia Hansard is the co-founder of Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg (CATCH), a community/parent group. Carrie Fowler is a member of the Harrisburg School Board. Jody Barksdale is a Harrisburg teacher and president of the Harrisburg Education Association.